Realizing my readership is mostly male, I hesitate to post the following. But don’t tune out on me, guys. Or at least not instantly. Don’t assume from the topic that this post is too girly for your macho selves. Think of this like finding a box of old gun or car parts or fishing tackle, all from one guy’s garage.
Behind one of the local thrift stores are boxes of freebies — loaded up every morning, then tossed out at the end of every day. These are newly donated items that are almost trash, but Chris the manager hopes might be of use to somebody so the store won’t have to pay landfill fees on them.
I rarely find anything worthwhile there. But Monday morning, there was a box of sewing patterns. With pattern prices having gone insanely high — I mean high enough to make a century of inflation look like a hiccup by percentages of increase — I’ll take what I can scrounge.
I delved into the box hoping I might find a pattern or two worth altering to suit me. Instead, I found history — and the tale of a woman’s life. I carried the entire box — 40 patterns and a couple of related books — home to keep.
Her name was Mildred. She began sewing her own clothes (or at least started saving her sewing patterns) during World War II:
There are no dates, but military styling (note — shoulder pads!) + knee-length skirts = WWII.
She was Mildred Boyle* then and lived in Seattle. I know this from notes on the patterns or from envelopes that contain patterns she ordered from a newspaper column. Some of the patterns have the newspaper item stapled to them.
Was Boyle a maiden or married name? I don’t know. Maybe Mildred was the young daughter of a Boeing worker, maybe the young wife of a sailor. The name Mildred sounds old even for the war years. Anyhow, during the war, she made lots of her own clothes.
Then the war ended:
That was the only pattern on which I spotted a copyright date. But I didn’t need it. In 1947, the year of this pattern, Christian Dior decreed the “New Look.” The global fashion world rushed to obey. Lines softened. Skirts widened voluptuously. Hemlines, released from wartime austerity and fabric shortages, plunged. Seemingly within minutes, nobody, but nobody, wore those short skirts any more.
Mildred continued sewing into the 1950s:
Somewhere along in there, she became Mildred Canning — or in more formal circumstances (as when sending for mail-order patterns), Mrs. Edwin Canning, Jr. If Boyle had been her maiden name, she married. If Boyle was a married name, she lost her husband in the war or (scandalously) divorced and hitched up with a new guy.
She didn’t sew a lot through the 50s. Maybe too busy as a wife and mother. But she picked back up again with verve in the “swingin’ sixties”:
Mildred’s early patterns were size 16, but that meant something different then than it does now. Those WWII 16s were roughly equivalent to today’s 12** — making the young Mildred either tall and well-proportioned or shorter and unfashionably stocky. But by the 1960s, she was using real modern size 16s — four inches bigger around. She’d expanded in 20 years. Several of the later patterns are hopefully labeled “slimline” or “pounds off” fashion. There was an occasional pattern in a slightly smaller size; a teenage daughter, maybe?
Eventually, Mildred left Seattle and moved to a non-fancy resort and retirement community on the coast. Her last patterns, with her handwritten notation of 1970, were from that town.
And from there … 49 years later … they ended up behind the local thrift store, in danger of being tossed into a dumpster at the end of the very day I discovered them.
What happened to Mildred between 1970, when she penciled the date on her last envelope, and 2019, when I carried her box of patterns home? No idea. I assume she’s dead now, or at the very least in a nursing home. Maybe someday I’ll read her obituary and learn a little more.
The patterns? Some will actually be useful; classic enough that I can adapt them for my needs. Others are just curios. But what wonderful curios they are, sketching a small part of 20th-century history and the small story of a life.
* Her name really was Mildred, but I’m changing the last names for the privacy of whatever family members still might be around.
** Though women must have been proportioned differently back then. The early patterns assume small busts, wide hips, compared with modern patterns built for more balanced bodies.