As a result of this dreadful pandemic, I have been doing a lot of sewing. I dusted off my old Singer sewing machine and surprisingly, after several years of doing very little sewing (I do more knitting these days), I was still able to thread the old workhorse up and operate it like I’d ever been away. Whilst spending hours on the machine this last couple of weeks, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking. In the 1950s, when I was small, all my jumpers and cardigans were hand knitted by my mum as were her own and those of my brother and sister. My mum also made all the dresses worn by her, me and my sister. The same applied to all the families we knew. Towns with clothes shops were a couple of hours’ drive away and also making clothes was cheaper than buying them.
My mum’s sewing machine was a hand-operated Singer. She bought it new when she got married and she told me she made all my baby clothes on it
My mum’s sewing machine was like these two.
My mum was such an excellent dressmaker that I had no incentive to learn to sew myself. I was knitting for myself by the time I was in my teens but if I saw a dress I liked in a fashion magazine like Honey, my mum could have it copied for me a few days later, often combining several different dress patterns to achieve the right result. When I went to university and was living on a limited budget, I worked out that if I wanted things I couldn’t afford I’d better make them myself. There was a sewing room in my hall of residence which was equipped with electric sewing machines. I had a brilliant choice of shops and markets selling fabrics as I was in Nottingham, a sizeable city. So I taught myself to make my own clothes. Two years later my mum and dad bought me a Singer Zig Zag machine for my 21st birthday. It’s the one in the photo below and it’s still going strong.
Most women my age can either knit, sew or do both. Young women who knit and sew now are in the minority. I looked up the history of the domestic sewing machine and it’s really interesting. The domestic sewing machine was invented by Isaac Singer in 1850. Through the late 1800s, in the US and in Britain, the sewing machine was a status symbol and ornate enamelled models were displayed proudly in high class drawing rooms. After 1900, when the sewing machine was being mass produced and could be afforded by poorer families – on hire purchase – the models on sale were less ornamental and more utilitarian. At the same time, shop-bought clothing became more readily available. The developments of the industrial sewing machine was why factory made clothing became more affordable. As a result, hand-made items were considered inferior and the sewing machine was relegated from display to a hidden corner. People buying a new machine were sometimes reassured by the company of discretion when delivering. Shop bought clothing was considered superior. This attitude reminds me of a similar one towards baking when I was growing up. My mum, and everyone else’s, baked cakes every week for the family. They baked cakes, scones, pies, biscuits. But when somebody was coming to tea they popped out and bought a shop cake. As if home baking was inferior and a sign of poverty.
My antique Jones sewing machine which is in perfect order and sews beautifully. It was bought for me as a present by my one of my daughters a few years ago. I was a Jones – but no connection with the sewing machine manufacturers!
Since posting last week I have carried on remembering other things we liked to make when we were entertaining ourselves indoors. Many of them involved paper and scissors.
We enjoyed folding paper into boat or hat shapes – the same method.
We loved to cut out chains of paper people and at Christmas we made paper chains to decorate our bedrooms using gummed strips of coloured paper.
Paper dressing up dolls were really good fun. Sometimes they came in a box and were received as a present. Other times they were free in a comic. You cut the figure and clothes out yourself (taking care NOT to cut the tabs off!) then dressed the dolls in different outfits. The other thing we loved making out of paper were these things.
We didn’t have a name for them but researching for an image on the Internet I found them described as paper fortune tellers.
The spinners you could make with cardboard and string were really good fun, especially if you took the trouble to colour them in with a bright pattern which went crazy when the spinner whizzed around. The ones which always seemed to work best, though, were the ones which came free with cereal packets.
There was always spare wool in the house as my mum did a lot of knitting so making pom poms by winding wool around card discs was another childhood pastime – and one which I still enjoy doing!
The funny little picture on the right is showing how to make a mouse out of a handkerchief. I remember my dad showing us how to do this this when we were small.
Two more things I can recall are making perfume from rose petals in the garden and putting it into small bottles such as aspirin bottles. These were given to give to our mum and grandmothers. Also making brooches from a kit which contained a pin backing and felt shapes which we fashioned into flowers etc. My maternal grandmother, Nana, lived with us for the last few years of her life and was so good at putting a home made brooch on the lapel of her coat and dabbing on rose petal perfume before going to the village shop.
After too long a break I am back! This time I’m thinking about the large amount of art and craft activities we did as children in the 1950s. If it was dry we were outside, if it was a wet day or if it was winter and the evenings were dark we were inside and occupied with various games and activities – imagination games, board games, reading books and dressing up. One of my main memories however is of art and craft activities.
We always had paints, crayons and paper in the house. We also had a wide range of crafts we enjoyed, some were ones shown to us by our mum, others came in kit form. Art and craft kits were very popular gifts, especially for girls.
We all (including my brother) learned to knit very young and also to do cork work – known to many as ‘French Knitting’. My dad used to put metal staples into used wooden cotton reels for this activity and we made miles of the stuff using oddments of my mum’s knitting wool. The tubes of knitting produced have limited uses!
Most of our activities were home-grown but here are some of the kit activities I remember being given as presents;
basket-weaving, raffia, plaster model making, painting by numbers and embroidery. My brother used to be given model soldiers to paint, Meccano and Airfix models to construct and paint.
We always had Plasticine around too. We called it clay. It was SO hard to mould compared to modern materials such as Play Dough – but we didn’t know any different!
I loved receiving a new paint tin as a present! The tins often had lovely pictures on the top. Best of all. however, was the inside with all the pristine squares of water colour paint each one with its name printed underneath it. I loved those wonderful words – Ultramarine, Burnt Sienna, Yellow Ochre, Cobalt Blue, Burnt Umber and Prussian Blue are some I remember well.