A recent “gift” sent me yet again down Memory Lane, when my sister presented me with parts of the eight 4-H sewing projects I completed in the 1960’s. I have no idea where the aprons and blouses I made back then might be; but the threads of a brown shirtwaist and a reversible vest unearthed in my parents’ Ford Road farmhouse have amazingly survived almost sixty years – intact!
I made the dress as a School Dress project during my fourth year and later coordinated a denim skirt and yellow shirt with the striped vest to complete a Spectator Sports outfit. The garments, now worn out in fabric and style, nonetheless conjured up a slew of treasured recollections.
My four sisters and I took almost every sewing project offered during those years, thus increasing our limited wardrobes. My dad’s farming income could scarcely clothe five daughters in the styles then popular – and certainly not at all in the manner to which their children and grandchildren are today accustomed. I am almost positive that any one of my nieces or grandnieces has already worn more different outfits than I have owned in my entire seven decades!
We always displayed and modeled our outfits at the county fair – and then wore them frequently; my School Dress shows ample signs of being laundered and ironed. I still remember how cute my youngest sister looked in her Raggedy Ann/Raggedy Andy smock over jeans, and my Tennessee sister recalls wearing her sleeveless, two-piece Dress Up Dress for the Fair Queen interviews.
Our projects followed what I still consider an educationally-sound progression of sewing lessons. I first learned to make tiny hand stitches by hemming a tea towel and then practiced machine stitching on a pink drawstring apron. The next year I made a black-and-white blouse before moving on to My First Outfit: a collarless, sleeveless, gathered dress with matching belt in a pale lavender-and-silver plaid.
I continued to learn: my School Dress required plackets, set-in sleeves, and buttonholes. By then, I had caught sewing fever and flipped through pattern books during the “off-season” in search of the following summer’s outfit. I am still proud of my duster and nightgown in Lounging Clothes and my last outfit in the Complete Costume category: a lined raincoat with coordinating boots and umbrella, all of which I took with me to college.
Each of us fondly recalls a favorite ensemble. My Oxford sister felt stylish in a Lounging Clothes jumpsuit with a batik robe. My West Virginia sister and I agree that her teal skirt and vest with long-sleeved blouse for Spectator Sports was one of her best outfits. And my Urbana sister proudly remembers the gray wool Dress Up Dress with pleats she made from a Vogue pattern, a company known for uber-fashionable styles and uber-complicated construction techniques.
I myself had a love-hate relationship with my favorite Dress Up Dress: a red wool jumper and pink whipped cream blouse with a bow – and way too many buttons. I have never completely recovered from all the seams I had to rip out and resew – and the several times I threw the whole thing clear across the room!
In retrospect, however, the best part of 4-H sewing for me was that we learned the art of it all from my mother. True, we belonged to different clubs with different advisors, all good seamstresses willing to share their skills.
But we mostly sewed at home on our two Singer machines, under the guidance of our mother. I have previously enumerated her needle-and-thread talents in crocheting, knitting, tatting, embroidery and sewing, skills each of us girls took into adulthood for quilts, afghans, wall hangings, children’s clothing – and a yearly Halloween costume for the grand dog!
Year after year, booths in the old 4-H building of my youth were crowded with every possible garment. There were also displays by cooking clubs along with gardening, electricity, and furniture refinishing projects. But it was mostly the Valley Maidens and the Nifty Needlers and all the rest who put on a superb show of Champaign County fashion.
A high point of every fair in those days were the Garment Revues. Yes, revues – in the plural: My First Outfits and School Dresses on Wednesday and everyone else on Thursday. We modeled our creations before sewing awards were announced and judges chose the best models for each show. In my book, the top model designation ranked just below Fair Queen and Girl-of-the-Year.
It is sad now for this traditionalist and former 4-H sewer that the current sewing program is a shadow of its former self, from 300 outfits in 1964 to just forty this year. And instead of two mornings of modeling behind the 4-H building, this year’s garment revue has already taken place at the Gloria, a beautiful venue but without the special atmosphere of the county fair.
This diminished participation understandably stems from a variety of factors: fewer people these days need to make their own clothing; fewer moms have sewing skills to pass down to children; I believe the state program has not made badly-needed updates to attract today’s potential sewers.
But my salvaged dress and vest remind and encourage me of firm family bonds between generations plus the power of 4-H to accomplish A.B. Graham’s original purpose: To Learn By Doing. It certainly worked for my sisters and me.
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.