Early Home Courses for Dressmaking and MillineryAmbitious sewers learned advanced skills by mail
Mary Brooks Picken is widely known as the author of influential how-to books for home dressmakers, published from the late 1920s into the 1950s. But she made her mark earlier, as the founder of the Woman’s Institute of Domestic Arts & Sciences (WIDS), part of the International Correspondence Schools based in Scranton, Pennsylvania. From 1914 to 1938, the institute offered a comprehensive sewing education by mail.
The program consisted of dozens of booklets, each copiously illustrated with step-by-step instructions for everything from basic sewing to advanced tailoring, and a dizzying amount of information on millinery.
For a few dollars a month, a student received a packet of instruction booklets, supplies such as pattern paper and garment blocks, and answer sheets. When she had completed the exercises and a written exam, she sent her samples and exam to the institute to be graded. Successful completion of the lessons earned her a certificate. Students could also request personalized advice and help with their own sewing.
In addition to technical construction lessons, Picken offered courses on starting and running a dressmaking or millinery business, and on design and color analysis. In the days before the internet, the WIDS program made a thorough education in professional-level sewing accessible to a vast range of students. By the time Picken left the institute in 1925, she had created the largest women’s distance-learning program in the world. She built a curriculum—and a community—intended to empower her students through mastery of sewing. Today’s sewists may have many more educational resources, but we share the same spirit of creative camaraderie.
Carol J. Fresia is Threads’ editor. Photos: Mike Yamin