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Tuesday, 08 December 2009

My Favorite Garment

By Lyn Burnstine of The Lynamber Times

My mother was an exemplary seamstress and needle worker. She helped supplement the family’s income by sewing for other people in the Great Depression and later on. Even though we were always cash-poor, on a teacher’s salary supporting a family of five, my mother, sister and I always had beautiful clothes.

Some were made from hand-me-downs, skillfully re-worked; some were made from remnants from the fabric stores where my mother loved to shop. Many of my favorites of the dresses she made me were ones in which I had input: Mother would ask me what colors and designs I wanted and then make them – usually with no pattern, a legendary skill that skipped me and landed on my eldest daughter two generations later while she was still in her early teens.

My eighth-grade graduation dress, made of a delicate pink silk with lavender velvet ribbons woven through the lace trim, was an all-time favorite. Another was a prom gown designed by me, but crafted by my mother. It had a peach satin bodice with spaghetti straps, and a peach rayon full skirt under a light brown tulle overskirt.

We looked far and wide to find the perfect fabrics on sale. I have no photographs of either one, nor do I have any pictures of one of the first dresses I made, one that won 4-H prizes and got me a trip to the Illinois State Fair to model it.

I met and shook hands with the then-governor of California, Earl Warren, later to be Chief Justice of the U.S., and nearly fainted with excitement when I met Rex Allen and the Sons of the Pioneers.

I do, however, have a color photo – one of the first my then-photographer father took using the new Kodak color film – showing my sister wearing a dress that I have always remembered as mine. The picture surprised me because I would have sworn that my red-headed mother never dressed my red-headed sister in pink - only brown-haired me.

I would also have sworn that it was made new for me, but I guess I just always knew it would eventually get handed down, so I claimed it in my heart.

The dress was a masterpiece of smocking: the blouse was pale, shell pink in a delicately crepe-y fabric with short puffed sleeves and a rounded neckline. The sleeves and neck were edged with rows of light blue smocking, making them slightly ruffled. The attached skirt was a light blue silky material with darker blue smocking that cinched in the waist. (Although it felt like silk, it must have been rayon: those were the WW II years when all the silk went for making parachutes; there weren’t even any silk stockings for purchase anywhere.)

My mother continued to make smocked dresses for my two little girls each Easter - true masterpieces that I wished I had saved for the next two generations of sister sets in my family two granddaughters and four great-granddaughters.


The fact that the dress was second-hand wouldn’t have bothered me at all. My being the younger sister and the recipient of hand-me-downs may have set the stage for my later-in-life passion for thrift shops and garage sales.

There came a time when I outgrew my sister and her hand-me-downs; the roles were sometimes reversed in our adult lives. She, too, loves second-hand clothing stores. She, too, receives many compliments on her assembled outfits, as do I.

It is an economic necessity for both of us at this stage of our lives, but even if I were to win the lottery (and you can’t win if you never play), I think I’d still haunt the thrift shops for the likes of the L.L. Bean jacket, the Liz Claiborne coat, the Pierre Cardin sweater and the hand-painted silk jacket from a well-known Vermont artist - all bought for pennies or handed down from a neighbor.

[INVITATION: All elders, 50 and older, are welcome to submit stories for this blog. They can be fiction, non-fiction, poetry, memoir, etc. Instructions for submitting are here.]

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 02:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post


My mother and grandmother made many beautiful matching outfits for me and my two sisters. And I also have the photos to prove it. With smocking. Poodle skirts too.

Lucky all of us reading your piece, it brought me right back to the 40s and trying on clothes that a wonderful woman, Rose Young, our airshaft neighbor on the west side of Manhattan, passed along to me and my year younger sister Judy thru the year.
I too felt it was mine, never thought hand me down..I too love thrift shops & truth be told, thought that "Sally's" was a department store on 46th & llth Ave until I was l4/l5..it was the Salvation Army's giant warehouse of furniture, toys, clothes, dishes, etc..my younger sister, Patti, can hardly wait for my boxes to come from nyc to Idaho filled with too small, often unworn, clothes..her church ladies all ask..is that from New York..just a variation on "hand-me-downs." She sent me to this site, so I hope she reads this..
Thanks for the memories..Mary Follett

What a delightful piece! It makes me wistful for a time when women didn't go out in public in their pajamas. (See, Ronnie is not the only crabby old lady in the world.)

I love the photo of you and your sister in your smocked dresses. One of my favorite dresses had smoking and I love it.

I was not a gifted seamstress, but did make most of my daughter's clothes until she was in High School and wanted 'store bought' dresses. I guess I just wasn't creative enough or lacked the touch that kept her clothes from screaming, "Mom made it."

At my house, gramma made it. :) Or, remade it. Yes, hand me downs from my 12 year older cousin left me with memories of someone elses dolls and scratchy wool swim suits. Today, not only do I volunteer at a thrift store, I shop at others with great enthusiasm.

Thanks for all your lovely comments--actually that picture is of my daughters wearing their grandmother's wonderful creations, circa 1961.

Oh, and yes, I remember those awful wool bathing suits.

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