“Advice from a Singer Sewing Manual” Real or Hoax?
April 1, 2018
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:
( 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:
Is this real, or “fake news”?
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.
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):
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:
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:
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
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):
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).
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:
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:
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?