Sewing Lessons

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 was absolutely mean, 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

Fitted facing

Bias binding


Buttonholes (needs to practice!)

French seam

And because this is 1933, mending a hole

Principles of Design and Color

Anyone beside me completely envious of that penmanship?


Filed under Curiosities, Sewing

29 responses to “Sewing Lessons

  1. What a great find. Extremely jealous. The hand writing WAS lovely back then.


  2. Oh WOW! What an amazing find!! I am so in love with this!!!! WHat amazing projects and I love the tips in the beginning….light over the left shoulder…FABULOUS!


  3. Catherine

    What an interesting find!
    I too was taught to sew at school in the 1970’s by the most awful teacher (who looked like a camel with her horrible whiskery chin,but that is being unfair to camels ) who only let her favourites in the class progress at any great rate.The rest of us just floundered around.I was lucky in that my mum could sew and we had a sewing machine at home, albeit a very temperamental Russian one. If it was not for being able to sew at home on our machine I would not have ever finished anything because for the entire three years between the ages of 11 and 14 I don’t think I ever used a sewing machine at school.Our patterns and fabric had to be approved by this teacher before we could make them but this also meant we had to buy both items also before approval which was a very stressful time in our house due to the financial outlay and the fear of no approval being ultimately granted! This female managed to put me off of sewing for many years.
    Somewhere I have a selection of worked buttonholes and cuff openings that either my grandmother or great grandmother worked when they woud have been aged about 10 and they are very neat.
    And lastly,here in England when my kids a few years ago “did sewing” at school it was called Textiles and like your Apparel Development seems to be anything but sewing!!!
    Thanks for sharing and sorry to go on!


  4. I had sewing lessons in school back in England. As Catherine said it was called ‘Textiles’ and we were supposed to design a special kind of short and make them. It was a pretty useless class, and I know I learned a lot more from watching Mum sew and then having Mum help me sew my own dresses than I ever learned at school!
    I love that book though… I am thinking this might make a great idea for a homeschool class 🙂


  5. Beautiful. When I started working in the sewing shop, I had to build a similar notebook of samples to make sure I knew how to do all kinds of intermediate and advanced techniques using a variety of machines and methods. It was REALLY helpful and I still add to it sometimes.


  6. What a fantastic find! I wish I could take that class *now*.


  7. Anne

    What a great find! As a current pre-K teacher in FL, I am sad to say that some schools are no longer even teaching cursive writing. I am new to your blog, and this is my first time commenting. Keep up the wonderful work; I am so enjoying your blog.


    • Anne, welcome, and thanks so much!

      I taught 5th grade, and we had to fight to keep cursive writing as part of the curriculum. Then the kids would go to middle school where they never had to use it. It’s a dying skill.


  8. This is such a gift! You are very lucky to have it.


  9. Fab Lizzie, fab! Where ever did you find this treasure? I agree with you, hat sort of edu-speak is just so much nonsense.
    Really responding to those textiles. The yellow reminds me of a 30s dress I have. Must show you!


    • It’s an ebay find!

      Joules, it’s almost like saying what you are going to do in education is almost as important as actually doing it! And I realize this is a problem in many areas, not just teaching. I say more action, less objectives writing!!


  10. Love the notebook. I always taught my college students how to sew seams, darts, hems and fasteners first. Then techniques such as insertions, godets, inset corners. And they often worked on projects I patterned and cut out. That way at least their first projects were about practicing stitching skills, not correcting their cutting and layout errors.


  11. You are spot on with your comment about the dressmaking skills it was assumed were known at the time – I have two needlecraft books (The Pictorial Guide to Modern Home Needlecraft), one edition from the 30s and one from the 40s, which explain all the nitty gritty like seams, neatening, collars, sleeves, pleats, fastenings etc., and it is staggering the amount of sewing skills around then. Not surprisingly, the 40s edition has lots of instructions for Make Do & Mend which I love!


  12. Em

    Fabulous find–there are so many activities that can be enjoyed just for there own sake, especially without the encroachment of business.


  13. Wonderful find – I love how the work seems to be handdone, not machine. (I can’t find my glasses right now and cannot enlarge the photos to see them clearly). Someone mentioned how it would be good for homeschooling or even one on one teaching. Maybe you could .pdf the book and share it for a small download fee on etsy. It seems it has a good order for teaching a child, young teen/preteen even though we would sew with machine.


  14. Yes, I’m jealous of that beautiful penmanship–and of you for making this treasure of a find! Wonderful. I still remember the summer when I was 15 or 16, and my mom tried to help me make a pair of shorts. It was incredibly frustrating. My mother has always been very good at teaching and explaining things (she was a librarian), and though she did a lot of sewing for us as children, I don’t think it was something she particularly enjoyed. Which might explain why it’s a skill I’ve never (sadly) picked up, aside from doing minor repairs and sewing on buttons.


  15. When I first came on the education scene as a teacher, my college’s sewing program was exactly what you experienced. When a new grad commented that she had never sewn a dart, that was it! I dismantled the entire curriculum. Now they sew specific samples and garments. I am noticing that other programs are doing the same thing, so maybe this generation will actually learn a thing or two about sewing. BTW, our best text for this process is the c. 1970’s/80’s Reader’s Digest Guide to Sewing–an edition that I would recommend to anyone who wants the little details explained.

    P.S. I am reading this a day late because as a current educator, I am forced to spend my time writing those useless “Student learning objectives” for every class and MORE! This is what tired teachers are doing these days, not preparing cool lectures, but writing silly statements that few can comprehend!


  16. That is just so neat!


  17. kath nugent

    Hi, I am 60 years old, I have been sewing all my life self taught to begin with. I then learnt more at school ( AN APRON OR TWO MADE BY HAND I ENJOYED EVERY SECOND OF CREATING SOMETHING FROM A TEXTILE ) then went on to college to do dress making and tailoring. Then I did interior design and soft furnishings. And now am very happy to say that I teach basic sewing, Vintage dressmaking, how to thread a needle, LOTS OF LAZY HAND SEWING thread a sewing machine, use your sewing machine,seams, darts, buttonholes, facings. then we go on to understanding pattern instructions, how to cut out a pattern, how to understand and handle fabric. then make up a basic garment. then go and make a dress from a original vintage pattern. how to alter a pattern for those who want to do this, and so much more of the basic stuff. Vintage buttonholes and side fastenings, NO ZIPS THEN LADIES feel the life of the fabric. and yes what a joy the note book is. I was taught to write in cursive writing, and I still do I show my Grandchildren how to write properly, sew, knit and all the rest. Having 13 of them makes it a task in itself.

    We do stop for Vintage Tea and cakes, HAPPY DAYS


  18. Fran Giacobbe

    I, too, am a retired teacher..4th grade..loved it! This notebook is a treasure! I agree completely with all of you who have said basically..let the teachers teach. Too much time spent on writing objectives..we know what our objectives are! I went to a parochial school and have that sort of penmanship..the Palmer method..but received no sewing lessons or physical education basics.


  19. Welcome to all the visitors from Pattern Review. I hope you’ll take a look around the Vintage Traveler and enjoy my vintage clothing and sewing posts.



  20. Thank you so much for sharing this bit of history! I enjoyed it and am looking forward to exploring the rest of your blog.


  21. solveg

    Thanks! We’re all pretty much drooling over this notebook over at Pattern Review. LOL. I’m looking forward to digging around the rest of your site!


  22. Ruth Sings2high

    Delightful! Yes, my mother has even prettier handwriting, learned in the 40’s and not one of us children can touch it! As to the notebook, it seems the basic assumption that one knew how to put the dress together and just needed help on the details. I learned to sew before I was 5 – by helping my mother with all the sewing tasks except machine-work. As a teen in the 70’s, one day my mother decided to start me on the machine. So she said “Today, we will make a skirt. We don’t have a pattern, but that’s ok.” And she showed me how to stitch up a dirndl maxi skirt that I wore until it was threadbare. I have loved sewing my whole life. As a young woman, I taught two sewing classes for a local vo-tech school, without the benefit of sewing machines. I demonstrated the use of the machine but lugging a portable to class, but we majored in the other tasks – pattern-fitting, cutting accuracy, and attention to detail. I think that if I ever teach such a class again, I will have everyone purchase the same pattern – a dress for an American Girl doll, and explain that the basic techniques taught are directly transferable to adult clothing, but that the short seams would enable us to actually sew together as a class and see it coming together, learning correct stitching technique.


  23. Pingback: Dress and Home Workbook, 1935 | The Vintage Traveler

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