sewing, sewing patterns

Home Ec

I took Home Economics in eighth grade. There were two semesters: cooking, followed by sewing. I only took the cooking semester, because there were boys in shop class, which meant I went off to wood shop for second semester. What a waste of my time.

I’ve always been interested in home economics classes as they pertain to sewing. I’ve come across a lot of home ec books over the course of time and have read the fascinating book The Lost Art of the Dress, which recounts the history of home ec classes and how the women involved influenced fashion. It’s interesting stuff, if that is the kind of thing that you, like me, nerd out over.

I came across a couple of books that talked about teaching sewing in schools and found the details interesting. They correlate quite a book with the aforementioned book’s timeline, in that sewing at home ebbed and flowed. The late forties were more of an ebb in home sewing, and the 1948 book I found said that in a study of a tenth-grade high school class, only one student had ever used a sewing pattern, only a third of the girls’ mothers sewed, and less than half of the classes’ homes had a sewing machine. That’s a lot of idle machines. Students started by learning to sew a simple gingham sewing bag which was used to hold supplies, and then gradually advanced to sewing garments.

An 1894 book by the Superintendent of the Philadelphia schools, it is noted that sewing began being taught in schools in 1880 and began to be a part of the regular curriculum five years later. Instruction began in third grade. The city provided supplies like pins, thread, thimbles, needles, scissors (regular and buttonhole), cotton for sewing and darning, dressmakers’ scales, emery bags, and paper for drafting patterns. One square foot of muslin was given to each student and was replenished as necessary. The city allotted six cents per student for these supplies.

Classes started in third grade with the most basic of principles: posture while sewing, and how to correctly position one’s hands. Right- and left-hand position were taught separately. Drills were in threading needles, taking a stitch and drawing through fabric, and how to hold scissors. Sewing instruction began with turning the hem, basting and then sewing the hem. Frequently these skills were taught using paper first, instead of fabric. They then learning how to overseam on turned edges, and how to cut a straight line. If students were successful in straight cutting, they were allowed to bring towels and washrags from home to practice hemming.

Second semester of third grade taught back stitch, running seam, half back stitch seam, raw edges of seams to be overcast, hemming of towels, napkins and desk covers. Actual sewing began this semester, with creation of sewing bags, pillowcases, oversleeves, iron holders and bibs. The most amazing thing to me is that in this semester, third grade, with a bunch of eight and nine year olds, they began teaching pattern drafting, by creating patterns for bibs and simple waists (blouses) with straps over the armholes. Most home sewists today don’t know how to draft patterns, and they were teaching babies! Amazing.

In fourth grade, reversible seams were taught, as well as square patches. Hemming of tablecloths and sheets were done, and pillowcases, dust caps, pen wipes and other little projects were sewn. At this point, students were taught how to sew on a four holed button. Drafting projects included yokes, under waists with seam over the arm, and book covers. Second semester, students learned gathering and darning, made plain aprons and book covers, and learned to sew buttons on shoes and basic mending. Drafting projects included under waists with under arm and shoulder seams, aprons, children’s and baby dresses.

Fifth grade lessons were done in narrow hems and fells (flatting the seam, turning it and then sewing it down), tucks and fine gathering, darning, French fells, angular patches, and buttonholes. Sewing projects were drawers, combing capes, shoe and stocking bags, aprons, under waists and plain skirts. Drafting of drawers and under waists with one dart and with spring (curve) to fit the hip were taught.

Sixth grade paid attention to buttonholes, and also taught round patches, herringbone and feather stitches, gusset and bias seams. By this time, girls learned to make chemises, blouse waists, night shirts and flannel skirts. They drafted chemises, gored skirts, dress sleeves, night shirts and blouse waists. Seventh grade taught French gathering, tailored buttonholes, cutting and fitting of plain garments like night dresses, corset covers, and men’s shirts. Patterns were drafted for these garments.

Eighth grade found students cutting, fitting and sewing garments of all kinds, with special attention to men’s shirts and garments that fit the students. Drafting was done for dress waists, sleeves and skirts.

The Philadelphia school system employed 41 sewing teachers to instruct 58,000 students in these skills. They really invested in the program, and the girls, by the time they graduated eighth grade, would have learned all the basic skills to draft patterns and sew their own wardrobe, as well as for family members. Keep in mind that this was also all hand sewing! Amazing, isn’t it?

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