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Grandma Helen’s WWII-era lessons of making do with less are paying off today

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Grandma Helan and me. Photo courtesy of Nichole Schmitt
Grandma Helen and me. Photo courtesy of Nichole Schmitt

My grandma, Helen, was the only gal in town who maintained a pair of silk stockings throughout the entire duration of WWII. Any time those babies got a run, she’d take them to someone who had the skills and the tools to repair them. Silk became scarce during the war as Japanese imports stopped and all existing silk went to the service men for parachutes and bomber jackets.

Now, during a pandemic that many are likening to WWII, I find myself thinking about Grandma Helen. She would know exactly how to hunker down and tough it out. She’d spend this time creating something out of nothing, whether that be dinner or a new dress.

Grandma knew how to “make do” and do with less. She carefully maintained her nicer possessions, mending and repairing as needed. This is the grandma who taught me how to darn socks, how to make lace out of spool of thread, and how to make quilts from cast-off clothing. She even had a technique for making bed sheets live a second life. When sheets wore thin in the middle, Grandma cut them down the center, flip the outer edges towards the inside, and then stitch a nice, tidy seam down the center. Voila! New sheets!

To honor her memory, I’ve made a hat and a matching purse from an old jacket and a shirt. Check it out.

Photo courtesy of Nichole Schmitt
Photo courtesy of Nichole Schmitt
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I’m sad that the more affluent nations today have grown accustomed to their avid consumerism. This constant need to acquire more goods and stuff is causing the planet to suffer. The fashion industry is said to be the second-most polluting industry on the planet. But now, during the worst pandemic since 1918, does anyone really care what styles and colors are coming next season? My apologies to those working in the fashion industry. I don’t mean to criticize. But, please have a look at the March 2020 edition of National Geographic. The cover photo features a model and a fashion designer standing in front of huge piles of discarded textiles. The message is: Upcycle old fabric by turning it into high fashion.

Just a few generations ago, “disposable fashion” hadn’t been invented yet. Home economics was a standard course in high school. Moms and grandmas taught kids to mend, sew, knit, crochet, embroider, cross-stitch, and so on. When children worked and played (instead of watching TV or playing video games all day), they wore their clothing out rather quickly. So, garments were patched and mended as much as possible.

Have you heard of flour sack dresses? During the Great Depression, desperate moms created cute kiddo clothing from cotton flour sacks. They were fashionable and economical. When the food companies learned of this trend, they started producing pretty prints on their flour and grain sacks. Some even provided instructions and patterns for things like aprons, tea towels, and baby dresses.

When I was a kid in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s, they still hadn’t invented “disposable fashion” yet. Because of the expense, I only got one “new” garment per year just before school started. I remember trying to keep it clean for as long as possible so that I could postpone washing it. That way I could retain its scent. I’d regularly smell my sleeves, enjoying that stiff, synthetic fragrance of the department store. It reminded me of shopping with mom, and feeling rich for a day. The rest of my clothes were hand-me-downs from cousins, or home-made by mom. In the last two weeks of August, mom was far too consumed by her sewing marathon to cook. So, we lived on peanut butter sandwiches and snacks from the garden.

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Unfortunately, in the 21st century, disposable fashion has become so cheap that it is no longer economically sensible to make your own clothing. Thus, the sewing skills that used to be a standard requirement of home-making, are now relegated to the world of hobbyists. Try pricing out the 5 yards of fabric needed to make a maxi-dress. It’s at least $8 to $16 per yard, depending on the type of fabric. Also consider the cost of your time – probably three evenings. Now compare that with a maxi dress from Wish for $12 or so.

Anyone who has made a garment by hand knows the real cost of clothing. It is time-consuming and requires skill. So, when we pay a disgustingly tiny amount for a garment made in Bangladesh, India, or Vietnam, you can be sure that the garment maker is grossly under-paid and over-worked. Furthermore, the surrounding neighborhood and water supply is polluted from the garment factory’s chemicals. To buy conscientious clothing today requires that we spend more than pocket change.

I don’t mean to romanticize the Depression era. I’ve read the Grapes of Wrath, so I know better. People suffered and starved. All I’m saying is that we, today, could learn from the skills that they developed out of necessity. We could choose to develop those skills. We could be more frugal, we could reuse, reclaim, and upcycle. I fear, however, that we may be forced into frugality soon, thanks to this pandemic. Being poor is hard work, and it can be very stressful. But certain penny-pinching techniques can bring some joy and luxury into an otherwise poverty-stricken phase of life.

I recently discovered that I can inexpensively purchase large amounts of fabric at Value Village or Goodwill in the form of sheets or curtains. This provides enough fabric to make a nice garment even cheaper than if I’d bought something similar from Wish. Recall how Scarlet O’Hara, after the Civil War, made a new dress from curtains? Mammy objected at first, but eventually she helped Scarlet stitch a gorgeous green velvet gown – by hand! Now, check this out. I made this suit jacket from a set of curtains bought at Value Village for $12.  I used a genuine antique pattern from the 1960’s that I’d inherited. And it’s tailored to fit my body precisely. The blouse was formerly a linen table cloth – Value Village, $7.

Photo courtesy of Nichole Schmitt
Photo courtesy of Nichole Schmitt
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Just before the libraries closed this month, I picked up a book called “Visible Mending”. It teaches how to repair garments in a very artistic way. Embroidery, patches, and embellishments are used to fix and cover blemishes. The results are beautiful. The old and worn and torn can become chic and cute and cutting-edge. Yes, upcycling is the latest thing on the runways.

During this global shutdown, is there anything in your closet that needs mending? Try fixing it up with pretty patches or a ruffle. Maybe a zig-zag or an applique? Right now, while factories are closed and cars are off the roads, the air pollution is noticeably reduced. Can we keep that ball rolling just a little bit longer by patching those jeans instead of replacing them as soon as the shops open again? My apologies to the economy, but those of us with lost or fading jobs won’t be able to afford new clothes any time soon.

So, I’ve made a jumper for my daughter using two of Daddy’s old dress shirts. I have a stack of my brother’s old jeans, from which I am making garden utility belts and aprons (to be sold on Etsy later). I’ve also mashed together an old dress and a T-shirt, combining them into a drop-waist number with ruffles at the knees and at the shoulders.

My other grandmother, Elna, was a Depression-era teen. However, she lived on a large homestead with plenty of food growing all around her. She hardly noticed the depression and never felt deprived. Elna didn’t have a pair of silk stockings when the War started. But that was no big deal. She and her pals simply faked the appearance of silk stockings by drawing a seam up the backs of their legs. We can fake it with style too. And, whatever skills we didn’t get from Grandma, we can surely get from YouTube.

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Nichole Schmitt
Nichole Schmitt
Nichole retired early from a technical career to stay home and raise children and vegetables. She enjoys feeding a large extended family using home-grown goodies and foraged foods.
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