Blog,  Sewing Tips

“Advice from a Singer Sewing Manual” Real or Hoax?

If you are on social media at all within the sewing community, chances are good that you’ve seen this infamous clip, possibly dozens of times:

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( source: Tater Patch Quilts.com)

I’ve seen this on Facebook so many times that I can predict the typical responses:

  • “Put on a dress? Forget that, I sew in my pajamas.”
  • “Lipstick? Puleez, I put pins in my mouth!”
  • “She’s worried of what her husband will think? Pathetic.”
  • “Housekeeping chores? Why is that her responsibility?”
  • Must have been written by a man.”

Maybe I’m the outlier, but I’ve always had a different reaction.  I can see a certain vintage charm here. Wearing a dress is purely a reflection of the times. My mom worked as a secretary for IBM in New York City in the forties, and she was required to wear a dress, hosiery, a hat and white gloves to work….and she kept in her handbag a fresh pair of gloves for the commute home, because the subways were filthy back in the day. Hosiery meant wearing a girdle….this was way before pantyhose was invented.

Of course in the privacy of your own home, you can wear whatever you want, but in the forties most women wore mostly dresses…unless they were working on a farm or in a munitions factory. This was well before athleisure or “casual Fridays”or Pilates classes. When the writer  says “Put on a clean dress” it’s meant to signify that sewing time is special, so if you’ve been mopping the floor and sweating over a hot stove (this was pre-air-conditioning!), treat yourself well.

But mainly my thoughts whenever I see this posted are:

  1. Is this real, or “fake news”?
  2. Is it denigrating to women, or supportive?

First, why do I wonder if it’s fake?

  • The font is all wrong. It looks like something from the 1800’s. Maybe what someone thinks is “antiquey”.
  • The copy (the words) doesn’t sound like a sewing machine manual. I have vintage Singer sewing manuals from my Featherweight machines, and they are all technical…this sounds more like something written for a magazine article. I love to read vintage  McCall’s and Ladies’ Home Journal, and this “advice” sounds spot-on for that era.
  • Fake news is a serious problem on Facebook. While these fluff posts are harmless entertainment, many people are using online media as their primary news source, especially younger people who don’t read newspapers. and there’s a ton of garbage out there. There’s plenty of money to be made on “click-bait” stories.
  • Different versions of the story keep popping up, almost like a game of “telephone tag”.  They all look Photo-shopped (these were found on Facebook, no clue about the origins):

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But the first version, the one from “Tater Patch Quilts” is the one I see most, so I looked up Tater Patch Quilts and found that they posted this in 2011. As far as I can see, they didn’t divulge the source of the information except to say “Advice from a Singer Sewing Manual“.

When in doubt about anything online, I check in with Snopes.com. I found out that:

  • The pics above are faked.
  • This was never part of a sewing machine manual.
  • The wording is plagiarized (badly) from the “Singer Sewing Book” (screen shots are below)
  • The author is the fabulous Mary Brooks Pickens!

Ms. Pickens was the sewing superstar of her day. Think Nancy Zieman and Martha Stewart  and Palmer & Pletsch altogether. The book which includes the original “advice” was written by Mary Pickens and published by Singer…it was reprinted several times and sold over 8,000,000 copies:

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(source: Amazon)

Mary was a remarkable women:

  • Director of Instruction at the Woman’s Institute of Domestic Arts & Sciences
  •  Professor of Economics at Columbia University
  • A founder of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute
  • Trustee at my alma mater, the Fashion Institute of Technology

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(Wikipedia)


Mary Brooks Pickens was a prolific author, completing 96 books on needle arts, from 1915 to 1993 (all book cover illustrations from Barnes and Noble.com):

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Several of her books are highly collectible antiques, and some are currently available in Kindle format.  You can read more about Mary Pickens on Melissa Corry’s blog post here:  http://www.happyquiltingmelissa.com/2017/01/ (scroll to January 2017).

And you can read Amy Barickman’s book “The Vintage Notion” which she wrote specifically to share the work of  Mary Pickens:  https://amybarickman.com/the-vintage-notions-book/.

You can take a peek inside Amy Barickman’s book on Amazon.com:  https://www.amazon.com/Vintage-Notions-Inspirational-Needlework-Cooking/dp/0982627009

Can you imagine if Ms. Pickens was born a half-century later? Would she be on Instagram, on YouTube, would she be on the DIY network? Petitioning the Department of Education to bring back Home Economics to our public schools?


Second question:  Knowing that the “advice” was written by an accomplished woman, can it really be denigrating to other women? Is it relevant, or outdated? Whenever the post pops up on FB, it’s followed by comments about how old-fashioned and/or sexist it is, and aren’t we lucky that today we no longer need be concerned about such trivialities as to what our partner would think if we are sewing while the dust-bunnies pile up under the beds. But I’ve always thought there was an element of truth to it, so I was pleased to read this comment on IG recently from Clean Cut Patterns:

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Let’s look at the real quote from actual screenshots, not the “telephone tag” versions. This is how Mary’s writing was actually published in the “Singer Sewing Book“. The first pic is from Wikipedia and the second is from Barnes and Noble.com, and combined you can see more of the total message:

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Notice the difference in tone from the clip making the FB rounds. Instead of only worrying about what others will think, the focus is more on the sewist herself, and her own enjoyment (the word “enjoy” pops up 4 times). Having smooth hands and no hangnails is a practicality in preventing snags on fabric. Self-care in hair and make-up is also for the purpose of trying on outfits in the mirror to get the full effect. (I remember my mom, trying on home-sewn outfits-in-progress that they were slightly less than  pleased with, and saying “Well with the right lipstick….“).

And yet, parts of the message are universal: it’s difficult to concentrate on any task if you have other worries hanging over your head. Not being able to devote full attention to any endeavor can result in errors and frustration, which can take the joy away. Seam ripper, anyone?


What if the essay was updated for the times?  Something like this:

“Try to approach sewing with a positive attitude.  Be mindful of your craft. You’ll have better outcomes and more enjoyment if you feel free to devote your sewing time to hands-on work, without having the rest of your “to-do” list hanging over your head.

Don’t try to sew when other priorities are nagging at you. Are there are urgent emails that need to be answered, or kids who need help with their homework? Your sewing time will be far more enjoyable if you can get those tasks out of the way before you begin. This might mean scheduling a “sewing spa day”, by getting up to date on chores the day beforehand, or trading babysitting with a friend so that you each have some free time for creative pursuits. 

When you sew, dress comfortably so that your clothes aren’t distracting your focus. If you’re sewing apparel for yourself and will be getting up to try on your new outfit repeatedly for fit, wear something that’s easy-on, easy-off. Use a light hand-lotion so that your fingers don’t dry out from constantly touching fabric, yet the fabric doesn’t get stains from heavy hand-cream.  You’ll soon learn what works for YOU, because sewing is truly your time.”


Everybody’s different, and what helps make sewing enjoyable for me may be all wrong for you. Silly as it sounds, for me it’s a manicure. Spending ten minutes doing my nails improves my sewing experience. I can go days without putting on face makeup, or even glancing in a mirror, but your hands are right in front of you all the time when you sew. When my nails look a hot mess, it somehow drags me down.

What about you?

  • What are your  must-haves for enjoyable sewing?
  • Do you think Mary Brooks Pickens’ message in the “Singer Sewing Book” of the 1940’s  is hopelessly out of touch…or has some relevance to sewing today?

25 Comments

  • Shelley

    I like the updated version, but the finding a block of time makes sense even back then. For me, sewing is sort of the reward I get when work is done.
    I’ve never had a manicure, but smooth fingernails are a must with all the flimsy jersey. I’ll have to look up French chalk… ; )

  • Cherry Robinson

    I was an early eBay adopter, and when I inherited the family Singer treadle sewing machine, made in 1908, I started collecting vintage sewing books. I have the one with the infamous quote, and hate to see it bandied about the internet. In context, it reads perfectly well. As you say, Mary Brooks Picken was the sewing celebrity of her time.
    I love to track the evolution of home sewing, and have a great respect for the early sewing manuals. As I learned to sew growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, these were my techniques.
    (I learned on that Singer, first zigzag machine when I was a student, first serger when my kids were small, now sewing on the latest Bernina!)

  • Ciara Xyerra

    I’ve seen that excerpt on Facebook a million times & I never understood what the big deal was, because obviously a person enjoys their hobbies/projects/whatever more when they can fully immerse themselves in the task at hand. Maybe because I am the stay-at-home mother of a still-young & demanding child, it all just resonated for me, despite me being an avowed feminist. & of course, the original text is even more sensible.

  • Jamie

    I work from home and I’ve read a lot of productivity articles and such that recommend NOT working in your pajamas but rather taking a shower and dressing like you’re going into an office (and presumably putting on makeup if that’s what you’d do). The effect on your attitude is real; if I dress like I’m going to work I’m more focused. I see this as being the same type of advice, the tone just sounds a little dated. And cleaning up around you helps you focus as well – I can’t get stuff done when sitting at a messy desk.

    This part is still true today: “Looking attractive is a very important part of sewing, because if you are making something for yourself, you will try it on at intervals in front of your mirror, and you can hope for better results when you look your best.”

    I can’t tell you how many times I’ve felt “meh” about a muslin, but tried it on again later and realized it just looked bad before because of my unwashed hair!

  • [email protected]

    Yup, my mom used to comment on the hair, too! “Hmmm with a little lipstick, and my hair done…and the right shoes”. And cleaning up your workspace, absolutely. Sometimes even if I have a big project list, I have to take an hour to pick up my cutting table and sewing table. And I keep a small vacuum for my thread mess on the floor!

  • [email protected]

    Exactly, I’ve always been a bit surprised by the “attacks”…sometimes people are so quick to judge, before even finding out if the message was true or doctored up. It turns out the write was very much a feminist who pushed for opportunities for women to support themselves and be educated in fashion design, patternmaking, and garment production, in industry and at home.

  • [email protected]

    You have that book? Nice! What a fun thing to collect. I started on a Singer as well, straight-stitch only. Getting a zig-zag machine changed my life! And now I too sew on a Bernina, although not a new one by any means….I still use the one I bought in the eighties while a design student. The latest machines have amazing features! Definitely an evolution, in technology as well as product popularity (apparel versus quilting versus home dec)…it is fascinating.

  • [email protected]

    Oh I don’t get “real” manicures anymore (not since I worked in New York City when there was an inexpensive nail salon on every other corner). I do it myself. I’m pretty sure the chalk was to absorb moisture if your fingers were sweaty, because this was before air-conditioning. Yes even though I sew for “work” (I have a little Etsy shop) it still feels like a “reward” that I give myself, after picking up the house and doing boring chores (paying bills, doing Etsy paperwork, etc). It’s my creative outlet, and I’m more creative when I don’t have endless tasks hanging over my head.

  • Cherry Robinson

    Yes I have the book. Would you like a scan of the whole page? I’m not sure if I could post that here, but I could send it to a private email.

  • JustGail

    I like your updated version, it explains *why* these steps are good to do, and doesn’t make it seem all about keeping up appearances and prioritizing tasks solely for the benefit of others. Which is how the FB version reads to me – it’s all for the benefit of others, not for the person wanting to sew. Am I surprised that the version that’s been making the rounds for years is a mash-up paraphrased version of the original? Not really.

    I guess the parts that gets me thinking “WTH?!?!” even on the original version are – the part about being *fearful* of drop-in visitors or the husband coming home. I also note it says drop-in visitors, not drop-in friends – IMHO there’s a huge difference. And when are we going to see similar aimed at men about sprucing up before engaging in their hobbies for fear of drop-in visitors or the wife coming home? And why are dishes and cleaning considered more urgent than getting a new garment sewn to replace the one that’s fraying at the seams? Or getting an existing garment mended? The old versions make it sound like a clean house is always more important than not being dressed in clothing that’s in danger of ripping at the seams next time you reach for the top shelf at the store, or squat down to pick up the child in the park? BAH! I say BAH! OK, I’m done coming dangerously close to full-on ranting on your blog 🙂

    While I don’t go so far as doing a full manicure, clean dress and makeup, I do check for snags, make sure my hair is secured, wash my hands and run the lint roller over my clothes to remove as much cat hair as possible. No makeup unless I had it on already from earlier in the day – no use increasing the chances of staining a garment trying it on before it’s finished. My attire is extremely casual and non-binding (sweatpants & sweatshirt usually) and socks-only unless I’m deciding on hem length. In other words – I’m presentable enough to answer the door, but would need to change to run to the store or sudden invite to go somewhere.

    I have an old Pickens book from the 1920s(?), I think it pre-dates the Singer version.
    I’ll have to get it down and see if her words are in it.

  • Natalia

    Thank you for doing the digging on this! I’ll save it to link when I see these, lol. Completely coincidentally, but on topic (kind of disagreeing on one point), is this quote from Clarissa Pinkola Estés: “I’ve seen women insist on cleaning everything in the house before they could sit down to write… and you know it’s a funny thing about housecleaning… it never comes to an end. Perfect way to stop a woman. A woman must be careful to not allow over-responsibility (or over-respectabilty) to steal her necessary creative rests, riffs, and raptures. She simply must put her foot down and say no to half of what she believes she “should” be doing. Art is not meant to be created in stolen moments only.”

  • Natalia

    I forgot to explain why it’s coincidental–my niece just posted that quote this morning, just before I read your post.

  • [email protected]

    I have no clue why a clean house took precedence….I remember my mom being confused by the daily sound of our next-door neighbor vacuuming for hours, when she (my mom) would far prefer to sew, paper the walls, paint the house trim, till the garden, build a rock wall….anything creative, rather than just daily “maintenance”. To each her own!

  • [email protected]

    This perfectly explains why my own mother was bored to tears with cleaning, cooking, laundry: it’s never-ending! The results last but a minute. She was far more interested in creative home-making, where one could look back at the finished results with pride. It all makes sense now!

  • rita penner

    I just looked in the Gutenberg library and there aren’t any books by Mary Brooks Picken. There are none in their collection. Too many illustrations perhaps.

  • Sharon

    I actually have a singer manual around here some where that states those words. It isn’t a fake. Up until a few years ago, women were to dress for her man, never hair out of place and makeup and nice clothes–especially when her man came home from work. Even if you had 10 kids, all housework should be done and kids clean

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