I started sewing when I was nine. Every Saturday afternoon our 4-H club – the Wallingford 4-H Harmonizers – met at Mrs. Porter’s house to practice our skills. We started by sewing straight lines on paper, learned to make tailor tacks, pleats, and button holes. Finally, when we were in high school, we made full outfits that we wore on the runway at the statewide “Dress Review.”
Until around 1988, I kept my 1954 portable Singer sewing machine busy. In 1968 I made three bridesmaid dresses and one flower girl dress for my wedding.
For the next twenty years I made maternity clothes, curtains, pillows, placemats, dresses, and Halloween costumes.
I even made snow pants and down jackets.
And then I lost interest. I got tired of sewing. After all, it was almost cheaper to buy what I needed and wanted in the store. But for my great-grandmother Lydia, that wasn’t an option.
There’s a dress shop near us in Portland that displays different dresses in its window every day, and I try to walk by to see what they’ve come up with to match their moods, the season, or the holiday.
I wonder what Lydia would have thought of these festive offerings? I think she would have loved them, because even though her wardrobe consisted of only a few dresses each year, they were carefully and beautifully made, partly done by her, but most often done by Miss Norton.
Monday, June 1, 1914 – “Pa went in town to get Miss Norton to dressmake for us. Hattie came out with them, made one dress, a dimity for Agnes.” – Lydia Jane Hall
Thursday, December 1, 1921 – “Miss Norton here today cutting & making pants for Francis out of old coats, which are very nice.” – Lydia Jane Hall
I inherited one of the dresses from the farm. It may have belonged to my great-grandmother, but I suspect it was made for her mother, my great-great-grandmother Lydia Reed Hart.
There are twelve yards of fabric in the skirt. Two different colors of cotton line the bodice and sleeves. Although the seams are machine-stitched, almost everything else was sewn by hand.
On the right side of the skirt, hidden in the seam, is a large pocket, capacious enough for handkerchiefs, spectacles, a small journal, and maybe a pencil. What a chore it must have been to do up all those buttons, and I can’t help but wonder how handy these big dresses were during trips to the “privy.”
In a three-generation photo from the early 1900’s, my great-grandmother Lydia Jane Hall, and her own mother, Lydia Reed Hart, are seated in front of my great aunt Hattie. The elder Lydia’s dress looks very much like the dress that hangs today in my bedroom closet. She wears it, as was the custom then, with an apron tied around her waist and a white lace bow at her neck, dressed up for the photo session which, the elder woman claimed, (as reported in her daughter’s journal), was “nothing but an aggravation.”
On Wednesday: Candlelight