Frugal Living: Design on a Budget

My mother could have had a career as a clothing designer had she not found words so attractive. When I was a little girl, she made almost all of her own clothes and most of mine.

Once each season she would buy a copy of Vogue and go through it to see what the designers were showing. This season I imagine she’d probably try to get me into the cute little number worn by Naomi Campbell.

Depending on the complexity of the garment Mother would either buy a pattern or make her own. We liked the Vogue patterns, but they were expensive so often we settled for McCall’s and Butterick. Sometimes the directions were a problem. Mother swore that they were translated from Japanese by someone with rudimentary English language skills. I remember once I tried to follow the pattern directions for a pleated skirt. Then Mother tried. Finally she just put the thing together the way she thought it should go, and it came out looking better than the original design.

Mother often created her own designs. She began with a concept that she sketched in pencil, ink or pastels, then she drew the pattern on newsprint. I never did understand how she managed to create the right number of pleats or to put the darts in the right place.

She bought fabric on sale at the local department store. Sometimes people gave her fabric. We had beautiful Nova Scotia plaid. It became a skirt that I wore for years. And I have a long skirt that we made when I was in college. Yes, it still fits! One of her friends bought the material on a trip to the islands. It’s a dramatic print with red and blue flowers. We cut it so that I wound up with birds of paradise on my backside.

Occasionally Mother would splurge on fabric. We both had dresses made from cotton prints by Marimekko. I’m not sure where she bought the material, though one of her friends may have brought it from New York. I know she never went to Finland to get it.

My favorite creation was a corduroy bathrobe in Black Watch plaid with a red satin lining that Mother made for me when I was a little girl. It fastened with gilt buttons that had started life on a military uniform from the Grand Army of the Republic. I had to model the robe for company, and everyone who saw it said it was the most elegant robe they had ever seen.

Among Mother’s signature outfits was a black velvet suit that she made to wear to the “hommage” celebrating Rex Stout’s seventy-fifth birthday at Sardi’s. The suit had a straight skirt that fell just below the knee and a collarless box jacket trimmed with gold braid and set off by a sleeveless top, also handmade, of gold lamé.  I learned from that endeavor that one pins velvet with needles so the heads don’t dent the pile. When Mother created elegant garments like her Sardi’s suit, she sewed her own label into them: “created by YRTEP.”

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4 Responses to “Frugal Living: Design on a Budget”

  1. Reed Maroc Says:

    Hello! This post describing your mother through one facet of her life is mysteriously compelling, vaguely revealing about her beyond frugality and sewing, it really drew me in. I’m Rex Stout’s grandson, I remember the evening of his 75th birthday celebration at Sardi’s (though I had to stay home because I was 5, we lived with my grandparents and I recall my grandparents and mother dressing for it — the party was a surprise birthday party orchestrated by my grandmother), and I’m curious: who was your mother?

    Friendly regards,
    Reed Maroc

    • lizr128 Says:

      Oh, my, our whole family loved Nero and Archie and the orchids. In fact I quoted your grandfather in my memoir to the effect that he was aware that his subconscious mind was in charge. The rest of him just went along for the ride. (That’s a not very good paraphrase. If you want the real deal, I’ll dig it out.)
      My mom was Ann Petry. She’s most famous for The Street, a novel she wrote in 1946 that is still in print. She was secretary to the Authors Guild when your grandfather was president (I think). There’s a note in one of her journals about going to NYC in 1964 to help organize what has become the modern-day Guild.
      Thanks for your kind words about my post.
      Best,
      Liz Petry

  2. Betsy Says:

    I’ve always loved to sew! I have about a dozen or so quilts to my name from pillow covers to double-bed size! And I made my own clothes for many years because I was too large to find anything commercially that would flow over my girth without showing every lump and roll. One year I made all the women in the family square-necked, floor-length, smocked-bodice, flannel house dresses. And I sewed my left index finger to my wedding dress, breaking the needle off in the bone! I had been using an ancient Singer knee-press machine…one direction (forward), one speed (60 mph), and one stitch length (~100 per inch). God forbid you had to rip anything out! I have no time to sew as I would like these days, but I have bins of fabric in my attic. I am a firm believer that she who dies with the most fabric wins!

    • lizr128 Says:

      A woman after my own heart! I drove a sewing machine needle into my middle finger when I was eleven. Daddy rescued me, and I don’t remember much about it except being able to see the broken needle pressing up again my nail. (This should go under Yuck factor!)
      I. too, gave it up when I acquired Leo, my previous cat. The flashing needle and dangling thread were too great a temptation, and I began to look like I’d run my hands over a barbed wire fence. Now I wait till the current feral feline is asleep before I try to replace a button more mend a hem. Do miss the relaxation. My mom would probably have won your contest. She had a huge old trunk piled with all kinds of fabric and more stashed in the attic. I gave it to a friend who sewed, but I’ll bet that 12 years later she still hasn’t used all of it.
      More to you via email.

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