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The History of Learning to Sew Early 20th Century to Present

Table of Contents

Researched and Written by Mary Beth Vogel of Vintage Sewing Pattern Directory

I don’t know how you learned to sew but I learned a lot by osmosis as a child watching my mother and then in Junior High School in Home Economics class. Back then, in the 1970s, all the girls were required to take Home Economics in 8th grade and the boys were required to take Wood Shop. The class was divided into 2 parts. Part 1: cooking; Part 2: sewing. I was not a star at either one as reading/following instructions is not one of my strong points but, what I cooked was edible, and the dress that I made I wore. I consider that a success. 

Before I was in school learning to sew, before my mother learned to sew in the 1950s, girls were learning to sew in school as well.

Learning to Sew in the Early 1900s

I am lucky enough to have ended up with a practice stitching notebook by Bertha (Charlene) Tucker from Wichita, Kansas. I did a Google search and found some information on when she was born and when she died. Bertha Tucker was born July 17, 1893, in Wichita, Kansas, and died at 96 on March 3, 1990. She had 2 younger sisters who would have attended the same schoolhouse as her. They would each have had their own composition notebook as well. As you can see, the hand stitching gets more complex as you go through the notebook.

The detail of the instructions and the precision of the stitching exercises do not, for the most part, look like it was done by a student learning how to do the stitch. I also found a newspaper clipping in the notebook that was a poem about the San Francisco earthquake further dating the book.

The following images are all from the same student’s book.

French and Felled Seams

Such beautiful work she did as a child. I can only imagine the level that she rose to as an adult.

The above photos from the book include pleating, cuffs, mending holes, and finishing seams.

This machine is from when Bertha was in school creating this book. Of course, the chance that she had a machine like this one is pretty slim. This would have cost between $10.00 and $25.00. Which in today’s dollars is $350 to $877. So, most families had hand-me-down or used machines if they had one at all.

1940s Mannequins with dressforms and minature sewing patterns from my personal collection.

The 1930s started with a bang. Well, actually a crash. The strong economy fell apart and many people went from living a comfortable life to begging on the street. Sewing and mending became even more important to learn. Many mothers, wives, and teenage daughters went to work in the “sweatshops” sewing for 8-10 hours a day with few, if any breaks. In addition to needing to know how to sew to earn a wage, the clothing that a family already had needed to last and be recycled by being remade into different garments for other family members. One of Dad’s shirts may end up being a dress for the baby and a shirt for a little boy. The book Make and Mend, c 1942, continued or rather, revived this skill.

When the 1940s rolled around the world economy was still struggling to recover from the Wall Street Crash of 1929. In the U.S. factories started producing warplanes in January 1942, a month after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. With this, the economy took a huge upswing. Men enlisted, and women went to work in the converted toy, car, and appliance factories building ships, planes, and other war-related industries. There was one caveat. Shortages. Now all raw materials were needed for the war effort. Women came to the rescue yet again. With ingenuity and creativity, they used the suits and shirts that the men left behind for the uniforms of war and created clothing for themselves and their children.

Books, like Make and Mend, gave ideas and instructions on how to remake those men’s shirts and suits into a wardrobe for the rest of the family as well as handy accessories!

There are many books written especially for children. Sherri of Sew Betty and Dot has a wonderful collection of children’s sewing 

books dating from 191There are many books written especially for children. Sherri of Sew Betty and Dot has a wonderful collection of children’s sewing books dating from 1913.

Easy Steps in Sewing for Big and Little Girls, by Jane Eayre Fryer Copyright 1913 is a much sought after publication. Lucky Sherri!

It even still has the pattern for the pinafore. How many books from 1913 are not only complete with all of the pages but has an insert that was to be used still attached ind in great condition!

Another 1913 book from Sherri’s collection is When Mother Lets Us Sew By Mrs. Ralston.

What a sweet cover this book has. It’s definitely for an older child. The book is well illustrated and gives detailed instructions on each lesson.

The drawings are well done and clear enough that you can see the stitching well enough to follow along.

Besides the lessons in school, during the 1940s and 1950s, books as well as sewing dolls, or Mannequins, emerged as a way to encourage young girls to sew. During WWII, there were shortages of fabrics. Women were encouraged to remake clothing using worn or outgrown garments instead of buying yardage. Because the mannequins were small and used scraps they were the perfect way for girls to learn. This kit included templates to make the simplest shifts and pullover blouses. This kit was obviously intended for a young girl. Probably 6 to 8 years old.

See and Sew a picture book of sewing by Good Houskeeping. Copyright 1943

I love the stitches on the cover!

See and Sew has great, quick, and easy projects for kids that are well illustrated and colorful.

2 Peggy McCall or Simplicity Mannequins. The one on the right I believe to be a little bit older.

Older girls had sewing dolls as well. The dolls had more mature bodies and more complex patterns as well. The pattern companies came out with dolls. McCall had Peggy McCall. She was available as a stand-alone as well as a deluxe kit that included patterns and a Dress Form made of plaster. Peggy McCall was one of the more popular Mannequins. Unfortunately, the available materials were not very durable.

The patterns for Peggy and similar dolls were not just a simple template. They are miniature versions of actual patterns.

Child’s Book of Sewing by Jane Chapman, Copyright 1951. is written for small “new readers” With playful graphics to keep the child engaged, the book teaches basic skills such as the one shown, threading a needle.

This French Kit dating from the 1960s shows younger children using it however, if you look at the patterns, they all have simple lines but set-in sleeves, separate bodice pieces, etc., make it more advanced than for a beginner

Miss Patch’s Learn-To-Sew Book written by Carolyn Meyer and illustrated by Mary Suzuki, Copyright 1969. The cover alone is engaging! The hand drawn illustrations make the book less intimidating for a child or even an a

Learning to Sew Today

Today the craft of sewing is being reintroduced to children. It all begins with sewing or lacing cards. The selection of kits, sewing machines, and supplies on Amazon alone is overwhelming!

Sewing cards have been around for decades. Not much has changed  about them other than

they look like they are far more durable than they

were when I was a child.

These cards are double-sided and come in sets of 5 different designs. Choose animals, mermaids, and rainbows, to railroads.At the time that I wrote this,they were approximately $13.00 for a set.

As your kids get older, the next step is a kit. This kit uses felt and a plastic needle. Remember that every child is different and just because it says age 1 -6 doesn’t mean that your child will be ready for it at age 1.

The great thing about this kit is the pre-punched holes. The needle doesn’t need to be sharp. (Adult Supervision Required.)

As a child’s interest increases as they get older with better hand-eye coordination, get them a good book on sewing. There are many excellent books available and which one you choose depends on your child’s interests, reading level, and ability to follow directions. 

Sewing School – 21 Sewing Projects Kids Will Love to Make (2010) is appropriate for ages 7 – 13. The projects have different levels of difficulting and teach different skills.

A Kid’s Guide to Sewing (July,1, 2013) is written by this pre-teen with her parents’ assistance. The book is intended for ages 8-14.

One review from the now defuct Kiki Magazine summed up the book very well. – A beginner’s guide and visual dictionary for young people who want to learn to sew, packed with photos: “Some of the coolest projects we’ve seen.”—Kiki Magazine

As kids get a bit older yet,, assess their skill level as well as their level of interest to see if they are ready to move up to a sewing machine.

 The options are many. The first option is finding a used machine. Many Thrift stores have them available but you need to test them before buying. The older machines don’t have all of the electronic bells and whistles but, they are workhorses. Another option is to get a basic machine. You can get a decent machine for well under $100.

This Brother SM2700 27-Stitch Free Arm Sewing Machine is available on Amazon for $71.65 and has 4-1/2 stars. With 27 stitches, they will be able to do any project they can come up with.

If you want a brand-name machine, this is the best price that I could find. There are other machines for lower prices with good ratings also on Amazon. I found several for $60 – $70 with decent features and a good selection of stitches. I recommend reading the reviews so that you know each machine’s strengths and weaknesses.

If you are looking for a fashion design set. Creativity for Kids makes Designed by You Fashion Studio is an example of what is available. At the time of writing this, it was listed for $34.99.

This kit includes a mannequin, fabrics, trims, a sketch pad, markers, thread, tape measure, pins, and needles.

Or, you could make a kit from scratch by using some scraps of fabrics and ribbon that you may have, some sewing notions, a pad of unlined paper, pens, and a fashion doll. Put it all in a decorative box (a.k.a. a decorated shoe box)

Depending on where you live, there may be sewing classes offered near you. Where I live they have schools where kids can have birthday parties! They provide the machines and the materials for a per person fee. An instructor walks the group through the project start to finsh and each guest leaves the party with what they made.  Check your area for listings! 

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