Sunday, September 6, 2020

Weekend Review: The Standard Book of Sewing (1947)

The Standard Book of Sewing / Drucella Lowrie
Garden City, NY: Nelson Doubleday, c1947.
237 p.
I'm starting off this month's weekend reviews with a charmer: this 1947 guide to home sewing, which has pretty much everything you need to know in it. And who is it for? Well, everyone, really.

It was a joy to read this book -- full of 40s advice that is surprisingly current today (at least some of it) and lots of delightful illustrations too. I love the things covered in this small book; it ranges widely and I imagine was very useful to women setting up their sewing in the past. I found some good tips for today, as well! 

There are 14 chapters, starting with Sewing Equipment and Elementary sewing (covering basic stitches and techniques), and then moving to Practice Sewing, projects for rank beginners to get the skills down before moving on. In the introduction, there is something I haven't seen in other books of this kind -- a quick discussion of how your sewing space should be set up. Lowrie recommends that you have a space to leave your sewing machine and materials up and available so that you will sew more often and easily (doesn't that sound like something we hear on blogs today?). There is a very organized plan shared for this, but in 1947 they were definitely less focused on consumption and stash, as the space is very small and tidy. 

There is then a section in the middle on patterns -- how to use them, how to select them (and this is where the retro attitude comes through, with advice on how to select the right pattern for body shape and age), how to measure yourself, and an interesting inclusion of thinking practically about your lifestyle and location to choose the right patterns for your sewing. This is followed by a chapter of fabrics; different kinds with their properties and uses -- though of course in 1947 there weren't many of our everyday knit and performance fabrics we use now. There is advice on which fabrics suit which styles, with, again, a discussion of size and age in regard to clothing style -- but also fabrics that suit times of day and occasions. This middle section of the book finishes with a short chapter on colour; theory as well as matching colours suitably to age, size and style. 

Then the book really gets into the Dressmaking part of things, with a long section on sewing for yourself, covering the preparation of fabric and pattern, fitting, construction details and finishing touches. This starts with a quick nod to "Your Attitude to Sewing". I think we can still agree with Lowrie on this part! 

The style is succinct; she is giving an overview, with enough information and detail that someone who is vaguely familiar with sewing but hasn't done much can follow along and teach themselves. It is to the point and covers many areas of sewing. I really enjoyed seeing all the techniques that were considered modern and chic in 1947.

There are also chapters that follow on sewing for children and basic tailoring, I assume because the expectation was that a housewife would be sewing for her entire family. An additional short chapter briefly suggests ideas for items that can be usefully sewn for the home itself, many using scraps. 

But an element of this book that I think sewists today might be really interested in is the focus on renewing and maintaining your wardrobe to make it last, both functionally and stylistically. There are three chapters, Dress Decoration, Restyling and Remaking, and Miscellaneous Sewing, which all focus in some way on home sewing sustainability. 

Dress Decoration goes over ways to personalize your wardrobe through embroidery, applique, smocking, or trimming - whether ready made or made yourself. While this isn't necessarily about sustainability, these techniques can be used to personalize your wardrobe to make it reflect you better and also to freshen up older clothes if you want to change things up and get more wear out of an old dress. Replacing trims, adding embroidery, or refashioning with new panels could extend the usefulness of a dress you already have, or help to refashion a thrifted one. 

The chapter on Restyling and Remaking goes into this concept in more detail, talking about these kinds of restyling ideas and things like lengthening or shortening hems and sleeves, caring for your clothes and all sorts of darning or mending ideas. Lowrie does warn a sewist to do what is basically a cost-benefit analysis before embarking on remaking projects, though.

The book closes with a quick look at Miscellaneous Sewing -- ideas to use your scraps, from quilts with your basic cottons to ideas like braided rugs or table mats using your dressweight scraps. Fancy fabrics like velvets or silks can be used to make hats or bags, other pieces can go into children's accessories or doll clothes. She has many ideas to inspire a frugal sewist! 

You can probably tell that I really enjoyed this book. The 40s style, the illustrations and the surprising relevance of much (not all) of it was entertaining and even useful. I've discovered that Drucella Lowrie also published a book in the 50s called "Restyling your Hats" which I am sure has much of the same flavour as this one. If I ever come across it in my thrift store travels I'll be sure to pick it up too, even though I don't wear hats often and only own a handful. Her approach to sewing is too irresistible to pass by. If you get a chance to read this one, give it a try. Definitely a flavour of the past about it, but lots of practical and thrifty advice alongside of a focus on women sewing for themselves. Recommended :)


  1. I absolutely love your posts: the content, your style...everything. I wanted to send this to you, but I can't for the life of me find my scan of a "war time" do it yourself dress pattern in one of the April 1943 Life Magazines. A complicated dress--lots of pieces and fitting. With your library skills you might be able to find it.

    1. Ooh, sounds cool! Research brain is now on the job ;)


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