Sunday, 27 January 2019

Waste not . . .

An unpromising start

An old zip with whiskers of thread attached may seem an odd opening image, but it formed half of the inspiration for this week's post. The other half was two scraps of dress fabric held together with press studs (snaps), clearly cut from a dress*. Both were in a box of 'sewing ephemera' bought at an auction. They immediately took me back to my childhood, as they were precisely the sort of thing which used to be in Mum's sewing box when I was little. I have found similar items in other workboxes at the auction I go to.

The sad reality is that many of the auction lots are from house clearances, so it's very likely that the previous owner was a similar age to my mother. That is to say; they either grew up during the World War II, or their mothers had lived through it. The zip and the press studs are reminders of a different age, with a very different approach to clothing.

Most sewists, especially those with an interest in vintage dressmaking, are familiar with old buttons and the idea of a 'button box': indeed it formed the basis of this book on women's lives in the twentieth century. I love using old buttons whenever possible, as they really add a touch of authenticity to a vintage-style garment. These buttons are from a dress I had when I was little. They have made their way from Mum's button box to mine, and hopefully will find a new home on a dress or blouse one day.

Buttons from the late 60s or early 70s

However it wasn't just buttons which were kept. Zips, press studs, and hooks and eyes were all snipped off worn-out clothing, and stored in workboxes until they were needed again. The clothing itself went into the rag-bag, and was used whenever a cloth was needed for cleaning jobs.

It was often a long time before clothes were deemed to have reached the ragbag stage, though. Mending, both of clothing and items such as sheets and tablecloths, was a regular task. Kay Smallshaw's 1949 book How to Run Your Home Without Help devotes a whole chapter to the subject. While acknowledging that it can be a tedious job, she asks, "what man doesn't expect his wife to take it in her stride?", and provides instructions on darning, patching, and repairing household linens and shirts. Every old workbox which I have come across has contained a darning mushroom, and one also had a large collection of darning wools.

You can never have too many darning mushrooms

Darning wools in a variety of shades

(Full disclosure: At this point I should admit that, much to the bemusement of several of my friends, I do darn thick tights when they develop a hole in the toe. It isn't even to save money: rather that I hate the idea of throwing out something which is 99% perfectly fine, just for the sake of a problem which can be easily be fixed, and a repair which won't show anyway.)

Darning is one thing, but I'm not entirely convinced by the claims of this 'invisible' mending kit. It consists of thick woven fabric patches, in black and dark blue, with some sort of adhesive on one side. It could be used either to anchor a patch of matching material into place, or to hold the edges of a tear together. While I can see how it could work on suits, raincoats and umbrellas, the claim that it is equally suitable for silks and satins seems unlikely.

Works on everything, from umbrellas to satin

From clues I have found, either in the workboxes themselves or in other items in the lot, it is apparent that these women were not necessarily re-using zips or mending clothing due to financial constraints. In the film Brief Encounter, set in the late 1930s, the heroine Laura is depicted mending clothing in the evening. Elsewhere in the film it is clear that she lives a comfortable middle-class life, complete with a maid.

Laura (Celia Johnson) with her mending

Like me with my darning, mending and re-use seems to have just been the natural thing to do, because anything else would be unduly wasteful. Even after rationing had ended, clothing was a resurce to be used carefully; not worn once or twice and then thrown away.

I should make it quite clear that it isn't for a minute the intention of this post to suggest that everything was better in the past. There are many things which I believe have greatly improved: ranging from healthcare and (some) technology to social attitudes. But when I see these examples of the thriftiness and care of the generations of sewists who came before me, I can't help wondering if we have lost an attitude which was worth keeping.

* - Sadly I don't have an image of this. I had snipped the press studs off the fabric, and put them in my 'press stud box', before I thought about this post. Old habits die hard!

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