My grandmother Rose had to raise her family through the difficult years of the Great Depression and then WWII. Her sewing and creativity abilities kept her family clothed during these hard years.
The following piece was written by my Mother about her mother – Rose Uelmen Meyer.
The Treadle Sewing Machine
by Jeannette Meyer
When I see my mother in my memories I often visualize her sewing on her old treadle sewing machine that stood near the east window in the dining room.
When a very small child, I often lay near her chair as she sewed. I’d watch her feet move the treadle, sometimes fast, sometimes slow, sometimes in perfect rhythm. I admired the fancy wrought iron legs of the machine and tried to figure out what the design was. When I was older I realized that all the fancy design work really spelled the word “Singer”.
Singer was a good name for it. My mother really could make it sing and all the clothes she created from it made me sing many times.
Mother was an excellent seamstress. She could sew anything from the finest broadcloth to fur. Her sewing was a work of art. She must have spent a lot of time while doing tedious chores dreaming of the next design for a daughter’s dress.
Mother was an early riser and often found it was the only time she could find the solitude necessary to do the stitching of garments. She could make most anything if she set her mind to it.
During high school and college years was when I most appreciated her skill with the needle. There was practically no money to spend on clothes during this time and what little we did have we used to buy shoes. (Mother had not figured out a way to make those.) There wasn’t enough money in the budget to buy material. That didn’t stop my mother. An aunt lived in Milwaukee who had many wealthy friends who discarded their clothes after one season of wear. She collected them and brought them to my mother. They were kept in a big boxes in a spare bedroom upstairs, alone with the pieces of lace, buttons etc.
Each spring and fall my mother would go through the boxes with my sisters, Gert and Bunny and me. Edith was too young for this. Mother knew what each of us needed. As we sorted through the various garments we would tell mother which ones we liked. If it was suitable for the garment we needed and there was adequate material, she would okay our choices. Other times she would tell us what she could make from a garment in such a way as we could visualize before it was made.
We carried what we needed downstairs to the dining room. She equipped each of us with a sharp razor blade and a scissor with instructions to rip apart the seams.
After ripping and piecing, my mother somehow turned these pieces into clothes we were proud to wear. (I remember her saying in her later years and long after she had more money that she would still rather make something over than to start with a new piece of material. It must have been the challenge and creativity of it.)
Over the years my Mom made my Dad’s shirts, all her children’s clothes, drapes, curtains, pillows, Halloween costumes etc. Even my wedding dress and veil and my sister’s wedding dress were made on the treadle sewing machine.
When I got older I would do the housework while she sewed. The one drawback was all the sewing, fitting and ripping created a lot of lint which floated around the living room, and settling in every nick and cranny. Once in a while,we girls would complain about the messy dining room. My mother remarked, “Girls you can either sew or have an immaculate home, but you can’t have both.” It didn’t seem to hurt us, all our friends came by to see us just as often as to the houses of anyone else.
One of my most dearly loved coats was one she made while I was in college. Everyone that year was wearing stylish princess seamed coats of navy with white collars. My mom went to town and came home with a navy hounds tooth check for my coat. I was horrified and I cried and cried like an 8-year-old. How could I wear a hounds-tooth check coat when everyone about me was wearing a navy one? This did not move my mother one bit. She kept showing me the pattern she had brought from which to cut it. I had to admit it was a stunning design but it wasn’t navy blue.I cried some more. She told me not to fret, anyone could have a navy blue coat. I would be the only one with a hounds-tooth check. I cried more as she patiently explained that the best dressed people did not follow a fad but developed their own style. She assured me that my coat would always look good and no one would know what year it was bought because I would not look like I was wearing last years model. I finally dried my tears as I knew she couldn’t take the fabric back. I made up my mind I would wear it but hate it each time I did.
During the following week she cut and stitched and fitted until the coat had been completed. I was amazed. I looked in the mirror and saw that my mother had been right on every count. It was truly a beautiful coat. The next week when I wore it tom my college classes all my classmates gathered around to compliment me on my coat. One by one it passed among them to be tried on and modeled. I felt very smug when I realized no one looked as good in it as I did because it fitted my frame to a T. I learned a big lesson that day. To this day I find it hard to shop for clothes and know they don’t fit me as well as if they were made for me alone.
One year for Christmas she gave me a six gored wool skirt she make out of a huge women’s coat. I loved it. I was so thin and tiny and it looked so good on me. She also made me a pink batiste blouse from an another discarded dress. I appreciated this because I know how she labored to do this. She got up in the morning before anyone else arose to make these things as surprise gifts for me. I can’t go on and mention the many things she made me. She even made me a fur hat and muff.
And, just think of all those wonderful pajamas and doll clothes she made for all the grandchildren!
My Mom made some of the most beautiful clothes I remember wearing. I know the talent was passed on. I have a new Singer sewing machine. The next time I sew something I will bring these memories to mind as I create something so many years later. Grandmother to mother to daughter. What a loving memory. Thank you Margaret, for sharing this story.
Jean Campana Sent from my iPad
Margaret, such a great story to pass on to my children that remember Grandma.
Thank you. I will always remember how happy we were to receive her box each Christmas. We always knew what are gift would be. New Pj’s or a nightgown. But we loved them never the less.
My Mom and Gert also made we kids gorgeous clothes. I too, learned to sew and I use to do it a lot. But for some time now I prefer to put my creativity toward other crafts. But I think we all got her eye for design and color. I know mine came from going with my Mom to all those endless fabric counters and imagining how the fabric could be made up into a beautiful garment. I don’t think I ever had any night clothes that weren’t made by Grandma until I was in late HS.