A 1940s Sewing Book Can Teach Us About the PastVintage volumes deliver more than technique know-how.
One of the virtues of sewing our own clothes is the way it connects us to the past. While still a popular pastime, sewing is, for most Americans, more a pleasurable hobby than an economic necessity. We live in an era where, for better or for worse, globalization has made clothing affordable to most, particularly in the West. Today, the majority of us struggle with too much clothing in our closets rather than too little, hence the popularity of declutter celebrities like Marie Kondo and reality TV shows like Hoarders. Digging through vintage sewing books written in the first half of the last century reveals very different attitudes about the value of clothing, as well as the contribution sewing could make to the home economy.
A glimpse into bygone days
Vintage sewing books are sold on eBay, at used bookstores, flea markets, and thrift stores. Some are rare, most are not. I find them fascinating not only for the detailed sewing instruction they provide, but also as a window onto an earlier time. Like classic Hollywood films from the 1930s and ’40s, old sewing books are at once familiar and strange: The people in them are recognizable, but their values and behaviors are often foreign.
A typical example of a vintage sewing book, from my own collection, is The Complete Book of Sewing by Constance Talbot (Book Presentations, 1943). Like all sewing books of the period, this one teaches machine sewing and a wide range of hand-sewing techniques—which today are often limited to couture-level sewing books. It includes instructions for creating embellishments and adorning with decorative details like corded piping and button loops, as well as for making fashion accessories like hats, gloves, and handbags.
Paradoxically, Talbot’s emphasis, according to the book’s forward, is on saving time: She writes that…