1946 was a good year for fairy tales: World War II had ended in the late summer of 1945, and celebrations of life in the new year of 1946 mixed with bitter memories of the lost.
In 1946, Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast made its debut in movie theatres. The computer generated effects of today still don’t match the magic of his cinematic artistry and the mysterious delicacy of his style. Who could interpret the famous French fairy tale written by 18th century writer Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve better than he?
Antoine de Saint-Expurey, the famous French aviator-writer who wrote so eloquently of the beautiful and dangerous lives of the first pilots in Wind, Sand, and Stars, wrote about a different flight of the imagination in the fairy-tale The Little Prince, a tiny volume that was destined to become his most famous work, despite being published without his knowledge after his disappearance (and presumed death) on a reconnaissance flight over the Mediterranean a year prior.
Fashion in 1946 reflected the fairy-tale relief of a newly peaceful (and for America, newly prosperous) life with growing luxury: longer hem-lines, fuller skirts, and more fabric than had been seen in years.
Dior's 'New Look' was yet to debut in 1947, but as this evening dress by Lucien LeLong shows, the taste for fairy-tale beauty was already strong.
And in June of 1946, with the burgeoning post-war economy driving a new burst in American production, our Singer 15-91 sewing machine was made in New Jersey. And that is the stuff of fairy-tales for me and Mr Rat, because somehow it traveled to northern California and 71 years later turned up in the gutter across the street from our apartment. And in a fairy-tale appropriate turn of events, we rescued it from the doom of being left out for trash, cleaned it with care, and spent the last month sourcing parts to refurbish it, and now it runs beautifully again, and we are as pleased with it as can be.
Our main sources of information for refurbishing the machine came from a the book How to Select, Service, Repair and Maintain Your Vintage Sewing Machine by Connie McCaffrey, the very-comprehensive Singer 15-91 manual (which Mr Rat sourced and printed for free from the internet), and You-Tube tutorials. Our parts were mostly sourced from Ebay and we bought any tools we didn’t have but needed to repair the machine from Harbor Freight. Altogether, we estimate that it cost about $60 to fully refurbish the machine and make it work again, even the lamp. Luckily the cabinet was still in pretty good condition, just rather scratched and cobwebbed, so all it took was a thorough washing with a barely damp clean rag and a gentle application of wood oil to make it look good again.
I’ve already sewn Mr Rat some pajamas on our new-old machine, and I’m pleased with how well it stitches. It came at just the right time, since my seven-year-old Singer Heavy-Duty was wearing out and skipping stitches, and I wasn’t sure how we’d manage to get it fixed or replaced. Now we have a machine that is known for its durability and skill at stitching through just about anything, and best of all, we can care for it and repair it ourselves. A fairy-tale ending, indeed. Or perhaps a fairy-tale beginning.
Dresses with interesting shapes always intrigue me, and dresses with interesting shapes and unusual methods of closure doubly so. This 1970s era pattern had both. It was difficult to find a copy of McCall 5906---I’ve only seen it twice in my size, so I was happy to find a copy for not too much on Ebay that was even uncut. McCall 5906 is a pullover dress with a triangular yoked front and back, ties that wrap around to the back and give the dress somewhat of an empire waistline, a keyhole neckline opening, a mandarin-style closure, bottom ruffle, puffed sleeves, and all closures on the dress (neck, sleeves) are made with extra-wide bias strips that tie into bows.
I made this first attempt out of a large cotton-polyester sheet I got from the thrift store a few months ago. I find that even though the grain can get a little off with sheets sometimes, they are good sources of inexpensive thick cotton, and work especially well when trying out a pattern for the first time. Since I made my dress from durable, versatile cotton, I finished my seams very simply with pinking shears.
The tricky shape of the yoke meant that I did a lot of hand-basting before I machine sewed the dress together, and I sewed the bias tape together by hand so that it wouldn’t warp the way it sometimes does under the pressure of the sewing machine foot.
I like how the dress turned out. It is comfortable to wear and unusual in style. It reminds me of the shape of traditional Russian clothing, and the bows are an interesting and charming detail.
This past Sunday when we took our morning walk to the monastery I wore my recently completed Simplicity 8131 bow-necked blouse, one of my long cotton-polyester broadcloth Simplicity 7880 skirts, my black wool vest, and since it was very cold and windy I wore my grey wool cape, too.
Mr Rat and Gia and I were charmed by the many squirrels taking advantage of the recently wilted clover to find all their hidden stashes of nuts. The wind scudded big white clouds across the sky behind the pink church with its beautiful bell-tower, and the heavy, sleepy flowers nodded in every rush of wind that sounded so much like the waters of the ocean distantly roaring.
The bow-tied neck, softly gathered forward shoulder seams and slightly puffed sleeves of this recently released Simplicity blouse pattern caught my eye (they feel so reminiscent of the 70s patterns I love so much), so I decided I should try it out. I combined two of the pattern views: the body and sleeves of version A with the larger tie of versions D and F. I cut most of the pattern to a size 8, widening out to a 10 at the bottom of the sleeves, and lengthening the neck tie to a 12 at the ends. I think the fit turned out well, although getting the neckline over my rather-large head is a tight squeeze, so next time I think I will extend the neck slit a half inch at the bottom.
For fabric, I chose some black and navy gingham cotton voile I bought in the Los Angeles fabric district for 99 cents a yard a few years ago. Originally I bought 5 or 6 yards of it, and I’ve been using it for linings here and there, and some wearable muslins. Out of all the things I’ve used it for, though, I think I’m most pleased with this blouse. The loose fit and soft lines of this pattern make it well suited to a lightweight, soft fabric like voile. I finished the inside seams with faux French seams, pinked the edge of the neck facing, and sewed twice around the arm-holes, trimmed them, and then zig-zagged the edges.
I like how the neckline gives you the option to tie the bow high or low. I also like the sleeves, even though I was feeling wary of putting in elastic instead of cuffs like I usually do. But the elastic is not tight and it looks inconspicuous, so I think I like it after all. Bow-tied blouses always look nice worn under vests or peeking out of jackets or jumpers. In fact, I like my first attempt so much that I think I’ll probably make another, probably in dark brown next time since I have a big length of cotton voile in that color in my fabric cupboard, waiting to be used. . .
1970s era Simplicity 7880 is my favorite pattern for many reasons: I love full skirts for their range of movement and their versatility, dirndl skirts are easy to hem and easy to lengthen, since this particular skirt is cut on the crosswise grain it only has one seam at the center back, and I’ve made this pattern so many times that it has become wonderfully easy---a project of two or three days at most.
This particular version is made of bleached white muslin, bought cheaply on sale at JoAnns. I’m wearing it with a blouse I which I also made out of white muslin, reviewed here. If you are thinking of what fabric you’d like to sew with for summer, don’t dismiss basic, inexpensive muslin, which comes in two summery shades of pale beige and white, is one hundred percent cotton, lightweight but still opaque, and delightfully easy to sew and press. It looks pretty even when it’s a little wrinkly, and also looks nice with all kinds of embellishments: eyelet or crochet trim, embroidery, and beading. I kept this skirt and top very basic and minimal, easy to mix and match with other skirts and tops, and easy to wear with all of my favorite shawls and jewelry.
Why wear a shawl in the summer, you might ask? Well, my husband and I don’t have a car, so we walk everywhere. When you walk a great deal, you realize that even when wearing sunscreen, your skin gets very hot in the sun, and long sleeves or a thin, sheer shawl make you feel cooler than having your arms exposed. In these photos taken at the monastery garden, I’m wearing one of my favorite Indian shawls, bought at the thrift store several years ago. My necklace is sterling silver and pink jasper, an anniversary gift from Mr Rat last year. As always-pedestrians, Mr Rat and I wear a lot of hats, too----this huge straw one is probably my favorite, bought a few years ago at a farmer’s market stand.
Happy early summer to my readers who dwell in the northern hemisphere, and happy autumn to anyone from the southern end of the earth. Remember to take a walk and admire the flowers while they're here.
While I have already reviewed this dress, way back here near the beginning of our blog, I never felt like we got very many photos of it, so I thought I’d add some more here from when I wore it last Sunday on our customary walk through the monastery gardens.
Monday May 22
I wore my brown cotton blouse, my long brown skirt and my brown jade and ocean jasper necklace.
Mr Rat wore his first Hawaiian shirt.
Tuesday May 23
I wore my new black wool vest (reviewed here), my peter-pan collar shirt, and one of my black simplicity 7880 skirts. My brooch is a vintage sterling silver Taxco rose.
Wednesday May 24
I wore my bandana print dress.
Thursday May 25
The weather turned cold and windy and when we went walking I imagined myself on the moors of Haworth with the Bronte sisters. I wore my long brown skirt, my black wool cape, and a large black scarf that I crocheted for myself two winters ago.
Mr Rat wore his grey worker’s shirt.
Friday May 26
I wore my brown smock dress, my homemade red jasper necklace and a thrifted vintage shawl. Is it unseasonal to like to wear autumnal shades year-round?
Saturday May 27
I wore my black dress, my yellow-ochre jade hand-made necklace, and a thrifted wool shawl that I originally thought might be Ukrainian but turned out to be Japanese when I finally located its label.
Sunday May 28
I wore my tan striped dress, a vintage wool scarf and vintage brown leather gloves that, interestingly enough, were made in the American zone of Western Germany. When I read that on the inside of the gloves, I found myself holding them for a while, lost in thought, pondering their age and history, the tumult in which they were made. I wonder what woman bought them there, and how they came to end up in Northern California, soft with wear.
Monday May 29
This may be repetitive, since I already wore this dress several times this month, but my bandana dress was too perfect for our Memorial Day picnic to not wear it again. This time I wore it with my red jasper necklace and a blue shawl I found at the thrift store a while back.
Tuesday May 30
I wore my new tan striped shirt and one of my black Simplicity 7880 skirts.
My reflections on a month of wearing homemade: In some ways, it wasn’t challenging. I already wear my homemade clothes every day, and the only things I missed wearing were my few basic button-up shirts and my vintage jewelry that I’ve thrifted over the years. I have a few embroidered tops I wear on special occasions, and the rest of my non-me-made clothing are mostly sweaters, my single pair of jeans, and some jackets and coats. I do need to test out more of my jacket sewing patterns. It would be nice to have more homemade outerwear.
In other ways, though, it was surprisingly challenging. I had been looking forward to May, feeling excited to plan my outfits and make new combinations, only to find that emotionally the month was exhausting, the weather was unpredictable (rarely cold enough for my coldest weather homemade clothes and rarely warm enough for my warmest weather homemade clothes), and besides that, I was often too anxious and too busy with day-to-day needs to do much more than wear what I usually wear anyway. It was difficult finding time to take a photo every day, and sometimes I missed the chance to get a photo of Mr Rat wearing his homemade clothes.
Looking over the photos, though, it does make me realize a few things: My most common daily outfit is a shirt or blouse tucked into a full skirt (with long sleeves getting favored over short), I like wearing dresses, but rarely wear my full length dresses anywhere but church (perhaps this is a confidence issue, since they are not any less comfortable than my midi-length dresses), and as I wrote before, I need to sew some more jackets and maybe even a coat. I also realized that I favor my darker colored clothing and my white shirts more than anything else in my wardrobe.
So, Me-Made-May was helpful in its way. I think I have more direction now for my sewing projects for the rest of the year. I also finished sewing my vest this month, which was one of my new year’s sewing resolutions. It is always satisfying to achieve a goal, and satisfying, too, to have completed a challenge.
Did any of you participate in Me-Made-May this year, or during previous years? What have you learned from your experiences?
Mr and Mrs Rat
Mr and Mrs Rat like to sew.