As a former teacher, I’m always interested to see how teaching has changed over the years. We like to think that with all the new information about how children develop and learn, that modern education is an improvement over what was going on in classrooms in the 1930s. But educational thought is not linear, but rather, it is cyclical, with ideas falling from favor only to return 20 years down the road.
I wasn’t even sure they still teach “home ec” in schools these days, so I went to the website of my high school, and sure enough, there it is: “Apparel Development.” The course description says that the learner will “develop and produce a clothing product.” And then it goes on to say that the student will develop a business plan for an apparel business, using skills learned in math, science, English… As former educator, I can see that this is just so much educate-talk. Seriously, what is wrong with just teaching the kids to sew? It’s a valuable skill even if it does not lead to a stint on Project Runway or a career in the fashion industry.
I took home ec in the 1970s. I already knew how to sew, and loved it, so the thought of spending an hour of school time at a sewing machine was irresistible! Not that it was perfect – one of my teachers is pictured in Webster’s Dictionary as an illustration for the word Bitch, and I spent a great deal of my time helping the other girls because said teacher had not a clue about sewing.
The way we were taught to sew in the 70s was that you had to pick a pattern from a pre-approved list of simple dresses, buy the fabric and then we worked together, first with cutting the fabric, and then into the making of the dress. The problem with this approach was that most of the students bumbled through the process, trying to follow the written directions as best they could. No two people were ever doing the same thing, which was fine if you knew what you were doing, but frustrating if this was your first time at a sewing machine.
Finding this student-made book from the 1930s was a revelation! The girls learned the skills needed to make a garment before tackling the first project. Have you ever wondered why the sewing directions in a 1920s or 1930s pattern are so sketchy? Well, it is because the directions did not explain how to make a placket (or a French seam, or a ruffled edge); the pattern company assumed you already knew how to make it.
In the 1970s, I was never taught how to make a placket or a French seam, or a ruffle. I was taught only what my simple pattern required.
A small taste of what Loretta Wiese of Berlin, Wisconsin learned in 1933-34 at Princeton High School:
Collar and facing for blouse or middy
Buttonholes (needs to practice!)
And because this is 1933, mending a hole
Principles of Design and Color
Anyone beside me completely envious of that penmanship?