Exponent II Classics: The Dress

Vol. 11, No. 4 (Summer 1985)
Ruth Dickson
Salt Lake City, Utah

It was two days before the high school Christmas dance and, according to my daughter, EVERYONE was getting a new dress.  She had shopped for weeks for the perfect outfit, with and without friends, with and without me, but unsuccessfully.  Here it was, two days before, and still no dress.

I’ve been to every store I can think of,” she said, “except one, and I hear things are really expensive there.”

We decided to try, anyway.  And there is was: the perfect dress!  Perfect color, style, fit, everything—except the price: $220.  She and I both knew that was out of the question.

As we left the store, she said, “Mom, I know you could make a dress like that one—easy.”

I was not so sure, but I was flattered enough to let her talk me into the fabric store, into a very complicated wedding dress pattern with an underskirt, and lots and lots of headaches.  The cloth, pattern, zipper, linings, and thread all came to $53.49—more than every dress that she had tried on except, of course, THE dress.  We weren’t saving a cent, and I still had at least two full days of constant sewing ahead.  I didn’t sleep well that night and was weary before I dusted off the sewing machine the next morning.

As I cute out and pinned and sewed and pressed, it brought back memories of my own mother’s sewing.  I remembered falling asleep at night to the whirr of my mother’s knee-operated Singer as she sewed into the wee hours.  I was told that, as a toddler, my mother would ask what I would like her to bring me from downtown and I would reply, “Terial.”  I remembered standing on a chair while, with pins in her mouth, she leveled the wooden yardstick against my leg to even a hem.  I remembered feeling the prick of some of the pins still in the hem as I walked out the door, removing basting stitches as I sat wearing the dress in church, or having threads hanging down my legs at the dance.

My brother often said that when he got married there would be no sewing in his home.  He wasn’t going to have any pattern pieces on the table or basting threads on the end of the ironing board or pins here and there on the floor.  After only one month of marriage, he bought his new non-sewing bride a sewing machine, which she never learned to thread, but which came in handy when he made his daughters costumes for Halloween or the school play, mended ski pants, repaired the curtains, or adjusted the hem on his wife’s dresses.

Now, as I basted the ruffles on my daughter’s Christmas dress, I realized what this creative process meant to me.  In spite of the difficult pattern and confusing instruction and no time for other things, there was a spirit of camaraderie, a cooperation by everyone, a feeling of togetherness.   My daughter fixed dinner for the family; my husband did the dishes; and afterward, my daughter said, “I’m going to stay home tonight and help you sew.”  She gathered the neckline while I pinned the skirt, and we talked and joked.  She said, “You know, Mom, since this is a wedding dress patter, if I have to get married in a hurry, we’ll have the dress already made.”  I wasn’t comforted.

Making the dress didn’t save us any money, and frankly, it really didn’t look exactly like the $220 store dress.  I doubt if she will wear it much, and I hope not soon as a wedding dress, but it brought us a gift that no credit card can buy.

I love how the family transforms this project from “one more thing mom has to do” to a communal effort.   Do you have stories about spectacular feats of sewing?  Do share!

Want to see more awesome vintage patterns?  Click here.


EmilyCC works for a national non-profit and lives in Phoenix, Arizona with her spouse and three children. She is a former editor of Exponent II and a founding blogger at The Exponent.

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12 Responses

  1. makakona says:

    i loved this! my husband bought non-sewing me a sewing machine early in our marriage… and then used it to hem his own pants, sew his own uniforms, and so on. when i finally figured it out myself, i was hooked!

    my girls always called it “snowing” and my “snowing machine.” even though they’re old enough to know better, they still call it that, just to indulge me. my #4’s pregnancy was spent non-stop sewing and she still loves the whir of the machine and will curl up in my lap and zone out while i sew. my 5yo is always on the lookout for “frabric” and will help with pins and sit and watch me sew all. day. long. i love the memories we’re building and can’t wait till they can sew themselves.

  2. CatherineWO says:

    I know sewing isn’t for everyone, but it is something I’ve always enjoyed. Now that my children are all grown with families of their own the machine hardly ever comes out of the closet. However, this morning my six-year-old granddaughter came over for breakfast and brought with her two pair of jeans that are too short for her. By the time she gets home from school this afternoon I will have cut and hemmed them into shorts for summer play and she’ll feel my love every time she puts them on.
    I also have a memory of finishing the hem on a prom dress for my youngest daughter while she nervously hovered over me and her date waited patiently downstairs, entertained by her father. True bonding moments.

  3. EmilyCC says:

    makakona and CatherineWO, thanks for sharing your experiences!

    It makes me a little sad that I grew up with my mom sewing, but I never really learned, so it’ll be something my kids miss out on. Glad to know other kids won’t 🙂

  4. EM says:

    My mother was a voracious seamstress. Every year for Christmas and Easter she made a dress for each of us girls – all 6 of us. Needless to say each of us girls sew. My first major project was sewing my own wedding dress which was super modest – my girls laughed at it often. I’ve sewed everything from little girl’s briefs to grad dresses Now that i have triplet grand-girls I love to sew their Easter and Christmas dresses.

  5. I was just reminiscing about a time when my mother sewed me a dress at the very last minute. Everyone dressed up fancy for the New Year’s Eve Stake Dance. Being only fifteen, I didn’t have anything that I thought was fancy enough for the dance. Money was really tight so I also knew we couldn’t go out and buy one or even fabric & a pattern. I didn’t throw a teenage fit or anything, but my mom could tell how much I really wanted something new to wear.

    A few days before the dance she came to me with an old, floor length, pink dress of hers from the back of the closet, and a coupon for a pattern from the fabric store saying “If you don’t mind the pink, I think we can make you something pretty for the dance.”

    We picked out a pattern, I tore off a lace bib from one of my old, too-small dresses from the Gunne Sax outlet, and she made me really cute Jessica McClintock knock-off dress that I felt beautiful in.

    She was a wardrobe refashioner before refashioning was “cool”. She sacrificed time when she had little to spare. She is my sewing inspiration. I felt so much love in the things she made me and I hope my kids feel the same way about the things their mama makes them.

  6. Jessawhy says:

    My grandma, mother, and sister all sew. I even took sewing lessons (in exchange for babysitting) as a child. But, I still don’t sew.
    I don’t have a machine, which is a pretty lame excuse. I found one at a garage sale once, but decided not to buy it b/c I knew my mom would keep doing my sewing for me if I didn’t have one!

    Isn’t that terrible?

    But, I do have good memories of both my mom and grandma sewing for me. My grandma helped alter my wedding dress (down 4 sizes, which was no easy task) and I will always cherish those memories.

    Thanks for putting up this classic, Emily!

  7. Two of Three says:

    I’ve always thought of my sewing machine as something used for making quilts. Pleats, dart, pockets and zippers always seemed too overwhelming. But there was that one Halloween, years ago, when I asked my then 6 year old what she wanted to be. With a gleam in her eye, she thrust her barbie at me and shouted “THIS!”. The doll was from the animated version of Camelot, complete with tunic and tights. I took on the task and it still is my proudest sewing accomplishment. (Just to illustrate my complete lack of sewing knowledge, I have to admit that I layed her down on the fabric and cut around her little form. And it still turned out cute!)

  8. Bekah says:

    The first summer after my parents separated, my dad took us to his parent’s house in Hawaii. The day of my baptism, my grandmother asked me what I would wear after I was baptized. When she realized that I only had one dress, the white one I was to be baptized in, she quickly made a dress for me out of purple hawaiian fabric. The elastic on the puff sleeve bit into my arms, because there wasn’t enough time to fix it. My grandmother is dying now and that memory of her is so sweet to me.

  9. Margaret says:

    I learned to sew with my mother. She very cleverly enforced a rule that I could have as many doll clothes as I wanted– but I had to make them. One Christmas she and I made outfits for every doll in the house. It was a wonderful present for me and gave me skills many times since then.

    More recently, I finished the binding of a quilt for my mother on my sewing machine, which was a gift from my grandma when I was a teenager. This quilt was started by my grandma 3 years ago but she quickly progressed in dementia and couldn’t finish it. I took it up last fall, never having quilted before, and finished piecing and hand-quilting a queen-sized, quite complicated quilt. Of course it took many, many more hours than I had planned on. I wrapped it up, half-finished, for Christmas and then took it back and kept working on it January. Just a few weeks later, my grandma died. It has felt like an honor to finish her last quilt as a gift for my mother.

  10. Margaret says:

    Sorry– “skills I have used many times since then.”

  11. EmilyCC says:

    First off, does everyone know that we would LOVE stories like the ones that are being shared here in the comments for the Exponent II publication! Seriously, write them up and email them to exponentiieditor@gmail.com!

    EM, 12 dresses a year, right before the busiest holidays of the year? So impressive!

    This is Carrie, what a beautiful story. Thanks for sharing!

    Jessawhy, you can borrow my sewing machine. It’d be nice to see someone use it 🙂

    Two of Three, I bet your six year old was just in awe. How neat!

    Bekah, what a wonderful memory. I’m so glad you shared it, and send you and your grandma my thoughts and prayers.

    Margaret, ah! Another poignant story! Was your mother thrilled?

  12. Kelly Ann says:

    Emily, thank you for posting this. I love that it was written in 1985! Reminds me of my childhood ….

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