By sheer coincidence, these two posts came on my Facebook feed yesterday:
- Jennifer Van Meter DeShazer (Jennuine Design), in her new sewing FB group, queried “How long have you been sewing and how did you begin?”
- My dear friend Robbin uploaded pictures of her granddaughter’s first day at the sewing machine:
I was completely charmed by this photo (thanks, Robbin!) because at the same age, I too begged my grandmother to let me use her sewing machine. Another coincidence? Or possibly is eight years old just a wonderful age for learning to sew? Of course every child is different, but it seems to me that at this age there is:
- a natural curiosity about how things are put together (or taken apart!)
- a maturity level that shows respect for machinery and safety
- a growing personality and sense of independence and self-expression
- the ability to read instructions: one of my daughter’s teachers explained it this way: “This is the age when the child shifts from learning to read, to reading to learn”.
And so in third grade I learned from my grandmother how use the sewing machine and to read patterns. I remember vividly the first garment that I made: a purple cotton nightgown (weird coincidence that I would later be a technical designer in the cotton sleepwear department of Victoria’s Secret?). It was a simple raglan peasant with elasticized neckline and sleeves. Classic first sewing project, right? I wore it that night to a sleepover at my friend’s house next door. Her parents were having a cocktail party, and I was mortified that her mom insisted on showing my project off to her guests (people drank a lot in the suburbs, in the sixties).
Actually my first pattern experience was earlier, hand-sewing with my mother’s fabric scraps. My mom used the guest-room as a permanent sewing room, much to the chagrin of my older sister, who argued endlessly that she deserved to have that as her own bedroom, instead of sharing a room with me. I didn’t mind sharing a bedroom, and I loved spending time in my mom’s special room with a sewing machine and ironing board always set up, and a bureau full of fabric. This was my very first sewing pattern:
I made every outfit in that pattern! But the tutu was my favorite…..and although every other toy from my childhood is long gone, look what I still have:
A bit faded? The dress was originally turquoise (and her hair used to be HOT pink). I always say that I still learn something new with every project, every fabric, every pattern. The “firsts” for this project were:
- reading pattern instructions
- cutting out fabric to a pattern shape
- gathering (by hand!)
- sewing a sequin, with a pearl to lock it in place
- a SNAP. Oh my goodness, so many tears, I got it wrong over and over again….stitched to the outside, stitched upside down, etc etc.
I also made clothes for my Ginny dolls, but what I really wanted was a Barbie doll. My parents refused: they thought of her as “inappropriate”. I just wanted her to dress her up. Nowadays whenever you want a new outfit for Barbie, you basically buy a new, already-dressed Barbie. I recently read a report that said the Mattel company “estimates that 90 percent of U.S. girls between the ages of 3 and 10 own at least one Barbie doll with those between 3 and 6 owning an average of 12 dolls each”. But back when I was little, girls had maybe 2 or 3 dolls, and lots of clothes purchased separately:
(“Picnic”, “White Magic”, and “Suburban Shopper” outfits; photos from eBay)
Or you made them. Since I didn’t have a Barbie, I would play with them at friends’ houses, and then borrow one overnight with the agreement that I would return her with a new outfit. I loved LOVED designing Barbie clothes! And here I was on my own: no patterns. They were available in the fabric shops, but again: inappropriate. Many years later in fashion design school, I aced Dart Manipulation while others struggled, and I owe it all to my childhood experience of figuring out how to fit fabric around Barbie’s well-endowed bust:
(winifred-aldrich, Metric Pattern Cutting)
It was very interesting to read the replies to Jennifer’s group post on FB. So many people (Jennifer included) share my story, learning to sew at home as a child, together with their mother or grandmother, making doll clothes out of scraps. A smaller group first learned during high school in Home Economics class, and a few are self-taught in adulthood, usually soon after their kids were born.
The latter is what I usually read in pattern designers’ websites or Etsy “About” pages: they taught themselves to sew after the birth of their first child. And that’s great, any time somebody learns to sew, it makes me happy! Yet I was even more pleased to hear this week that a tradition continues of learning to sew at a tender age, one-on-one with a devoted family member. Like my friend Robbin.