‘I remember fondly the girly dressmaking skills my mother taught me’

Jan 11, 2019
Her mother used a Singer treadle and was quite the whiz! Source: Pixabay

My mother was a practical seamstress, busy with numerous domestic duties that come with parenting six children. She was a seamstress by trade and in turn taught my sisters and I how to sew and make our own clothes. Practical, quick and easily made clothes were sewn on her trusty Singer treadle.

She was a whiz at sewing sleeveless pyjamas and most years, her daughters would receive summer ‘shorty pyjamas’, all cut, sewn and wrapped on the eve before Christmas. Using a simple pattern with a double-rounded yoke that had a gathered front and back bodice sewn into it, they were quickly churned out on the deadly treadle. Matching bloomers were also simply made with a middle flat-seam and sewn-in elastic at the waist and legs. The leg elastic was attached higher than the seam to give a frilled finish to each pyjama leg. If she had the time and the finances, Mum would pretty them up with a cotton lace trim around the yoke bodice.

As part of a large family of mostly girls, we were open to wearing hand-me-downs and second-hand clothing. I have memories of searching with Mum through donated clothing bags, selecting items of clothing that could be remade or resized to fit one of us girls. Where this was not possible, Mum looked at salvaging the material to make play-suits, shorts, peddle-pushers, knicker bottoms or rompers. Other second-hand dresses would be revamped into sleeveless halter neck styles or skirts with matching mid-drift tops. I didn’t acknowledge it at the time, but now realise just how creative she was.

One time a pair of curtains ended up as two beautifully matching dresses for one sister and me. The curtain lengths had a green palm tree design, set at the base on a white background. We used the length of the curtain for the dress drop and added a yoked sleeveless bodice. They turned out okay and were very wearable, although we never wore them out together.

Mum was also adept at making shift dresses and fancy muumuus; the only fancy thing being the bobble lace sewn around the hem of the shift style dress. Watching her feet rotate the Singer treadle at pace, was a skill I longed to embrace.

At school I was taught how to make a petticoat and embroider it myself, a brunch-coat and a plain blouse style dress that would be suitable for job-seeking interviews. I was never a patient seamstress but managed to pass this part of school Home Economics class.

As a teenager, I had to get right into sewing my own clothing as it was the only way I had something stylish to wear. Mum had her hands full, so I had to practise my patience and sew to the best of my ability. It was having to fit the pattern, then pin it correctly to the material, mind the bias or the pattern, then carefully cut it out. That tested my tolerance. Mostly this was done on the kitchen table, before it would be set for lunch or dinner. The item then had to be packed away until after the meal was finished and the dishes, washed, dried and put away. It was so frustrating for me, I just wanted to cut, sew it and wear it the next day, bugger anyone or anything else.

Obviously with a lack of patience, the finishing-off of some of my homemade clothing was unsightly, but mostly things were wearable, even if one sleeve was slightly shorter, or them bottom hem dipped on one side. I made simple dresses, bell-bottom trousers and once (with Mum’s help) a double-breasted jacket; sure, one sleeve did not quite sit right, but the buttons and button-holes lined up perfectly.

Later in life, after upgrading to an electric portable Singer sewing machine (wow fancy) I even made a bridesmaid dress when attending for one sister at her wedding. It was a red-crepe, empire-line full-length gown with a white criss-cross pattern at the bodice. The fit was perfect and I thought I was very clever.

I lost interest in sewing and sewing machines when my son was born, thus a generation of simple girly outfits lost forever. He was never going to wear frilly shorty pyjamas, shift style dresses, playsuits or fancy muumuus. I was ready to carry on my mother’s work, even if I did not have her patience, but did not need to. Even now as a grandmother my grandsons are not in need of my girly dressmaking skills and I also don’t think I could drive or operate any of those flash automated sewing machines.

Were you a seamstress? Who taught you how to sew? Did you make your own clothes on a Singer treadle machine or was a portable Singer electric your machine of choice?

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