Monday, 1 July 2013

Vintage stories: Handmade 1950s patchwork skirt

For me, part of the great draw of vintage clothing is the stories behind them, all that history not only of the clothes themselves but of the people that wore them. Sometimes this is imagined and pieced together in my head - when I fall in love with a vintage item in a shop, I am deciphering when it dates from, imagining who might have worn it and what for, and even creating stories in my head of the experiences they had whilst wearing them. Perhaps I'm a little over-imaginative in that way! Other clothes are more intriguing - the ones where you do know the story and through them you feel you can make a connection with people of the past. The most common and often most moving occasions of this are usually through family 'hand me downs'.

1950s handmade silk patchwork dancing skirt

I was recently helping my mum sort through some old clothes, and she gave me an item from her own youth that gave me a special insight into her own youth, and also the life of her family. I had somehow never been shown this before, but it is her dancing skirt from the 1950s, when she was a teenager. It's beautiful in it's own way, but not in great condition, and the waist is so very tiny I could never fit into it! (my mum has exhorted me to put on more weight many times over the years, but I swear I was never as tiny as her!)

Triangular off cuts of silk ties

But what makes it that much more interesting than just another skirt a girl went dancing in in the fifties is the amount of effort that went into it's making. My mothers family was large but did not have much spare money. She had grown up during the war with a strong ethos of 'make do and mend', but my grandparents were very hands on, crafty folk anyway so I think it's fair to say they had that ethos even before the war (by mum learnt to knit before she can even remember, as everyone had to make a contribution). My grandfather had once owned a haberdashery shop and working with fabric is consistent in his story, and one of the little ways he made money was making and selling silk ties out of a range of fabulous patterned fabrics. And as nothing should be wasted, he painstakingly saved every little triangular off cut of silk.

My grandmother then took these little triangles and sewed them together into a patchwork of colourful patterned fabric. My mother saved all her pocket money up to buy some lining fabric and together they turned the patchwork into a colourful silk skirt for mum to wear to barn dances. (Later she also had a wonderful red net petticoat, sent as a gift by her sister from the USA, to wear under it. I have that petticoat as well but it has lost it's oomph over the years, so the pictures here show it with a modern petticoat)

patchwork fabric made from silk tie off cuts

The resulting item is a testament to my family history - people who lived through a depression and a world war, and through hard work and ingenuity with their hands got together the money to make ends meet but also never let anything go to waste.

I'll shortly be opening an Etsy shop selling vintage items and some of my handmade jewellery, and so I have been going through my collection deciding what I wish to sell. It's important to me that the things I sell are things that I would also love to buy, but on the other hand I've had to think very carefully about the things I would never sell. I think it is the items that have this strong individual history that I would hesitate to pass on, as their stories would be forgotten. A skirt like this (which is in any case not in good enough condition to sell), dresses that have been gifted or sold to me by friends which had belonged to their grandparents, and so on and so forth, are very much 'off limits' for sale. It may be odd to draw a line like that, but if I sell them, their stories would be lost. I think I could only ever pass those special items onto someone that I knew cared as much about their stories as I do.