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.
Our sewing space is not very large or fancy, but it is heavily used and well cared for. We live in a very small apartment, so the majority of sewing work takes place at the little wooden desk seen above, which takes up a portion of wall in our bedroom. The sewing machine is covered by one of my grandmother’s old tapestries when not in use to protect it from dust, but in case anyone is curious, it is a Singer heavy duty model, almost six years old now. When I am sewing, I pin the pattern instructions on the bulletin board above the sewing machine, so they are easy to refer to and not in the way. The mushroom box on the desk has thread, fasteners, scissors, thimbles, needles, and any other small sewing notions stored away in it. The box was my mother-in-law’s. She gave it to my husband a while ago when we helped her clean out some of her cupboards. The drawers of the desk hold more thread, zippers, boxes of buttons, lace, ribbons, and other small items. There is a small wicker wastebasket next to the desk for threads and scraps. We keep our ironing board in our closet and set it up on the other side of the desk when we need it. There is a full length mirror on the wall behind the door for fittings. Our fabric, which we acquire mostly on thrifting expeditions and occasional visits to the fabric district in Los Angeles, and interfacing are folded on shelves in our single hall closet, where we also keep our iron and ironing supplies.
We keep the pattern envelopes in binders on our bookshelf so they can easily be looked over to plan new projects and the pattern tissues and instructions sorted by number in plastic ziploc bags in a large box in the closet. When it is time to cut out a pattern, we do it on the floor of our main room, which doubles as our living room and my art studio, using small cans from the kitchen pantry as pattern weights. After work is done for the day, everything is put back in its place, and we go on living in our little space with little mess. I hope our methods might be useful or encouraging for anyone else who doesn’t have much space, much less a whole room, to devote to their sewing—you can get a great deal done in a small space if you are organized.
This is my summer wardrobe. Most of it is handmade, the rest is from various thrift stores. I am trying to work my way through photographing and writing about the garments I've made. I've been sewing much longer than I've been documenting my sewing, so it will take a while. And sadly, there is the occasional loss in the meantime----one of my blue dresses got a stain on it while I was visiting my family earlier in the month, and despite trying to wash it several times, the stain wouldn't come out. I hadn't photographed it yet, so that dress will never be posted about, except the tiny bit of its shoulder that you can see here.
Mr and Mrs Rat
Mr and Mrs Rat like to sew