Golden Age of Sewing

Judith Heitkemper (Cimino). Photo by J. Allen Hawkins.
Judith Heitkemper (Cimino) models her home-made elegant pink cotton duster (coat) which won first prize in the Pasadena Singer Junior Dressmaking (Senior Division, ages 14-17). Photography by J. Allen Hawkins, courtesy of Judith Cimino.

From house dresses to haute couture, women in the 1950s used their sewing skills to create smart wardrobes that reflected fashion influences from Paris to Hollywood. Renowned designers such as Lanvin, Schiaparelli, and Givenchy licensed their names and elegant designs to pattern companies that produced hundreds of stylish patterns for home sewers. Chic fashions from New York and Hollywood designers added to the excitement of sewing as well. Skilled seamstresses enjoyed the thrill of selecting elegant, sophisticated fabrics, trims and notions to create a customized garment reflecting designer styling…at a fraction of the cost of the real thing!

The “Golden Age of Sewing” in the 1950s and 1960s evolved thanks to some nineteenth century innovations. First, of course, was the introduction of Isaac Singer’s easy-to-use home sewing machine introduced in 1853. His machine could sew 900 stitches per minute, a great improvement over the 40 stitches per minute an accomplished professional seamstress could achieve. Suddenly women no longer had to construct an entire garment by hand and sewing became much more efficient, and probably more fun. Costly at $10, the Singer Company introduced installment purchasing plans as well as accepting trade-in machines. Their sales soared.

Singer sewing machine lithograph
“All nations use Singer Sewing machines,” J. Ottmann Lith. Co., New York, 1892. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsca-09488.

The next innovation that facilitated home sewing was the paper pattern. Introduced in 1854 by Ellen Curtis Demorist (a milliner by trade), women now had a printed pattern that simplified cutting out fabric and constructing garments. In 1863 Ebenezer Butterick introduced the first graded – sized – pattern for sewing different sizes of garments. Initially just for children’s clothing, by 1866 he introduced graded patterns for women. In 1873 he began publishing The Delineator, a fashion magazine that publicized his patterns along with the latest Paris fashions. By the early 1900s, Butterick patterns were sold in illustrated envelopes with printed directions for making the garment.

Butterick pattern, circa 1950s
Butterick pattern #7647, circa 1950s. Courtesy of Judith Cimino.

In the early 1900s stylish, inexpensive clothing became readily available in department stores and interest in home sewing waned for several decades. During the Depression women mended and “spruced up” clothing, making do with what they had. The motto during the War years was “Make do and mend to save buying new”. Although clothing was readily available, the quality diminished and prices increased. The “pencil silhouette” was the norm as excess fabric in clothing design was discouraged, e. g. straight skirts vs full skirts; eliminating ruffles, pleats and gathers. When the war ended women celebrated with the “New Look” introduced in 1947 by Christian Dior: a wasp waist and full skirt, often using yards of fabric.

New look dress. Photo by Aaron Gil.
On display in Fabulous Fashion is this 1950s velvet trimmed skirt and top that epitomize Dior’s New Look. Photo by Aaron Gil, www.fotonuova.com (83.37.1a,b)

Interest in sewing exploded again as women’s roles shifted from war work back to the home. Prosperity and consumerism defined the 1950s as the country returned to work. Following the subdued, slim-line clothing of the war years, the fashions of the Fifties featured tight bodices, slim waistlines and full skirts, celebrating the abundance of fabric once again available. Women flocked to fabric stores, eagerly perusing pattern books for the latest chic fashions to create inexpensively at home. Luxurious as well as practical wash-and-wear fabrics were the basis of many stylish wardrobes. Creative sewers were able to turn a dress and jacket into multiple outfits with the addition of interchangeable collars, cuffs, bows and other accessories. The Golden Age of Sewing was in full swing!

advertisement for the Singer Dressmaking Contest, 1955
Page from the scrapbook of Judith Heitkemper showing the advertisement for the Singer Dressmaking Contest, 1955. Image courtesy of Judith Cimino.

In our exhibit, Fabulous Fashion – Decades of Change: 1890, 1920, 1950, we are fortunate to have the scrapbook documenting the success of one young home seamstress. In 1955 Judith Heitkemper (Cimino) won first prize in the Pasadena Singer Junior Dressmaking (Senior Division, ages 14-17) Contest with her elegant pink cotton duster (coat) made from Butterick pattern 7647 and pink gingham dress made from McCall’s pattern 3260. Simplified sewing techniques and the new capabilities of sewing machines enabled Judith to make this stylish, prize-winning outfit.

Judith made her dress and coat on a Model 221 Featherweight sewing machine, similar to that on display in our exhibit. Roberta Bryant (Dumas) purchased this Featherweight Model 221 and Folding Utility Table (Model 312) in April of 1957 for $188.32. The “221” fit into the Folding Utility Table which had a removable insert. When not used for sewing, this 30” x 30” collapsible birch veneer table could be used for card playing or for informal dining.

Sewhandy electric portable sewing machine
Sewhandy electric portable sewing machine (Featherweight Model 221) with folding utility table (Model 312), 1957. Image courtesy of Roberta Dumas.

From the early days of plain patterns with no instructions, hand sewing and treadle sewing machines to today’s detailed patterns and sophisticated computerized sewing machines, a fashionista’s ability to create a customized, wardrobe informed by designer trends has never been easier.

By Susan Stevens

Ms. Stevens is a co-curator of the exhibition Fabulous Fashion, Decades of Change – 1890s, 1920s, & 1950s.