BY LILY KONGSLIEN
Special to the Star Journal
In my very earliest recollections I see my mother sitting at her old treadle sewing machine, pumping vigorously as she worked on clothing for one of us children. Hers was not a famous Singer sewing machine (I cannot recall the name printed on it), but I do remember that she bought it from the Sears Roebuck & Co. catalog. With this wonderful machine she could sew fine material or heavy wool. The only expense she had to keep it in good running condition was to purchase thread of various colors and packages of needles; Dad kept it oiled regularly. There was a round leather belt around the top hand-wheel and the larger bottom wheel which made the needle go up and down when she worked the treadle. My father replaced or repaired this belt as necessary. This sewing machine hardly ever stood idle, even for a day. I seem to remember her at the machine mostly in the evenings after her day’s work was done. She had a gasoline lamp nearby which gave off a bright white light (kerosene lamps gave a rather yellow dull light, and she did not sew by the light of kerosene lamps).
Many of her creations were made from used material which was washed, taken apart and pressed. She made all of our curtains, mostly out of white flour sacks, which were bleached to remove the printing. When printed and flowered flower sacks came into being, we took advantage of this, and when we bought a sack of flour both my mother and I were right there to pick out the “pattern” we needed. Not all material was reused. The Sears Roebuck catalog carried pages of all kinds of material, and each pictured sample was carefully studied before the order was made out.
On each side of the old sewing machine were three drawers, in them were kept buttons, bias tape, rick rack, snaps, hooks, ribbons and zippers. One drawer contained a great variety of spools of colored and black and white thread. Each winter sheets, pillow cases, blankets and quilts were made. Felt pieces were available at the paper mill, and these she sewed together to make full-size blankets – finishing the seams and edges with a blanket stitch. Patching and mending was done on the old machine, but there were times it was done by hand, depending on the article to be patched or the placement of the patch on the garment. Patterns for clothing were precious and were traded among neighbors. I remember when the knickerbockers for little girls were popular, and we had to borrow a pattern. My mother could make some of her own patterns, but this garment was totally new, and she did need a store-bought pattern.
No pieces of material were ever thrown away; they were all used in some way or another. Small colorful pieces were great for the doll clothes. Other pieces went into a “scrap” bag and were later sorted and many used for quilt-making. When the material was so worn it could not be used for clothing or quilts, it was torn into squares and used as dust cloths or scrub clothes in the house, and many found their way to the barn or fox yard. One peculiar use of long cotton strips was for tying the growing tomato plants to a support. The soft cotton did not cut into the stem, and still was strong in all kinds of weather. Kite flying in the spring of the year required lots of strips of cloth for the long tails (which really did help the kites to fly high).
Although this was not done on the sewing machine, I can still see my mother sitting in her rocker and “running up” old woolen garments and rolling the wool into balls to be used for re-knitting socks, mittens or scarves. Her fingers were never still, she was either knitting, crocheting, tatting edges onto hankies, or making one of her famous pillows to give to a friend. And then there were the more mundane duties of patching and darning. She used a “darning egg” for socks, but some patching was done by hand. Darning needles were always handy in her pin cushion, and she had several curved upholstery needles for pillow repair and working on the large stuffed chairs in the parlor.
Mother also saved all scraps of woolen cloth, which was cut into scallops (about 2 inches long and 1 ½ inches wide) and then finished around the outer edges with the blanket stitch. A variety of colors of wool was used for the scallops. Then, these scallops were sewn (using the old treadle sewing machine) onto a heavy backing. This was done by beginning in the middle and continuing around and around, much in the manner of fish scales. It was called the Scandinavian scallop rug.
As I think of my mother’s busy hands and feet (on the treadle sewing machine) I am reminded of her love of beautiful things which she shared with her family, and the talent and desire to create with her hands (and feet). In days past, our mothers did wonders with what they had available and clothed us not only in pretty clothes, but in their love. Happy memories.