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I am a mother, a grandmother, and a teacher. But whatever happens in my life, I keep sewing. I have worked as a political communicator and now as a teacher in my formal life. I have also written extensively on sewing. I have been a frequent contributor and contributing editor of Threads magazine and the Australian magazine Dressmaking with Stitches. My book Sew.. the garment-making book of knowledge was published in May 2018 and is available for pre-order from Amazon


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Saturday, February 9, 2019

On hibernation and life

It is deep winter here in Nova Scotia.

Icy and cold outside. Daisy walks with boots on and a down coat.

This season, which is one of great therapeutic value in many ways (Canadians tell themselves things like this a lot), has made me think of how wise nature is. 

The smart ones fly away like the Monarch butterflies who go 20,000 miles to Mexico and back, or like the V shaped flocks we see going away every fall and coming back every spring.

But lately I have been thinking of the hibernators, the bears, skunks, bees, and bats who eat up, hole up, and snuggle up till it is reasonable to come out.

For this human hibernation has been a whole lot of sewing.

This year we put off our annual trip south to be able to spend more time with my daughter. But next week we are going to be leaving to go down to Texas to visit one son in Austin, and from there a flight to Berkeley to visit the other son, my daughter-in-law, and new granddaughter. I admit to you I am feeling anxious about leaving my daughter who has a a few new challenges lately, but she has promised to be truthful about how she is feeling when I am away. And planes have been invented right? And I really need to spend some time with my other kids.

On the way home we will be stopping in Tulsa where I will be teaching at the Vintage Sewing Adventure. I have corresponded with the organizers a lot and really like them so decided this was something I wanted to do. Plus the conference will have an association with the Sewing Machine Museum and I really want to see that a lot.

Now those of you who know me know I am not exactly a vintage styled dresser. The style thing which I love, but not compatible with my current life.

BTW anyone else watching Mrs. Maisel on Prime? 

The clothes alone are worth it. Although I have to say that it is not entirely believable. Why would Joel at any time not want to work in his dad's garment district factory? This part makes no sense. I love the shots of the bolts of fabric and the machines. He has a chance to work in the garment district in its heyday. I wish when I talk to the screen that he could hear me.

Back on topic.

So even though I am not a vintage dresser I have become recently very interested in something I am calling Heritage Sewing. To me this is the technical side of garment construction that utilizes methods and thinking that previous sewing women used.

I have been doing a lot of research on this and this is my big discovery.

There are a lot of really cool techniques that have been lost! 

It has been my big discovery that in the mass production/simplification/commercialization of all aspects of the sewing industry that some intriguing ideas have been sort of been forgotten.

I have decided to do a little work on sharing as much of that as I can.

I think this is important for these reasons:

1. So many of these methods are so effective and easy. Some of these ideas would make modern sewing better and easier. Somethings are meant to be passed down generation to generation. What happens when a few generations stop doing that?

2. Cultural responsibility. This is women's history. I am talking about housewife and home dressing maker sewing here. History is made by who kept the records. That's why so much of boring history is all about politics and men. Those were just the folks who were writing it down.

I want to acknowledge the work and creativity of those who were unrecorded - specifically women who worked alone in their homes and made wonderful things with their hands for themselves and those they loved.

I want their afternoons remembered and honoured. I want their work and thinking to be passed on in some way in this relay of life.

Does that make sense?

So I decided to go to Tulsa and teach a session on vintage sewing machine attachments as a starting place in this.

Here's why.

So many of these crazy, bizarre looking attachments do an amazing job of completely aceing some of sewing's more tricky jobs. 

A few of these attachments of their modern pseudo versions I have used, some like modern binders and narrow hemmers, but I have to tell you the vintage attachments just work so, so much better. As in hands off, relax and watch it work better. 

No struggle.

Now one of my sons and I were talking about this. He works in the tech industry in San Francisco and understands the theme of our time - that all things technical are just advancing and advancing. That this year's model is better than last years.

I get this. 

I am not a nostalgia type, good old days person of the sake of needing to just slow it all down. I am not a collector or a period dresser, that is something I respect but just not me.

But I know a good brain when I see its fruits in action. 

And I have been seeing some really smart engineering and thinking in evidence as I have watched some of these old 50-60 year old attachments (which BTW with and adapter foot will fit on and work on modern machines) manipulate fabric and place it exquisitely, effectively under the needle.

This has been a light bulb moment.

What about the concept of lost technology?

What if a better way to do some things had been developed and then forgotten?

What about that?

So this is what I am going to do.

Right now I have been making my samples up for Tulsa and putting together class notes. 

I have decided to turn these notes into a little how-to booklet that I will share after I have done the workshop.

Do you think anyone would be interested in something like that?

Tomorrow I am going to do a long post on blogging and what I am wondering about that.

In the meantime here are some shots of my vintage attachment using samples:

More later.


Linda said...

Yes, please. I would love to be able to buy your booklet or book on old sewing machine attachments. I have one, but it doesn’t cover very many. I was just rereading it last night wishing there were something more detailed.

Unknown said...

Barbara, I want anything you write. I have a nice Singer 201 with a box full of feet that I have not opened. Enjoy your travels, and may your dear daughter’s health remain stable.

SMP said...

Oh, this looks SO interesting... I’m in for a post workshop booklet!

bbarna said...

Yes, I would be interested. I learned to sew on a tredle machine, and I have several sets of attachments and buttonholers here somewhere. Sewing skipped a generation at our house and my mother was not interested, but I was pleased to find that her mom was happy to help me learn to sew. My grandmother and her mother were accomplished dressmakers, and I am proud to pass on my knowledge now to my granddaughter, who has expressed an interest. Your project sounds like a great idea.
Barb i

MakeitAnyWear said...

I have a featherweight with a lot of it's attachments. One day, in my free time ha, I will sit down and figure out using them all.
I do always used the buttonholer to make buttonholes though. The best.

Katrina Blanchalle said...

You might be surprised at how vast the audience is for a booklet like that. Not only the vintage sewing machine enthusiasts, but those who want to use the older, more functional attachments on newer machines. We all want the information!

Moosiemoose said...

First, enjoy your travels and time with family. A new grand baby is such a gift. Second, yes, yes yes, please on the book. Many of us have older machines with these attachments. I have my mom's first machine the Singer Featherweight and I totally agree with you on how much better some of the attachments are (those i could figure out). Third, would it be possible for you to video your Tulsa class and play it back in small parts on your blog?
Happy and safe travels. Jean

Jypsea Rose said...

Yes! Times a thousand! I own an old Singer Featherweight with all the attachements, and an old Singer 301. I would love to know how those old attachments work. I made a flannel shirt with the Featherweight, the buttonhole attachement just made me happy! Put out the booklet..I promise I will buy it. I bought you latest book and enjoy it immensely.

Have you found Bernadette Banner on YouTube yet? Adorable young woman, (and building quite the following), whose speciality is using historical methods in her sewing, sometimes the entire garment sewn by hand. She is mesmerizing. Her latest video is a trip to the NY Garment district for fabric to recreate a Lady Sherlock costume.

Her YouTube videos and your blog are my sewing heaven.

RickeyJ said...

Very interesting piece...I would be interested in reading more regarding the attachments. I don't have a Singer and don't know if you consider the older Kenmore's vintage or not. I'm particularly interested in the old buttonhole attachments for the Kenmore -- I can't figure out how these things work yet.

Elle said...


sallygardens said...

Very interested! I have a bag full of old singer attachements and am very curious about what exactly they are. It would be nice if I could use them with one of my machines.

Ros said...

Yes yes yes!! You are so right about lost arts. We are lucky that whilst a lot of crafts have skipped a generation, thankfully it is only one and the skills can still be passed on but if we don't recognise the risks now and work to catalogue and record them then we could lose them forever.

kitty0313 said...

When I turned 21 many decades ago (!!) my dear mother traded in her beloved Singer treadle sewing machine - with ALL its attachments - to buy me a portable electric machine that I could take back and forwards to College many hundreds of miles away. Oh how I now lament that deeply generous act. At the time, we both assumed that newer would be "improved". I grieve her beautiful machine, and most of all the wonderful, useful, undervalued attachments. I really look forward to your report on these wonderful gadgets!

Sarah Wale said...

Thank you for another fascinating insight into your world and family as well, of course, your sewing. Firstly, go to visit your family and don;t worry about your daughter; I wouldn't mind betting the farm that it is what she wants you to do. She has promised to let you know how she is and she means it. How do I know? 1)If you brought her up, she;s been well raised and will have as much care for the rest of the family as you do. 2) I've been there.
I would love to learn more about old techniques which have been lost - I am sure there are many and we can all benefit from them. I would love to buy your booklet when you have finished it.
A thought about the old attachments and fitting them to newer machines: Would someone like your tech-able son be able to invent a modern version that would work with today's fast machines? He has obviously been brought up around sewing machines and 'sewists' so would have an idea of what was required... or Mum could guide him, could she not?!
Enjoy your travels and your visit to the sewing machine museum - I'm green with envy but it's a long way from New Zealand (where we also have beautiful monarch butterflies). Let me know if you are ever planning to come to this wonderful part of the world!

Sarah Wale said...

Me again! I forgot to say that if you love fabrics and costumes, you will love a TV series called Miss Fisher investigates. I hope you can get it in Canada but here's a link to a website which will give you some ideas:

AC said...

I would be very interested in info on vintage attachments. Thanks!

Enjoy your travels and time with family.

Angela said...

Oh yes - that would be fascinating!!

Kathy Zachry said...

Hi, Barbara. I’m hoping to come hear you speak in Tulsa as I live just an hour and a half away. I don’t have a vintage machine but vividly remember my grandmother’s White sewing machine I learned on. I was fascinated by the box of attachments, which I don’t remember her using, and played with them a lot. The first buttonhole picture in your post is gorgeous, much prettier than my fancy machine makes! Safe travels!


Barbara said...

Kat I will be doing a talk on the Sunday morning and a book signing on the Saturday night too. Love to meet you.

Janet C said...

I would love to read whatever you have time to provide. I fondly think of those of us with similar interests. as “sewing nerds.”


Anonymous said...

First, oh yes I hear you on needing time with all the kids while also wanting to be there for your daughter and her family. I'm currently struggling with a need to be 2 places at once.

Second, having learned to sew by someone who was intimidated by the sewing machine technology I seem to have a lot of helpless feelings to over come - the voice that says "don't do that, you'll break something...." every time I try an adjustment or attachment. SO a booklet about attachments would be lovely.

Enjoy your travels and your home comings. Love to Daisy.


Kansas Sky said...

Thinking of your daughter and wish you peace as you begin your travels. Thank you for showing us these amazing samples of neat stuff. Like others, so eager to learn from you!

ElleC said...

Yes yes and yes. I have two old White machines, one treadle and one an electric with very dodgy wiring. Anyway both have some really interesting attachments which of course don't fit any of my working machines. One I have never seen anywhere else, it is a hemstitching foot, I want to rewire a machine just so I can play with it. Seems reasonable to spends lots of $$ to get a machine running so I can play with a cool foot for 2 hours. Yup.

Have a great vacation.

Nicola said...

I love real people history when we go away I always look for folk museums as I feel more connected to them than huge beautiful houses. When I was in the smokey mountains the highlight was the tiny folk museum which resonated more than the big plantations. At home in the uk I’m happier in the kitchens of the big houses than in the beautiful rooms Above stairs. I would love to read a book on vintage techniques. Did you see a stitch in time by the bbc where the used vintage sewing techniques to recreate a outfit from a painting. Hope your daughter is doing ok x

Cynthia said...

I would love a booklet like that! I am a huge fan for all the old attachments and even try to find excuses to use them.

BarbaraShowell said...

I love all my old attachments. I hate to think of how many have been thrown out. Maybe your effort could save some from the can and land fills.

Mary C. said...

What a timely article! I just started reading your blog and a few weeks ago from an older neighbor who was moving away. I got 2 old sewing machines in cabinets. One is a Singer treadle, and the other is a White Rotary. The Singer has a puzzle box with attachments, some I have never seen before. I would like to learn how to use them.

Kathie said...

Good morning!
Here's to a wonderful cross-country jaunt and time spent in Tulsa. Let me add my name to the list of those who are looking forward to whatever you put together about vintage attachments. I am heading up to my sewing room in a few minutes to pull out my Featherweight and its attachments to inventory what I have ther. A couple years ago, I figured out how to use the ruffler/pleather and used it so much I broke it! I was able to get a new one on line that works very well. I made a LOT of ruffled and pleated trims that year! Can wait to find out how to use all the other pieces that came in that sweet black bos!

ms.helen said...

This sounds so interesting. Looking forward to reading all about the attachments. You are a wealth of knowledge, thank you for sharing. Safe travels and hope your daughter will be fine.

jbettyb said...

Let me join the throng of folks who would like your attachment booklet. I have an older Singer that belonged to my late mother-in-law and it has several odd-looking attachments, but no hints as to what they are or how to use them.

The Quilted B said...

Oh yes yes yes PLEASE! I have several vintage machines and am always amazed when I see the attachments. Necessity was the mother of invention, certainly. My mother was a remarkable seamstress, first out of necessity but it became her passion. I too would love to celebrate these women who sewed and created, unnoticed in their homes. Have a wonderful trip and great teaching experience. Prayers for your daughter.

Anonymous said...

Yes, please publish a guide to attachments. A tutorial on how to attach them to modern machines would be very helpful. Apparently, too many of us thought newer would be better and disposed of our old machines. My Babylock makes terrible buttonholes.

mirycreek said...

yes please!! would love more details on using the old singer attachments
ive tried but need more instructions!

Colleen said...

Just in case you are counting numbers to judge the worth of producing this booklet add me to the list. I have three vintage Singers and a bag of attachments that modify the presser foot. I remember the cam-type attachment that turned out exquisite button holes on my mother's machine and it was how I learned but after too many years to count, I have forgotten how to use it. I have never replicated the finished look on my modern Pfaff.

Alison G said...

I'm sure you've got the message by now, but it's a definite yes to any writing on using those old attachments! I have several old machines which sew a nicer seam than my 'modern' (1960s) one, and a drawer full of attachments I don't really know what to do with. My favourite thing is to copy a vintage garment, which teaches me a HUGE amount about lost skills and techniques.The best insight yet was the reason for an odd seam across a pair of 1940s cami-knickers: it made the pattern fit exactly into a yard square of fabric.

Sally said...

Would love to read anything you so graciously offer us. I can feel the envy rising for some of those attachments though! Have safe travels, snuggle with the baby and your daughter is a phone call/plane hop away.


Jodie said...

Hi Barb - I'm a fellow Canadian out in Alberta - we are moving through a Polar Vortex and I'm telling ya, -38 with wind chill is just a bit tough some days. I'm glad you are getting away for a little warm for a bit. The vintage/old technology sounds super interesting. I have my grandmother's singer (one of the first electrified) and I have used some of the feet for current projects. I'm currently working up to dress pants and want to learn/know/practice an easier way to do welt pockets. Any ideas?

Tina K said...

Wonderful. I have a 1971 Sears Kenmore with a big box of attachments that I have no idea how to use. Bring it on! In addition, my lovely neighbor is giving me a 1969 Singer (with cams) still in the box. More to learn, and a wonderful addition to the sewing machine fleet.

beckster said...

Sorry to hear that your daughter is having new challenges, Barbara. She is a trooper! I have been thinking about those changes in pants to wide legs - NO! I am not a slave to fashion, so I won't be wearing anything that is so unflattering. See? I think about those things you write. Yes, I want anything that you are willing to share about sewing, anything. Have a wonderful trip when you go and enjoy yourself in the warmer temps.

JustGail said...

I have several sets of vintage attachments, but rarely use them. Primarily because the machines they go to have scary dangerous wiring (on my to-fix list!). I have a book, geared toward Singer Featherweight users(? - I'll need to check when I get home) that's pretty good. Also, there are instructions for various attachments online, for free, mostly on sites related to vintage machines.

I do NOT mean for this to be discouraging you from writing a new book! Sometimes I suspect people have a hard time looking past dated drawings to see how to apply techniques to today's fashions. A book with updated examples of fabrics and styles would be excellent!

Kay said...

"I have decided to turn these notes into a little how-to booklet that I will share after I have done the workshop.

Do you think anyone would be interested in something like that?"

OMG YES! My mom made most of my clothes when I was a child. I learned to sew in my early teens and made many of my own clothes in Jr High and HS. But learned from a 6 week unit in Jr Hi Home Ec so I knew way more than my mom (who had a BS in Home Ec). By the time I was old enough to realize she might have something to teach me I was living on the other side of the US and she was in her final illness. It would mean so much to me to be able to learn about the kinds of tools and techniques she may have used to make all those wonderful outfits for which I dictated (I use the word "dictate" advisedly) the style elements.

My mom sewed for us as an economic matter, sizing matter (we were little so the clothes that fit us were too young stylistically), and for me because I was so picky.

Cornelia said...

Yes, I would buy a booklet on different feet. I would interested in knowing what kind of modern machines they could attach to.

L said...

You're in NS?! May I email you questions about the area?

~Grace and Peace said...

Yes, please! I would be very interested in that booklet as well.

I just started listening to the Clothes Making Mavens podcast and you mentioned (January 2018) that you came across the books about women engineers, etc. who were also sewists. I wonder if you remember the title? My grandmother was a seamstress - and that is how we ended up in the United States.

I am now starting to sew and just purchased your book on Amazon. I hope you can come down to San Diego on one of your trips.

Thank you for sharing your wisdom. I hope to be as good as my grandmother.

Leigh said...

I'd get it! I have a couple old sewing machines with all attachments, but haven't used them. I'd love to see them in action.