In the ‘old’ days, you could walk in any home and find a basket sitting on the floor by a chair in which the woman of the house usually sat. In this basket you would find an assortment of needles and thread, a box of buttons, scraps of fabric and a wooden egg. Close by, you would probably find another basket filled with clothing or other fabric item. In the evenings, the woman would sit, pull out the first item of clothing and look it over carefully. From there, she would pull out a needle and some matching thread. If the item had a ripped seam, she would sew it closed. If there was a hole, she would skillfully attach a fabric patch. If a button was missing, she would pull out her button box and replace it. She would then carefully fold the clothing item up so it could be worn again. If it happened to be a sock that came out of the repair basket, then she would insert that wooden egg into it, and with a larger needle and a piece of thin yarn, she would repair the hole – which is a technique called darning.
By some stretch of luck, if there were no clothes that needed mending, she would have yet another basket close by that would contain knitting needles, crochet hooks or fabric scraps and needles. To while away the evening hours, she would work on a project for future use – maybe a scarf or sweater to keep someone warm during the winter, a baby blanket for a gift, or using a needle and thread to attach those fabric scraps together to create a quilt – a much needed item for the cold winter nights.
When asking kids today if they know how to sew on a button, the response is all too often a non-verbal response of question. Sew a button? What are you talking about? Are you crazy? Why would I want to do that, when I can just go buy another shirt? It is a very scary look, when you think about it. If they can’t sew a simple button, what does that say about their other academic skills?
I know that if you took the time to really think about it, you would realize that sewing uses math, engineering and art skills. If you have a sewing machine like mine, you probably also need small engine repair and reasoning skills, to boot.
Math – If you are making a dress, you not only need to know how much fabric it will take, but you also need to know how to measure from various parts of your body. If you want the skirt portion to fall in the middle of your leg, you will need to measure from the waist to mid-thigh. Pleated skirt? You need to measure around the waist, multiply it by (at the very least, depending on the depth of the pleat) 1.5, and add one inch for seam allowance. Most seam allowances are ½ inch. You also need to fold the hemline over ¼’, and then again deep enough for the garment to fall within the area you desire.
Engineering & Art – I don’t sew clothes. My abilities are just not that good. I do, however, sew a considerable amount of household items. I have antique iron beds, which are elevated higher than your standard beds of today. Consequently, I have to get creative and make my own dust ruffles to fit. Because it is rare that I want anything easy, I have to design something that will work. Years ago, I was trying to figure out a fun way to ‘dress’ a bed in my guest room. When searching my closet, I came across a gorgeous crocheted tablecloth handed down from my Great Aunt Beaulah. It was a dark ecru, and exquisite. The creative side of me went wild. The first thing I did was create a design for a dust ruffle and pillow shams. From there, I calculated the amount of fabric I would need for all three pieces. Considering I wanted box pleats on the dust ruffle, I had to figure out the final size, the depth of each pleat (14” for each one), and the length from the top of the foundation mattress to the floor, plus another ¼” for a rolled hem. Unfortunately, I also had to use math skills for all of it, including a budget. I couldn’t just walk in and purchase any fabric I wanted. I had to be able to afford it. After a bit of searching, I found two complementary fabrics that I loved. But to purchase those, I had to make a few compromises to stay within budget. The first, I chose an inexpensive unbleached muslin to use for the solid piece between the mattresses. And instead of making a matching piece that would show up underneath the crocheted work, I instead chose a solid inexpensive sheet. A solid weekend and a little skill, and I had dressed my bed in, to me, a beautiful fashion. It may not have looked good enough to be featured in any decorating magazine of the time, but it cost than a quarter of the price that those magazines would have urged me to spend in the store.
Psychology – There is just something about creating something from scratch that offers you a deep sense of pride. To know you can do a simple project without having someone else assist gives you a self-confidence that cannot be measured. A good sense of self helps you take on the next challenge that life throws you, and give you the assurance that this, too, can be conquered.
To this day, I still have the entire bed set I made thirty years ago. It is still holding together, even with frequent use. When life throws me a major challenge, all I have to do is to carefully make the bed in my guest room with this set, and know that no matter what I face, I am confident enough to make my way through it. And all because my Aunt Emily taught me how to sew a button on a blouse, and had me making clothing on a treadle-model machine when I was five. It’s a lesson I have carried through life – and one that has served me well.