1958 piece resonates, even far in the future

Posted Jan. 12, 2009, at 6:45 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 13, 2011, at 10:41 a.m.

In 1958 sewing was enjoying such popularity that nationally syndicated financial columnist Sylvia Porter took up the subject in her column, Your Money’s Worth. I came across her column recently when I was trolling through the newspaper archives on microfilm searching for items for the Yesterday column I compile for The Weekly, a newspaper distributed on Thursdays in the Bangor area by mail or as a supplement to the Bangor Daily News.

As I read Porter’s column, it resonated with me. I was just learning to sew 50 years ago when the column was written. I also found it historically interesting.

I thought it would be fun to share the bulk of Porter’s column with By Hand readers. So here it is — with my two cents’ worth in parentheses:

More than 35,000,000 (imagine that!) American women and girls are going for it — and two out of every three females over 12 in our land are now participating in what is truly a phenomenal renaissance of an industry, occupation and hobby. (Good grief — at that time I was actually in on a popular trend, probably for the first and only time in my life.)

The spectacular revival of the activity in our nation just in the past five years has created an industry approaching $1 billion a year.

The boom in the field is erasing all income distinctions. What was an activity mostly of lower-income groups in the 1930s and 1940s is increasingly an activity of higher income families. It is crossing all age categories; teenagers are joining their mothers in the occupation (like knitting, these days). In many ways the field is being revolutionized and traditions of a century are being broken. I’m talking about the resurgence of home sewing.

The number of home sewers has increased four times faster than the U.S. population in the last few years and the Department of Agriculture estimates that one-fifth of all women’s garments in the United States are home sewn.

This year alone 95,000,000 patterns, representing $48 million, will be sold, millions more than in the last year, and within 18 months it’s expected that annual pattern sales will cross a monumental 100,000,000. (Which certainly accounts for all those vintage patterns now available at many Web sites and in thrift shops.) This year alone, over-the-counter piece goods sales, closely allied with home sewing, are estimated at more than $250 million and the projection here is for $265 million in sales by 1960. (This was back when the United States still had a thriving textile industry.)

Right after World War II, the sewing industry leveled off and appeared to be headed for a cycle of stagnation. But today the picture is unquestionably one of surging growth. What are the forces behind the major shift?

An obvious factor is the high cost of well-made and fashionable clothes. This has always made the money-conscious woman try to make the “good” dress or blouse, etc., herself. I saw the pattern of one short evening dress Paris designer Pierre Cardin has designed for McCall’s Patterns that would cost hundreds of dollars as an original. But the dress made from the pattern using the highest priced fabrics wouldn’t cost more than $45, said Herbert Bijur, general manager of McCall’s Patterns.

An equally obvious factor of the home sewing industry is the sensational expansion of leisure time in middle and higher-income homes.

And, almost 90 percent of the women interviewed in a recent survey rated sewing as their No. 1 hobby, stressing the “creativeness” of it.

A not so obvious force is the mounting fashion consciousness of the American woman and girl. This fashion consciousness is what the giant pattern companies — Simplicity is the biggest, McCall’s is second — are now starting to exploit.

In addition to Cardin, McCall’s has on its own designer list of such world-famous names as Pauline Trigere of New York (she designed actress Patricia Neal’s wardrobe in the film “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”), Hubert de Givenchy of Paris (he designed most of the clothing Audrey Hepburn wore in her films) and Helen Lee, the country’s leading children’s clothes designer. (Wouldn’t it be nice if some of those Trigere and Givenchy patterns were re-issued?)

The stores have discovered that the pattern buyer also buys fabrics, shoes, hats and undergarments to go with her yet-to-be-born outfit.

With teenagers embracing the hobby so enthusiastically and the 15 to 19 age group due to skyrocket in the years right ahead, it’s a virtual certainty that every record the industry is setting now will be smashed again and again in the rapidly nearing 1960s. (Alas, we all grew up, and in the 1970s joined the feminist movement, got jobs and careers and quit sewing. The sewing industry declined, and the rest, as they say, is history — like Sylvia Porter’s column. However, our generation and those behind us are responsible for an upsurge of knitting, quilting and other kinds of needlework. Women always power the loom, one way or the other.)

Snippets

— Those who sew or aspire to sew will find these Web sites of interest:

www.thehemline.blogspot.com

www.burdastyle.com

www.sewing.com

www.vintagesewing.com

www.sewingpatternreview.com

www.singerco.com

www.startsewing.co.uk

— Rug-hook enthusiasts are invited to join Downeast Chapter Two for its first hook-in 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 17, at St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Ellsworth. Plan to spend the day, several hours, or just stop in. The cost for the event is a $5 donation. Tea, coffee and breakfast treats will be provided. Bring a sandwich to go with a complimentary soup luncheon. Snow date is Saturday, Jan. 24. To learn more about the event, call Jean Girmscheid at 422-3694 or e-mail jgirm@hotmail.com.

— How would you like to knit the Yangtze River? Or crochet the Caribbean? Or bead Alaska? Well, all that’s possible with a company called CraftCruises, which organizes ocean- (and river-) going trips for those interested in arts and crafts. The crocheting cruise leader is designer Lily Chin. Nancy Bush, a knitter and writer whose work is featured in Piecework magazine, is one of the leaders for the Northern Europe and Estonia trip. Learn more at www.craftcruises.com.

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