Secrets of the Ra-Ra Sewinghood

Thread 1

All Mennonite girls of the 1950s and 60s made their own clothes. Hager’s, Watt & Shand, or Garvin’s in Lancaster city was not the place to shop for dresses with capes or any other plain clothing. So, we made our own frocks on Mother’s foot-powered treadle machine.

                          180px-Singer_sewing_machin copy

Creating a ward-robe entailed buying a pattern by Simplicity, McCall, or Butterick that we could adapt, finding fabric by the yard at one of the department stores or a specialty shop like Mohr’s Fabrics. Usually, my sisters and I were allowed to buy any material we wanted within reason. We knew solid bright red was out and probably purple, now two of my favorites. One shopping spree as a young teen, I found a pretty, multi-colored repeat pattern on a black background and pulled the bolt out of the stack for Mom to admire:

“Look at this!” I chirped.

Mom looked at the material with squinty eyes, and gasped, “Don’t you see there are guns!”

Now it was my turn to look squinty-eyed. “Guns!” I had to look harder. Yes, you could imagine that those tiny figures on black fabric were shaped like guns. On principle, guns were forbidden in the Mennonite church.  Our household had a little cap gun which we outfitted with rolls of red ribbon with black dots of ammunition for the 4th of July, but otherwise guns were used only for hunting deer, pheasants, and other game by men. Using guns to kill people, even during warfare, was strictly forbidden.

Christian Doctrine_cover_150_med Christian Doctrine_Nonresistance page_4x7_150

The fabric with the offensive repeat pattern? You guessed it—I did not buy it, which according to my mother, shrieked GUNS!

We always attended public school, and now that I think of it, our family observed a double standard: skirts and blouses for school but always caped dresses for church. When I joined the teaching staff  at Lancaster Mennonite School, caped dresses of course were de rigeur. And when my life took a different path, I gave away such dresses to a Mennonite consignment shop with strict instructions about my identity to the lady in charge so that no student would embarrass herself by showing up to class in a dress worn by the former Sister Longenecker. Here is a pattern with a pleated skirt and cute neckline I adapted into a “plain” dress:

plainDressPattern

Thread 2

My light blue Singer sewing machine is portable, so I can use it at home on weekends or put it into the Studebaker to use at my campus home when I’m not making lesson plans or grading papers.

sewingmachine

Months earlier I have met my neighbor’s best friend, Cliff, who is now my boy-friend. Now that he has completed his Bachelor’s degree and working on his Divinity degree, he is allowed to live off campus with 3 other students with whom he shares rent, utilities, and fuel bills. He works in the dining common to pay tuition. Since December we have been writing letters back and forth. Of course, there were no cell-phones in the 1960s and long distance calls were way too expensive, so we made do with letters–lots of them.

Cliff: “It’s reee..aa..ll..y cold here.” A rare snow has fallen in the Carolinas and the nasty cold air wheezes beneath the open crawl space in the rental house. “We ran out of oil until the 25th when we get paid, so the guys and I are sleeping in overcoats and tons of blankets until we can get more oil.  The only way we can get drinking water is to thaw snow in a kettle on the stove. Every thing is frozen up.”

Marian, the nurturer, clicks into gear: “Really! That’s awful. Isn’t there something you could do—space heaters?

Cliff: “No, that would take too much electricity!”

I formulate a plan to make him a robe for Valentine’s Day, so I buy heavy marine blue terry cloth and set to work, adding the appropriate initials in sturdy, white thread. Vintage robe below!

RobePattern Cliff'sRobe

My blue Singer sewing machine moves with me the next school year from Lancaster, PA to Charlotte, NC where I make the transition from very plain to less plain. During the year I get engaged to the formerly frozen student who has quickly thawed out, and we make plans for an August wedding. My machine goes into high gear in full fancy mode stitching the thick white peau de soie (French for “skin of silk”) gown with an empire waist and a train attached to a belted bow. First Lady Jackie Kennedy has an enormous influence on style evident in this pattern.

WeddingPattern

Settling into the hectic life of big city Jacksonville, I keep a connection with my roots with my trusty Singer. I am bold enough to use the fancier Vogue patterns, experimenting with multiple fabric colors in the same outfit.

VoguePattern

Next I buy a host of patterns for a little girl and boy to wear—and of course a teddy bear!

TeddyBear Pattern

What vintage clothing in your wardrobe have you hung onto? For sentimental reasons? Some other reason? Let us know: Click on Reply/Comment.

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19 thoughts on “Secrets of the Ra-Ra Sewinghood

  1. I have a Singer base now holding the microwave in the kitchen. I love the iron sides on it, and it allows me to bring some of our past into my present.

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  2. I have saved the dress I wore to my wedding rehearsal. Of course now, it really is vintage: 25 years of marriage is going to be celebrated this Tuesday, the 7th of May. I had hoped my daughter might want to wear it one day, but she killed that idea a while ago when she kindly tried to hide the horror on her face when I proposed such an idea! haha!

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    1. Jamie, congratulations on hitting the 25 year marker! Thinking back on our own silver anniversary: Mother gave me one of her own candy dishes with fancy lettering commemorating their 25th + we took a trip to the New England states. It seems so long ago. This August it will be 46 years!

      About your other comment: Crista has not craved anything vintage from me either. However, last fall I dug out a skirt & vest duo of peach and lavender plaid on a cream background that she wore in 4th or 5th grade. Gingerly, I showed it to Jenna, our grand-daughter. She absolutely loved it, so now the outfit is hanging in her closet until she grows into it. There’s always hope!

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  3. Your comment: “During the year I get engaged to the formerly frozen student who has quickly thawed out, and we make plans for an August wedding.”

    It didn’t seem quick to me at the time to get the warmth back in my body in the Piney Mountain house in SC, but I’m sure your heaven-sent gift saved me from frost bite. After all of these years the blue robe with my Japanese style white initials is a little more threadbare now, but whenever it’s gets cold I wear it proudly like a uniform on a soldier.

    Thank you for your care even after I first met you on that cold wintery night in Pennsylvania in December 1965.

    Cliff

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  4. Your sewing BLOG brings back memories of my own. The prints were colorful flowers, bold plaids and some were downright ugly, but they were all shapeless “feed sacks”. The “feed sacks” were empty, cotton sacks that once contained livestock feed. A small portable sewing Singer machine at my mother’s kitchen table, a Simplicity pattern, and voila, a shirt waist dress, or a skirt is ready to wear. Thank you Marian for conjuring up the simple, easy times that seem so distant and yet so near and dear.

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  5. I enjoyed reading your “threads”. Sewing has been a fun hobby of mine for many years, but I never really liked the clothes I made for myself. I remember making jumpers and blouses with puffy sleeves for my Mom back in the 70’s and she loved them … this encouraged me to continue.
    I am amazed that you still have the patterns you used years ago and they look like new!

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  6. How wonderful that you mostly taught yourself to sew. I too started that way but later trained as a tailoress for Weatherall’s of Bond St, London. The branch I worked in was Bold St in Liverpool. I must admit that commercial sewing is very different than the instructions on those patterns. You very rarely pin and tack. Seam allowances are three eights as opposed to five eighths; of course, commercially, you are making to standard sizes and not specifically to fit a figure. It was lovely to follow your sewing history. I rarely make clothes now as there are no fabric shops in my locality. I’ve also noted that making your own is no longer the cheaper option. Quite different from the early sixties when I bought material on Saturday morning, made my garment on Saturday afternoon and wore it that evening. Those were the days.

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  7. What wonderful memory threads! I do not sew at all–I can perhaps, if it does not involve cutting, put up a hem, but I haven’t even done that in a long time. I can’t imagine making a wedding gown! As you might remember, my older daughter wore my wedding gown, which I suppose counts as vintage. 🙂

    I wondered if it was risqué for you to make a bathrobe for your then boyfriend? 🙂

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    1. Yes, your older daughter wearing your wedding gown does count as vintage. 😉 And you are right: The pastor of the church where Cliff was serving then thought my bathrobe gift was too intimate. Because she was critical about other things too, I didn’t care much what she thought. Great insight!

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