books · sewing

Sewing by the Book

From These Happy Golden Years, Laura Ingalls Wilder (published 1943)

As soon as possible, Pa came hurrying back. He lifted the blanket away, and there stood a shining new sewing machine.
“Oh Charles!” Ma gasped.
“Yes, Caroline, it is yours!” Pa said proudly. “There’ll be a lot of extra sewing, with Mary coming home and Laura going away, and I thought you’d need some help.”
“But how could you?” Ma asked, touching the shiny black iron of the machine’s legs.
“I had to sell the cow anyway, Caroline; there wouldn’t be room in the stable next winter unless I did,” Pa explained. “Now if you will help me unload this thing, we will take its cover off and see how it looks.”
A long time ago, Laura remembered, a tone in Ma’s voice when she spoke of a sewing machine had made Laura think that she wanted one. Pa had remembered that.
He took the endgate out of the wagon, and he and Ma and Laura lifted the sewing machine carefully down and carried it into the sitting room, while Carrie and Grace hovered around excitedly. Then Pa lifted the box-cover of the machine and they stood in silent admiration.
“It is beautiful,” Ma said at last, “and what a help it will be. I can hardly wait to use it.” But this was late Saturday afternoon. The sewing machine must stand still over Sunday.

Next week Ma studied the instruction book and learned to run the machine, and the next Saturday she and Laura began to work on the lawn dress. The lawn was so crisp and fresh, the colors so dainty, that Laura was afraid to cut it lest she make a mistake, but Ma had made so many dresses that she did not hesitate. She took Laura’s measurements; then, with her dressmaker’s chart, she made the pattern for the waist, and fearlessly cut the lawn.
They made the waist tight-fitting, with two clusters of tucks down the back, and two in front. Down the center of the front, between the tucks, tiny, white pearl buttons buttoned the waist. The collar was a straight, upstanding fold of the lawn; the sleeves were long, gathered at the shoulders and close-fitting to the wrist, finished with a hem the width of the tucks.
The skirt was gathered very full all round into a narrow waistband, which buttoned over the bottom of the waist to secure them from slipping apart. All down the full skirt, tucks went around and around it, spaced evenly a little way apart, and beneath the bottom tuck was a full-gathered ruffle four inches wide that just touched Laura’s shoe tips.
This dress was finished when Almanzo brought Laura home the last Friday in May.
“Oh, it is pretty, Ma!” Laura said when she saw it. “All those tucks are so even, and stitched so beautifully.”
“I declare,” said Ma, “I don’t know how we ever got along without that sewing machine. It does the work so easily; tucking is no trouble at all. And such beautiful stitching. The best of seamstresses could not possibly equal it by hand.”

This moment takes place in May of 1885, when Laura is 18 years old.

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