This pretty piece of needlework has challenged me ever since my mother first showed it to me. Young girls showed off their needlework skills in samplers like this. “Sampler” because the girl stitched samples of several different kinds of embroidery stitches, in addition to showing off her knowledge of the alphabet and counting, and perhaps a memorized Bible verse as well. This piece introduced me to the joy and skill of home sewn.
The sampler says:
Prefer solid sense to vain will. Let usefulness and benificence direct the train of your pursuits.
When you mean to do a good action, do not deliberate upon it. When you are about doing a dishonorable act, consider what the world will think of you when it is completed.
Tis virtue sweetens all our toils/ With joy our labor crowns/Gives pleasure when our fortune smiles/and courage when it frowns.
[I actually Googled that last little poem and got no hits, but it is oh so typical of Victorian virtuous poetry.
This particular sampler was made by my great-grandmother, Harriet (Hattie) Morgan, then about twelve years old.
I felt like an underachiever compared to Hattie when I started practicing embroidery , but I determined not to let down the female line of my family. At a very young age, mother taught me some plain stitches. In Girl Scouts, I had sewn a “sit-upon”–a pillow to carry for outdoors activities. My grandma Vera had taught me to sew on buttons (and how to properly hang clothes on the line to dry outside. ) In eighth grade, I signed up for a 4-H group where I could learn sewing, and began making basic home sewn items like aprons and pot holders.
Side note: I would NOT take home economics in high school because my mother taught it and that would be the ultimate embarrassment. Much worse than wearing home sewn clothes.
The Singer Sewing Machines
I learned all the tricks I could do with my mother’s old featherweight Singer portable sewing machine. She got it in the 40s and used it for 30 or more years. I still have it in storage, but haven’t tried out the portable Singer for many, many years.
That portable electric Singer was a big step up from the first sewing machine that I used–my grandmother’s pedal sewing machine. How I wish I still had THAT machine! I remember the fancy gold trim–which is also a feature on the portable electric.
Because these treadle machines were first marketed around the turn of the century, it is quite possible that my great-grandmother Hattie Morgan Stout had been the first owner of Grandma’s sewing machine. If so, she might have used it to slightly speed up the work of making the incredible crazy quilt, she created with her mother-in-law,Emeline Stout, one of my great-great grandmothers. It looks to me as though the pieces were stitched by machine, but then decorated with the fancy embroidery stitches.
Of course I had no idea of this possible history when I was pumping away on the treadles in Grandma’s big kitchen. She would not have mentioned it because my Grandmother was not one to dwell in the past. Although my Grandmother (and my great-grandmother) loved everything new, other people did not immediately embrace the new machine for sewing.
For more about the early history of the sewing machine, see the source of this quote.
With the benefit of hindsight, we know how those predictions turned out. Women indeed , no longer spend their time making bedding and clothing!
Making Home Sewn Clothes
From potholders and aprons, I progressed to making some of my own home sewn clothes, inspired by the pictures on the pattern envelopes and beautiful materials.
It had been popular for sewing for a long time. So much so that the smart flour mills competed to print pretty patterns on their flour sacks. And by the time I started sewing in the 50’s you could buy the material without the flour. I made gathered skirts from that lovely soft cloth and also made a peasant blouse with a neckline that could be worn off the shoulder–which I wouldn’t dare to do (blush!), and elastic gathered puffy sleeves.
Fortunately, gathered skirts were in style. The home sewn versions were so easy to whip up and the material was so cheap that I could make them in many different patterns and colors.
The Red Dress
During high school, I continued to make clothes for myself from time to time. I particularly remember a red dress with white collar and cuffs. Since this is a black and white picture, you’ll have to take my word for it that the dress was RED. That’s me as a high school freshman on the far left, one of my best friends, my father, my mother, and in front, my little sister.
This picture illustrates some fashion notes of the 1950s. I accessorized my home-made dress with a very trendy elastic waist-cincher belt. Although I had splurged on new wedge sandals for Easter, my girlfriend wears the teen uniform of the day for feet–saddle shoes. My little sister wears white socks with her Mary Janes. My mother’s dress looks like it is one of the factory-made materials so popular after World War II–nylon or rayon perhaps. Our long skirt length came into style in opposition to the short, fabric-saving skirts women wore during the war. By the fifties, fashion had turned to the New Look, which meant lowered hemlines.
I am surprised that my father is wearing his shirt tail out and no suit or sports jacket, since we were coming from church and he usually dressed more formally. My frizzy hair did not come naturally–it comes to you courtesy of Toni home permanents, the cheap beauty shop perms alternative that left the house smelly for a week.
Fifty years after this picture was taken, I learned that I was not the only one who remembered the red dress. The man who had been my very first boyfriend showed up at my mother’s funeral. As we chatted about the old days, he said that he remembered seeing me in a red dress and thinking it was the prettiest thing he had ever seen! Of course he didn’t say that at the time when I saw myself as an ugly duckling, with my home sewn dress and ridiculous home perm. If only we could know some of the good things going on around us when we are young and insecure.
Sewing as a Young Housewife
When I went off to college, I took a recess from sewing. After I married and had three little boys, I took it up again. It was not out of necessity, but out of an urge to do something more creative than cook formula and baby food and deal with diapers. After I tucked the boys in for the night, I would pull out my latest yardage of beautiful material, unfold the tissue paper patterns and get to work. Because I hated to stop before finishing a project ,I once took a night and the following day to sew a taffeta skirt and jacket with matching silk blouse. I wore it to a wedding the following day. I also made formal wear, like this long blue satin gown I’m wearing–along with big hair–in this picture from the late 60s. Yep, still wearing white gloves!
I fashioned one of my favorites projects, a very short dress (hemlines had jumped up in the late sixties,) from a piece of heavy silk that my brother brought me from Vietnam. He served in that country during the war.
I might have made clothes for a little girl, but since I had boys, I felt no temptation to try sewing their uniform of sturdy pants and t-shirts. However, I get points for making home sewn costumes for Halloween.
A new house called for learning to make drapes and curtains. One year I made home sewn aprons as Christmas presents for everyone in my extended family.
Inevitably, I also went through my crewel embroidery phase and my needlepoint phase, and some pieces from those periods surface now and then. Although I dreamed of replicating great-grandmother Hattie’s sampler, that has yet to happen.
Turning away from sewing when the boys were older, I moved on to various other pursuits. But I will never forget the sense of accomplishment that comes with putting together a whole garment, or learning a new skill like pleating or making buttonholes. I now knew how to secure those buttons that my grandmother had taught me to sew on so many years before.