I grew up watching my hard-working mother, Hattie Martin, handle life on our rocky subsistence farm in the hills of Tennessee. With her feet working the treadle of the old foot-powered Singer sewing machine, Mama made all her own clothes, plus clothes for her four daughters, Dot, Imogene, Leita and me. Fabrics were ordered from a Sears Roebuck catalog. Simplicity or Butterick dress patterns were used. “Store-bought” clothes were for men, who wore overalls sold at Parker Brothers General Store for around four dollars per pair, and each man owned one dark suit for church. That was the custom of the times and the way things were done in our respectable farming community.
Mama also made feather beds and pillows. She would buy striped “ticking” fabric, sew it together, and stuff it full of feathers she had yanked off the underbellies of her unhappy squawking ducks. She also made straw mattresses. She would make the sewing machine hum clickety-clickety around a mattress sized piece of heavy white fabric, then stuff it full of fresh straw from a recent wheat threshing. The straw mattress was placed beneath the feather bed. After a few nights of being slept on, the beds would change from round to flat. New beds were fun for us.
Sausage casings were also made on the sewing machine. Using a canvas type fabric, Mama would create an eighteen inch long tube. On hog-killing day, after the suitable pieces of meat were ground by hand and properly seasoned, she would stuff the casing full of sausage, jamming it deep into the tube with her fist, leaving no space for air. The sacks of sausage were smoked in the smoke house along with the hams. Hog killing and curing of meat was done in late fall and winter since we had no refrigeration.
I learned how to sew on that same old sewing machine, but never really made anything of significance until my sophomore year of high school. Geneva Crow was the Home Economics teacher at Dover High School. Her father, Dr. Crow, the only doctor in the county, had driven ten miles to our house on Standing Rock Creek and presided at my birth on Oct. 28, 1929. “Miss Geneva” taught us to make biscuits in the classroom on an electric stove. At home, we still cooked on a wood burning stove.
“Miss Geneva” also gave us sophomore girls the assignment of making a dress from scratch. The classroom was equipped with electric sewing machines, which was also something new to me. I chose a pink and white striped chambray fabric and a dress pattern with a gathered skirt, a simple short-sleeved bodice, and a half belt that tied in the back. I got an “A” in the class and my Aunt Katie commented that my work withstood close inspection. I was proud to wear that dress. Throughout most of my adult life I continued to make my own clothes using mainly Vogue patterns which were the most challenging and stylish.
I did not sew, or have a sewing machine, while at Murray State College in Kentucky or while teaching first grade at Eglin AFB in Florida. When my new husband, Capt. H. H. Macurdy, flew combat in the Korean War, I traveled to Japan and taught military children at Itazuke AFB. In 1953-54 in Japan, raw silk fabric was cheap and comfortable to wear. Hired seamstresses were inexpensive. I could buy raw silk fabric locally, pick up a Vogue magazine at the Base Exchange, point to a picture in the magazine, hand the non-English-speaking seamstress the raw silk fabric, a spool of matching thread, and the magazine, and she would magically produce a dress that fit me and looked exactly like the picture. I came back to the U.S with a suitcase full of raw silk dresses in every conceivable color. In the black and white photo of Mac and me taken in his parents’ Great Bend, KS sunroom in 1954 by a local newspaper reporter, I am wearing a pink raw silk dress made by that Japanese seamstress. I was pregnant with firstborn, Eric, in that photo.
I do not remember a lot of sewing from 1954 to 1958 while living in Media and Village Green Farms, Pennsylvania when Mac was serving as advisor to the Pennsylvania Air National Guard. My time was occupied with two baby boys in diapers, baby bottles, baby food, bibs, babysitters, and cocktail parties.
While living at Paine Field near Seattle from 1958 to 1960, I made lined and pleated drapes for all the windows in our three bedroom base housing. When we moved away I took the drapes with me and later re-made them to fit windows in several future houses. We moved a lot and the re-made drapes saved us a lot of money.
I also made boat cushions while at Paine Field. My husband, Mac, bought a used cabin cruiser and rebuilt the interior to accommodate sleeping, cooking, eating, and toileting for us and our two preschool boys. Covering two-inch thick foam rubber in blue Naugahyde trimmed with white welting, I created the oddly-shaped semi-curved cushions to fit the spaces along the inside of the boat. It worked beautifully and we boated around the San Juan Islands, sleeping and eating aboard the boat.
While living in Spain, 1960 to 1963, I traveled with some other American wives to England on a chartered flight for a tour of London and surrounding points of interest. Before leaving London, I purchased beautiful brocades to take back to Spain and made cocktail dresses for our active social life at the Torrejón Officers Club near Madrid. One success was a black brocade jumpsuit which I wore when hosting the thirty five fighter pilots and their wives in our home.
Eric and Casey, ages five and four, attended a Spanish Catholic school where smocks were required. I made their smocks in the required blue and white striped fabric and impressed the heck out of the nuns. Our rented house was without curtains, so I found some colorful woven fabric of Mexican design and made drapes for privacy. My landlord loved me for leaving them there. He had flowers delivered to me at the airport when we were leaving Spain. Ah, those Spaniards! A favorite memory is of a sangria-lit neighbor leering around the hedge at me with a rose in his teeth. But I digress.
While living near Madison, Wisconsin when Mac was stationed at Truax Air Force Base from 1963 – 66, he surprised me one day by bringing home a heavy-duty Bernina sewing machine. The next day he surprised me by bringing home an old Jeep, expecting me to make a canvas top for it. I was not pleased but accepted the challenge.
The off-white canvas fabric was trimmed with dark green Naugahyde welting, chosen and homemade by me. Using pieces of the Jeep’s removable metal framework as patterns, I cut the canvas pieces to fit and inserted clear plastic windows as needed, including on the doors. I struggled, and the heavy-duty sewing machine struggled, stitching through the thickness of folded canvas and Naugahyde welting, plus clear plastic inside the unwieldy metal door frames. Conveniently, I knew how to curse already, and my brand new baby daughter, Clea, and her brothers kept me sane. I must say I was proud of the finished product. The Jeep looked like new!
In 1966, the beginning of eighteen years in Sarasota, I was still making my own clothes. Clea was a tiny toddler and her clothes could be made from remnants no bigger than a handkerchief. The weather was warm and she didn’t need much. When complimented on her cute outfits, I would proudly say “Oh that only cost 35 cents to make”. For my own clothes, I continued to use mostly Vogue patterns. I made one jacket for Mac that he wore a lot to casual cocktail parties.
Not all my efforts were successful. In high school, on certain days of the month, Eric wore an ROTC uniform. One day he brought home a patch for me to sew onto the sleeve of his khaki uniform. I willingly did that and the next day his Sargent walked up beside him facing the patch and started yelling abusively into Eric’s left ear. The patch was wrong side out. That night I took it off, turned it over, and sewed it on the right way, although it looked okay to me either way.
Eric graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy with the Class of ‘77. Mac, Clea and I went there for June Week to attend the graduation and related events. That meant several outfits for me and several for twelve-year-old Clea. There were events in the chapel, in the stadium, and in various other locales for ceremonies, receptions, musical events, presentations of awards, and for walking around campus. We needed long dresses and short dresses and everything in between. When we packed for that trip to Colorado Springs, our suitcases full of nice-looking appropriate clothes, all made from scratch, I said “Never again!” and retired my sewing machine. My sewing equipment now includes one pin cushion, three needles, a few spools of thread, and a favorite thimble which was a gift from landlady Kay Haner of Media, PA.
In her adulthood, Clea became creative with fabrics, especially after her baby daughter, Anna, started to outgrow her baby clothes. During Anna’s afternoon naps, Clea would cut heart-shaped pieces from the old baby clothes and applique them onto squares. The squares, when pieced together, would later become a quilt. Clea can tell you the history of each heart-shaped piece, like which neighbor gifted Anna which outfit. She had possibly been inspired by a quilt I have kept since my childhood which was made of remnants from my Mother’s sewing. I can tell you which of my sisters wore a dress made of which fabric. Until recently, I used that butterfly quilt (my old baby quilt) to cover groceries being hauled home in the car.
Clea used her Mother-in-Law Olga’s old White sewing machine, and later her Father-in-Law Bob’s cast off portable sewing machine. When Clea’s husband, whose name is John Hancock, needed a costume for portraying the famous patriot, John Hancock, she made his red colonial style coat complete with a frilly white jabot at the neck. Also, when John dressed as the Easter Bunny for one Mago Vista neighborhood Easter egg hunt, Clea made his bunny suit. The baby quilt, the colonial outfit, and the bunny suit were all made using John’s father Bob’s sewing machine.
As recently as Christmas 2016, Clea made me a warm throw from a fabric that happened to catch her eye and reminded her of me as she was entering a fabric store in Maryland. I feel especially cared for while on my den sofa, my legs keeping warm under that throw, enjoying a cup of hot tea and the morning paper while Mahalia Jackson sings “Bless This House”.
Happily both my daughter and granddaughter are creative with fabrics. Anna makes girlie dolls, Voo-Doo dolls, stuffed animals, a replica of her cat, and decorative pillows. She has outdone me by making her own clothes without using a pattern. She can go into a restaurant, incorporate a large black dinner napkin into whatever she happens to be wearing and turn it into something stunning.
When they were about ten years old, Anna and her friend, Chloe, used an iPad camera to create a fashion show video in which the models were Anna’s two guinea pigs, Stevie and ChuChu. Chloe would announce “Next we have ChuChu dressed in a stunning red tulle cocktail dress designed by Anna”. Afterthought: “And it is so slimming!” There was also a swimsuit event with guinea pigs ready for the beach in skimpy casual wear. The final and patriotic event was Stevie and ChuChu, being encouraged by a carrot stick up ahead, walked the runway dressed in red, white, and blue for the Fourth of July while The Star Spangled Banner played as background music.
When Anna was twelve, her wise parents, Clea and John Hancock, gifted her a fancy high tech Singer sewing machine for Christmas. The machine is getting a lot of use. Among other bizarre capabilities, if you digitally key in number 64 it will embroider an endless row of little tulips.
Last year, at age fifteen, Anna was hired as The Bubble Fairy to work weekends at the Renaissance Fair in Annapolis. She created her own authentic renaissance-maiden costumes and delighted fair-goers with her special talent of blowing bubbles inside of bubbles while dressed in artfully arranged rags. Anna had made a lovely renaissance dress with a faux lace-up bodice, but her boss rejected it as being something a wealthy maiden would have worn. Anna’s job was to dress as a street urchin.
So, at least four generations of women in my family have proven to be creative with sewing machines and fabrics. Sewing is not only a useful skill when a skirt is too long or when someone needs a costume. It is also another outlet for the artist in each of us.