I learned to sew at age 14, and have been sewing for the last 40 years. This has taken the form of family mending and alterations, and making teddy bears, down vests, wedding dresses, bathing suits, an overstuffed fake-fur chair, and numerous full-size quilts. I have not made many clothing items over the last few years, but considering the shoddy quality of most clothing manufactured overseas, reviving that skill is probably a good idea.
During the Depression, clothing was recycled as hand-me-downs from an older sibling or neighborhood children. Clothes were mended or patched, and when they wore out beyond repair, the remaining fabric was cut up and used to make patches for other garments. Zippers and buttons were saved for future use. Girls wore dresses made out of cotton flour sacks, which came printed in patterns. Many fabric companies today sell reproduction 1930s vintage fabric, which is characterized by small prints and pastel colors.
The Works Progress Administration, founded in 1935, and lasting until 1943, provided jobs and much-needed income to unemployed families during the Depression. Many women worked in WPA-sponsored sewing rooms, and were taught to use sewing machines. They made clothing, bedding, and supplies for orphanages and hospitals.
Sewing skills are used in a number of occupations, including bookbinder, dressmaker, cobbler, milliner, quilter, sail maker, tailor, seamstress, taxidermist, and upholsterer.
I would encourage everyone, male and female, to learn some basic sewing skills to repair their family’s clothing. The days of “disposable” clothing that is worn for one season and discarded are over. Old jeans or flannel shirts can be transformed into quilts, rag rugs, or pillows. Save old zippers, buttons and elastic from clothing that is beyond repair. It is a good idea to gather some basic supplies, such as thread, zippers, extra buttons, scissors, and to store a supply of fabric. A fishing tackle box makes a wonderful sewing box, with plenty of compartments for all those sewing notions. Have a family member or friend teach you how to sew on a button or alter a garment. There are many good books and online resources for learning and supplies.
In my sewing box is a piece of beeswax that was passed down from my maternal grandmother. It is probably 50 years old, and looks like a small chunk of rock with a few threads and pieces of lint embedded in it. It was used to wax a piece of hand-sewing thread to keep it from tangling, long before the days of polyester or synthetic thread. I still use this chunk of beeswax to this day, and in some small way, I am carrying on a long tradition of sewing in my family. My grandmother raised 10 children in northern Vermont, and her husband died in his early 40s. She gardened and canned and raised chickens, and sewed and mended, and made do with what she had to work with. Sewing is a practical skill used to help survive hard times, both during the Depression and the tough economic times today.