Wednesday, February 1, 2017


My fashion-forward mother in the '20s

When it comes to recycling clothing, I struggle a bit with cutting up a perfectly good garment. “Someone could use that,” says the angel on my right shoulder. “Come on!” says the devil on the left; “you own that garment and if you want it for the fabric, use it!”

I love the concept of reusing textiles, but Mother did not. She admitted that she wasn’t interested in remaking garments or recycling old fabric. She much preferred working with new, quality fabrics and moving on to the latest styles. The same was true of yarn.

That said, one summer when I was in high school, she assigned me to cut my grandmother’s nylon nightgowns into strips, and then she taught me to crochet those strips into a rug. We didn’t have a pattern. She just started with a basic oblong shape and calculated the increases I would need on the curves. I used up all the strips, and we had a small but pretty rug. Somehow it didn’t seem a fulfilling project. I wanted it to be larger, but we didn’t have more garments to cut into strips. I always saw that rug as a work in progress, but eventually, after I left home, Mother placed it beside my bed.

Nina Mae Saunders Portfors, 1886-1955
To me, the nightgown recycling project seemed to come out of the blue. Mother never said what prompted it and I didn’t ask. As I think about it, Grandpa Portfors would not allow Grandma’s clothes to be removed from the closet when she died in 1955, so when we cleaned out his house in 1965, perhaps she felt those nighties were too personal to donate to the local rummage sale. Clearly, she knew something about reusing fabric for a practical purpose, but why she assigned me to do the cutting and crocheting, I don’t know.

Grandma Ina, two generations older than Mother and not having her resources, did remake and reuse. She and her sisters brought variety into their lives by trading garments and scraps. Remember that Christmas of 1934 when Ina remade a dress for her niece Ruth and added a newly-made collar? Once she literally gave the dress off her back because she felt the color was right for a quilt that another niece (Edna) was making. I’m tired of it anyway,” she said. Ina doesn’t mention feed sack prints, so I’m not sure if she used those but once in a while, one of her children gave her new “yard goods” to make a dress.

Here I post a photo taken in June 1922 for your consideration. Note the plaid dresses worn by Shirley, Ethel, and Myrtle. I thought perhaps the fabric of Shirley's and Ethel's dresses might be the same, while Myrtle's is bit different, but I just can't say. I don't know if these were feed sacks or not. KW

Back row, l-r: Shirley, Vance, Irl, Ethel, Myrtle. Front, l-r: Ina & Jack Dobson, Pearl & Stanley.


Hallie said...

All of the fabrics look unique to this untrained eye.

Wouldn't feed sacks be too small for a dress? Did they just seam the sacks together to make large enough pieces?

Kathy said...

The fabrics might be unique. Your eye is as good as anyone else's.

I don't know how much fabric was in a feed/seed sack, but the farm wife certainly knew. They would calculate how many sacks they needed in order to make a certain garment and then perhaps send someone with "Pa" when he made the purchase. They could choose from various prints.

With the exception of Pearl, the Dobson girls weren't big. That would certainly help.

Chuck said...

I liked the story, but I thought Grandma Ina was one generation removed from Mom, not two. Am I wrong? Love You.

Kathy said...

Chuck -- I have delayed answering your question because I thought it might actually be a good subject for a post. For now, I'll just reply by saying a generation today is considered to be 25 years -- time for a mother to raise a child who then becomes a parent. Some years back, it was considered to be 20 years.

Grandma Ina was born in 1870 and Mother in 1909. With 40 years between them, that's two generations. By age, Grandma Ina was old enough to be Mother's grandmother.

Grandma Ina was 79 when I was born, hence by age she could have been my great-great grandmother. (In fact, I have been asked if she was not my great-grandmother instead of my grandmother.) Mother, being 39 when I was born, could have been my grandmother. Our eldest sister Harriet was 19 when I was born and thus old enough to be my mother and by experience, a generation older than I.

I think the intertwining of generations is fascinating. It influenced my upbringing and also my view of life today.