An Early Lesson in the Connoisseurship of Fabric

Like so many children who grew up in the 1950s, I wore, for the most part, clothes made by my mother. For the first ten years of my life, my family lived in Asheville, North Carolina.  Although decades have passed since last I lived there, it is those early homemade clothes that infuse my memory of those years and that place. I had an early interest in fabric and sewing and loved to help pick out selections from which my mother would make dresses and play clothes for my older sister and me.

We lived on a very steep road, dotted with houses on either side of it.  Two houses away from ours lived an older couple, whose names I cannot remember.  The wife worked in the fabric department at Ivey’s, a large store in the city of Asheville. She knew that my mother sewed, and one day she told my mother that the sewing department was getting ready to dispose of some of its older fabrics, which would be free for the taking by employees. She wanted my mother to have a couple of these pieces, completely free of cost. My mother was quite excited, and she told my sister and me that perhaps it would be something she could use to make us new dresses.

The December/January 1953-54 Vogue Pattern Book Magazine had this clever feature, Resort Fabric Story (“taste the pleasures”), showing some of the fabric choices for the upcoming Spring and Summer. Perhaps my mother was hoping for something similar to a few of these prints.

We anxiously waited for the day when we could go to our neighbor’s house and pick up our promising parcel.  Then – finally – Mrs. Neighbor-two-doors-away called to say she had the fabric for us.  I remember well my feelings of anticipation and excitement as the three of us practically skipped down our road to her house.

Her living room was dark, despite the large picture window framing one side of it.  None of the furniture looked like it would be comfortable to sit on.  I was struck by the appearance of one rocking chair, the wooden arms of which were in the shape of swans’ heads.  Everywhere were china figurines and plastic flowers in vases.  The room smelled like last night’s supper.  On the sofa, which she called a davenport, was a package, wrapped in brown paper and tied with string.

Our neighbor ceremoniously announced that this was the fabric, and she motioned to my mother to open the package.  It contained two pieces of cloth.  One was a non-descript dark tan, heavy and dull, certainly nothing that could be used for dresses.  The other piece was a very large floral print in pink, drab olive green, and smudgy brown – yards and yards of it.  It was hideous.  My mother very graciously thanked her and told her what lovely pieces they were, and off we went with our weighty cargo.

This ad in the February/March 1955 Vogue Pattern Book Magazine features Bates “disciplined” fabric. “It’s like magic how beautifully your sewing dreams materialize with Bates Disciplined fabric,” proclaims the caption.  Obviously, what we received from our neighbor was more nightmare than magical dreams!

When, on our trudge back home up our mountain road, I asked my mother if she liked the fabric, she only said that it was very kind of Mrs. Neighbor-two-doors-away to give us these pieces.  I wanted to say that I really didn’t like either piece very much, but I kept quiet.  I could see my mother was disappointed, and it made me feel so badly.  What good was something that was free, if you did not like it, I wondered? I also wondered what my mother would do with it.

It did not take long to get the answer to that question.  My mother had grown up during the Great Depression, when no one wasted anything, ever.  Nor would this dubious gift go to waste.  Out of the heavy tan fabric, she made shorts for us.  I so disliked  wearing them as they were scratchy and stiff.  I must have thankfully grown out of them quickly, as I don’t recall wearing them very often.

I was more worried about my mother’s plans for the pink floral fabric.  Looking back now, I think it must have been very poor quality cotton or heavy rayon.  My mother made a play dress out of it for me, with matching bloomers. It, too, was scratchy, and although I would not have known the concept of drape at my young age, I noticed that it did not move with me, but rather hung as a tent from my shoulders.  I remember unhappily wearing this outfit, but at age four or five, I did not have much say in the matter.   It was so unlike the other cute play clothes and pretty dresses made by my mother; I suspect she thought so, too.

Occasionally I think back on those days so long ago, and I recognize how much they shaped me as a dressmaker.  My love for, and my insistence upon using beautiful, fine quality fabrics – once I began sewing for myself – certainly were born during those years.  I learned the value in seeking out fabrics worthy of my time and effort, those which would give me enjoyment in their wearing, and which would impart a sense of refinement and style in their tactile and visual qualities.

I love this ad on the inside back cover of the October/November 1953 Vogue Pattern Book Magazine, with its declaration that “fine fabrics are the foundation of fashion.”

Sometimes the best lessons, and the ones remembered so well, are those illustrating the worst example of something.  I did not know it at the time, but that brown paper package, with its ugly fabric inside, gave me an unexpected and invaluable life-long lesson in the connoisseurship of beautiful fabric.



Filed under Love of sewing, Quotes about sewing, Uncategorized, Vintage fabric

37 responses to “An Early Lesson in the Connoisseurship of Fabric

  1. Beautifully put. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Robin B

    What a lovely story to share!

  3. GreenDoor

    Your mother had wonderful manners. Exactly the type of response I try to model for my kids.

    When I was a child I read a Beverly Cleary book in which one of the characters had a different set of matching shoes, belt, and purse, one for each day of the week. I’m in my 40’s and feel “off” when my purse, shoes, and accessories aren’t all the same color, even when that’s not the current fashion trend. It’s weird the things that stick with you and influence your adult choices, isn’t it?

    • My mom knew our neighbor thought she was doing her a lovely favor; good intentions deserve gracious responses! And yes, it is amazing how much groundwork is laid in childhood for adult decisions and ideas! (You can never go wrong with matching accessories…)

  4. naomi

    What a wonderful story ! My Grandmother died when I was 5 years old, but I still remember going to the feed store for sweet feed in cloth bags. She would make a worker move the bags to get the ones she wanted to use for my cute little dresses. She used an old Treadle Sewing Machine. I’m sure she help generate my love for sewing. Memories are forever etched in our mind !!!

  5. Peggy Shaver

    Our only finite resource is our time. It wasted on bad fabric, yarn or plants.

  6. Mary Knake

    Loved your story!

  7. That is a great story, Karen, thanks for sharing it!

  8. Mery

    What a lovely lesson! And now all of us are the secondary recipients of that one lovely lesson. Oh, the value of good storytelling! I suspect your mother’s taste and grace and care made you a fertile field for this lesson to grow in. It is amazing what seemingly small (to an adult) things make such a big impression on children.
    You were probably a pleasure to sew for, relatively appreciative as children go. I was horrendous at that age.
    Then the summer of my 10th birthday I read about how Cleopatra was quite unattractive until she was taught that there’s power in presenting oneself with grace and charm. All of a sudden every ladylike training I had read or seen clicked and I was a convert.

    • Hi Mery! I’m not sure if I was a pleasure to sew for or not, but I do remember so well certain dresses that I absolutely loved and loved wearing. Ah – grace and charm – those are powerful things, aren’t they!?

  9. Maria

    What a beautifully written glimpse of a childhood memory which helped form you as a dressmaker, a purveyor of divine fabrics & dare I say a great writer. I think it might be time for a compilation,a novella, at least….. Much love from Ireland x

  10. Marguerite

    I love this story! I can relate to gifts of fabric that are really unuseable! Your mom was very gracious!! Actually my mother and aunts (who all sewed) grew up during the depression too and had that unwavering frugality that prevented wasting vertually anything. Even today I have friends or neighbors give me a piece of something they think I may be able to sew into something! More often then not it’s similiar to the fabric your long ago neighbor gave your mom. In 1980 Susan Pletsch toured giving workshops on the newly released pattern she designed with Patti Palmer. It was the iconic 8 Hour Blazer. She brought along a trunk filled with the most beautufully made jackets and coats tailored from exquisite fabrics. It She made a point of telling us to sew with the finest fabric we could find. Our efforts would be rewarded with a gorgeous garment. I must say you certainly adhere to that philosophy! Your garments are works of art that those of us who sew can truly appreciate.

    • I am so delighted you liked my story, Marguerite. I know all of us who grew up with sewing have memories and experiences that have stayed with us over the years. Fabric looms large in our lives, doesn’t it?

  11. Heather Myers

    Thank you for the glimpse into two drivers of your lovely projects – graciousness and love of beautiful and great touch materials.

  12. Mery

    The magazine quotes are indeed good ones and so well illustrated with that eye-catching coat (what a waistline). I’d be tempted to post a copy inside my fabric closet door in hopes that it would facilitate culling, but I shouldn’t kid myself: I’d just hide the polyesters with pretty prints elsewhere. Speaking of which, I keep thinking I’d like to scan some favorite polyesters and have them reprinted onto silk…don’t rush me…I’ve only been hoping to do this for a decade or two. Also, I don’t remember ladies of my mother’s or grandmothers’ generation who sewed a number of fine things well having a huge stash of patterns. I’m sure they varied the same tried and true patterns often and put most of their planning thoughts into selecting the best fabrics for their needs.

    • I think you may be right about the patterns, Mery. While I love to try new (vintage) patterns, it is also so relaxing to use ones I have already used. And then there is the fun of making it look different!
      I know what you mean about the polyesters (although some blends are actually quite nice, dare I say!) Maybe it’s time to get rid of them so they won’t bug you anymore!? I certainly have some fabrics that should be shooed out of my sewing room, and they will be one of these days!

  13. Peggy Warren

    While reading your wonderful story I was remembering two separate sewing memories; one of my grandmother and the other of my mother’s friend. Grandma was a great fan of making dresses for her granddaughters’ dolls. I don’t remember if everyone of us girls (there were lots of us granddaughters) got a dress for our dolls but I certainly got a few for my dolls. I loved going into her bedroom and sitting with her while she made my doll’s dress. I can still remember the curtains blowing from the breeze coming through the open windows. I’m sure that the dresses were as simple as could be but I thought they were wonderful. My mother’s friend, Gladys, made a dress for me to wear on my first day of 2nd grade. Oh how I hated that dress and I remember it vividly to this day. My mother had to threaten me with terrible consequences if I didn’t wear that dress. There was no way to not do what my parents told me to do! The memories of our childhood are to be treasured. Thank you for sharing this memory of your mother.

    • Reading about your two memories and thinking of mine, I realize how much my little granddaughters must be taking in and storing in their memory banks right now. It makes me want to help to give them some wonderful sewing/clothing memories to take with them through life.

  14. I really love hearing others’ stories of what shaped them as creators as adults! Thank-you for this great story.

  15. I came to your blog to see what advice you could give about sewing silk, I stayed because of your dedication to beautiful sewing.

  16. Karen Wright

    I just discovered your blog about 2 weeks ago and am reading back through all of them. So, my response to this particular one from last year is very late. My maternal grandfather was a fabric salesman working for a family-owned company out of NYC during the years from early 30s to his death in March, 1960. He traveled 5-6 states in the South to stores that had fabric (or “piece good”) departments. All of the Ivey’s stores in NC/SC/FL were some of his customers. He sold Moygashel linen and believed it the best there was. I have many happy memories of lovely clothes made by both grandmothers as well as clothes I sewed for myself in the 60s & 70s. My skill levels weren’t what yours are but were adequate to make some cute clothes—-mainly McCall, Simplicity and Butterick pattens. I never sewed a Vogue patten as they were too advanced for me but my senior prom dress was a Vogue pattern made by a local seamstress. I still that dress and recently found the pattern on Etsy.

    I’m really enjoying the various garments you are sharing the details of in your blogs as well as your comments about fabric quality. I may decide to take up sewing again if I can find somewhere to take lessons as my skill are rusty. Please keep up the great work.

    Karen —- from North Carolina

    • I have read your comment over and over and am so glad you wrote to me. I have been trying to picture your grandfather traveling all over those states in the South, many of those years before the interstate system, with his fabric samples. How I would have loved to have seen his Moygashel linen offerings. I can only imagine such a bevy of beautiful fabrics.
      When I took up fashion sewing again about 10 or so years ago, my skills were so rusty. But it came back quickly, and I urge you to sew again if you have the desire. I would recommend taking Susan Khalje’s The Couture Dress, online course on Bluprint (the old Craftsy), as a great way to work on your old skills and learn many new ones. Also, when I was in my late teens and twenties, I learned so much from sewing with Vogue patterns. When I use the vintage ones now, I am so impressed with their engineering and innovation. Thanks so much for your comment, Karen.

  17. Karen Wright


    Thank you for your lovely response. Yes, no interstate highways in that era. Believe it or not, often he was able to travel by train. In later years, he had a hired driver. My biggest decision about taking up sewing again would be purchasing a sewing machine. Buy an inexpensive one to make sure whether I am really committed or just go “all in” on a great one. I learned to sew on a new 1964 Singer Slant-O-Matic which was wonderful. The Singer store where my mother purchased it gave free sewing lessons of which I was the lucky one who took the lessons and made the dress I wore the first day of class.

    Would love a Bernina. Can you advise? Perhaps a well maintained machine purchased from a local sewing machine shop or on E-bay?

    Here’s to good eyesight for all sewers.

    • Hi Karen, I realized I never responded to your question about sewing machines – my apologies! I am not the best person to advise on machines, as, believe it or not, I sew almost exclusively on a 1951 Singer featherweight. No zigzag, just straight stitch, which is almost all I need. When I have to do machine buttonholes, I use a newer, simple Singer. And one of these days, I am going to learn how to use the buttonholer attachment on my Featherweight. If I were getting a new machine now, I would probably get a Bernina. I know reconditioned ones are available which would save you money, but still give you a great machine. I don’t think you need too many “bells and whistles” for fashion sewing. I hope this helps!

  18. Karen Wright

    Karen, I only looked back to see if you replied to my last post today. I had forgotten that I had asked your advice about purchasing a machine.

    Thank you for your advice. Wow! A 1951 Singer and you can turn out such quality, beautiful clothes on it. However, if you have good training and skills, you probably don’t need the fancy features. Our mothers and grandmothers sewed on these machines. A sister has the 1964 Singer Slant-O-Matic that I and another sister learned to sew on. Not sure if it still works. It had a variety of stitches to select from and it was quite fun to sew on.

    Have a happy summer of sewing.

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