Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Sewing Tidbits from book by Mary Brooks Picken

I have my mother's old 1953 Singer Sewing Book. It was written by Mary Brooks Picken, who was a fashion/sewing expert in the early part of the twentieth century. I think she had already been writing for several decades before she wrote this book for Singer, and I would guess that it must have been towards the end of her career. I love the book not only because it is a useful reference, but because it gives me an eye window into an era before I was born. (And, of course, it's precious to me because it belonged to my late mother.)

I thought I'd share a few tidbits from Mrs. Picken. Even if you don't sew, you may find them to be helpful.

"When you sew, make yourself as attractive as possible. Go through a beauty ritual of orderliness. Have on a clean dress. Be sure your hands are clean, finger nails smooth - a nail file and pumice will help. Always avoid hangnails. Keep a little bag full of French chalk near your sewing machine where you can pick it up and dust your fingers at intervals. This not only absorbs the moisture on your fingiers, but helps to keep your work clean. Have you hair in order, powder and lipstick put on with care. Looking attractive is a very important part of sewing, because if you are making something for yourself, you will try it on at intervals in front of the mirror, and you can hope for better results when you look your best.
"Again, sewing must be approached with the idea that you are going to enjoy it, and if you are constantly fearful that a visitor will drop in or your husband come home and you will not look neatly put togther, you will not enjoy your sewing as you should. Therefore, spruce up at the beginning to that you are free to enjoy every part of sewing you do."

This is sound advice when it comes to other aspects of homemaking as well. It seems that my mother's and mother-in-law's generation was good at this, and they try to maintain this neat appearance even as they are in old age. I have not tried the chalk to dry the fingers and keep my work clean. Has anyone else? I'm thinking this might be a good idea when cross-stitching, too.

Mary Pickens urges her readers to have a home management room. "This is a room in which she (the homemaker) can retire and carry on the business of running a household with at least some of the efficienty aids which a man has in his office to facilitate running his business."

Even though it may not be practical for everyone to have a home management room, I love this quote. It shows how this 1950's author took a professional attitude towards being a keeper at home. It was a career, with need of an office for the manager, just as a company is a career, with need of an office for the manager.

This room, Mrs. Pickens says can also serve as a guest room, as a room in which the woman can entertain friends during an afternoon visit, and, of course, as sewing room. She suggests having a built-in desk, a portable typwriter (Today, we'd have a computer), good lighting, book shelves for cookbooks and other reference books and the latest best seller, a telephone, a sewing machine, and a radio. She also envisions that a guest might bring her handwork -- such as knitting -- with her for an afternoon visit, and the home manager and her guest could sit in this femininely decorated room and chat or listen to a radio program while working together. She suggests using a spare guest room or a small den to find space for such a room. She states that "today's" homes, by which she meant homes of the fifites, seldom had a room which the woman could call her own. My guess is that when Mrs. Pickens started her career, middle-class and upper-class homes had either a "morning room" or else a little office where a woman could take care of things like menu planning and correspondence. This problem of the 50's -- finding a space for a woman to have a home management area --is probably even harder to solve with the open floor plans of the 2,000's. More houses are built with home offices in them, and that can be a great home management room. But it's my observation that these home offices are generally either claimed by the man of the house or they are usedby the family as a whole. It's nice -- but not essential -- to carve out a little feminine space that's all your own. You can do your planning there. I have also seen homes with desks and bookshelves built into the kitchen. If you live in an apartment or trailor and just don't have any room for an office, simply organize your homemaking notebook, home reference book, staionary, etc., in a pretty basket.

Here's a quote from Mrs. Picken: "Every woman has, at given times in her life, certain colors that are best for her. Becoming colors may prove less so as the pigmentation of skin, eyes, hair -- even teeth -changes. Softer, more subded colors become more pleasing in time than the more vivid colors once so highly flattering.
"Rarely does a woman make serious mistakes in choosing her most becoming colors, but just to make sure you don't, familiarize yourself with these basic rules, the kind an artist would use in choosing colors.
"Don't choose a color for itself alone or becaue it is fashion's favorite for the season. Think over the following points before you make your decision:
` 1. Is the color suitable for your individual characteristics? Your natural skin tone? Your eyes? Your hair color? Your figure proportions? Your personality? Your age? Position in business, community and society?
2. Is it suitable for your purposes? The occasions for which you will wear it? The season? Your mode of transportation? The type of community in which you life?
3. Is it practical?" (She points out that you do not need to be as pratical in color with a special occasion dress, as you would with an everyday dress).

I would add a fourth rule: Do you love the color? Do you feel comfortable in it? Does it make you feel happy? If you are married, does your husband love it? Since color has a profound effect on our moods, I would be sure to include some colors in my closet that made me feel happy. I would do this even if they don't quite fit Mrs. Pickens' rules. Maybe -- No, probably LOL -- UT orange isn't your best color. But, if it makes you feel like cheering, why not have at least one orange item in your wardrobe?

Still, Mrs. Picken's rules are a good guide, and if you follow them you are likely to end up with a coordinated wardrobe. Generally, the colors that look good on a particular woman tend to look good with each other. Sticking to these colors can keep you from ending up with a closet full of things that don't work together.

Mrs. Picken says, "You want to pick tints and shades that accentuate your own coloring rather than outshine or diminish it. For instance, there are blues so strong as to steal the blue from your eyes, while other blue will emphasize the eye color. An olive complexion may lose all its blush tones and appear only sallow when it is matched with a dress of drab or mustard brown color. The most glorious auburn hair may be made garish by juxtaposition with a red or pink that is incompatible."

"Make sure of fashion rightness. Be fashion-concious. Study the fashion silhouette in magazines, in ready-to-wear advertising and in store windows. Watch the changes come -- the shape of a shoulder -- the fullness and lenght of a skirt -- the cut of the neckline -- the fit at the waistline -- all of which are important in achiving the right fashion effect. This awareness helps you know what to look for when you shop for patterns."

I think this also helps you know what to look for when you shop for ready-made clothing. It is harder to find modest clothing than it was when Mrs. Picken wrote this book in 1953. Right now, there are many styles that a modest-concious woman wouldn't care to follow. But, that doesn't mean that we have to ignore fashion trends altogether. We can still study the elements that Mary Brooks Picken mentioned. We can incorporate a few up-to-date elements into a modest style of dressing. We can also update our look in a way that is age-appropriate. If we do update our look, while still retaining our modesty, we will remain fresh and pretty into old age. And, we will be an inspiration to other women, showing them that you can dress beautifully without spending a fortune or compromising your modesty. Accessories such as handbags, shoes, and scarves, are a big help here. They provide easy ways to freshen up a wardrobe, and they seldom create modesty problems.

In Mrs. Picken's day, people often re-worked a dress or skirt to make it look fresh and up-to-date. That isn't as common today, but it can still work, provided that the garment in question is worth either spending your own time to remake it or to hire someone else to do it. You can also take a classic skirt and pair it with a newer blouse. We don't have to be fashion hounds, chasing every whim of style, but it does pay to be observant about current trends.



Sandra said...

This post is just full of great advice, thanks you. You're right that the wives of the 50s felt being a homemaker was a career. Sadly, today it isn't looked at that way. I've been a homemaker for most of the 21 years we've been married, and we have no children, try explaining that to people (especially other women)!

Keep the great posts coming. :o)

Elizabeth said...

Hi Sandra,

Yes, people don't look at homemaking as a career, and many come into marriage unprepared to be a home manager nowadays. But, I am encouraged that there are so many websites nowadays, where women can get information that will help them.