Jenny Wren

The dolls' dressmaker

I am sewing doll clothes this end of week. This is another round of Amish dolls, and the dolls themselves will be sewn next week, after the muslin arrives in the mail from my friend Bernadette, who threw in odds and sods of fabric remnants, lace, notions and general sewing et cetera. I am as thrilled as if I were getting ten pounds of Godiva chocolate in the mail.

I have little choice in fabrics now.The nearest fabric store in Canada is two hours by gas-guzzling truck. I still do not have documents necessary to re-enter Canada, so traveling to Maine isn’t possible. My friend Milli shops in Presque Isle sometimes, but she says that prices are going up rapidly, so their expeditions to discount shopping are becoming less frequent. Wal-mart carries some fabric, but the price of pre-cut yardage of muslin is about the same as a nice cotton chintz, which makes it far from economical.

I sew with my aging and ancient Pfaff, circa 1965. It is all steel, and with a little coaxing and good sewing machine oil, it will run like a champ. I had to have a friend in Moncton buy needles for me, as they are no longer available locally. I find it hard to believe that so few people here sew. It used to be the cultural normative. Of course, clothes from the one big discount store are cheaper than sewing your own, but they are desperately poor in quality, and the result is everyone goes around in the same t-shirts and jeans/leggings/sweatpants. Mao couldn’t have asked more of the Chinese people under the old Communist regime. My Plain dresses, aprons and kapps look downright original.

The Chinese factory seamstresses whip out those discount clothes, earning pennies an hour. The skillful ones bead wedding dresses. Yes, those expensive, top of the line dresses are made in Asia. Beading, like basketry, can not be automated. It is tedious, eye-straining work.

One hundred and fifty years ago, Charles Dickens wrote about the seamstresses in England who turned out the exquisite, fine handwork so demanded by Victorian ladies. In Our Mutual Friend, the teenaged Jenny Wren, crippled by congenital disease, sews delicate dolls’ clothes for the children of the wealthy. She hobbles on crutches to view society’s beauties coming from the theatre or church, or riding in expensive habits on Rotten Row. Taking mental notes, she draws her designs of the current fashions and makes them up as doll clothes for her clients, everything from mourning dresses “for a doll what lost a canary bird” to elaborate evening wear.

Dickens evoked pity for these destitute women and children who took to sewing millinery, beaded bodices and slippers, and dolls’ wardrobes, by hand, often late into the night by candle light in order to make a meagre living. Few thought of the poor home-based workers who provided their finery. Nor do we – rather than make an effort to sew our own clothing, make our present wardrobe last, or buy clothing that is ethically produced, many prefer the quick turn-over and fads of cheap garments. These garments are often out of shape and unusable after a few months.

I wish home sewing would come back as a popular pursuit. It is economical – my handmade clothes last for years. I am not dependent on someone who has had to leave their rural home or distant town in order to relocate to a smog-covered city in order to make a bare living.

London Street, Victorian era


4 thoughts on “Jenny Wren

  1. Magdalena,

    This is a fantastic post! James 5: 1-6 anybody? I am not surprised that your 1965 Pfaf is still in good working order; made back when household apliances were made to last, and a lifetime guarantee meant a lifetime guarantee. We’ve lost so much.

    I pray fervently that your papers are sorted out soon so you can travel freely between the US and Canada. Beaurocracy is 99% of the time counterintuitive if not downright cruel.

    may you be richly and wonderfully blessed,


    • Immigration Canada has been very helpful. If I had a family emergency back in the USA, I wouldn’t doubt but I could cross and return. But just a shopping trip is a bit frivolous to risk being denied re-entry.

  2. Even when the US had a garment industry, conditions in the mills were just as bad as in the Chinese factories that churn out the cheap duds of today. And the Chinese women do not hand sew the beads on the wedding dresses and veiling. It’s glued, so said a gal I knew in Flagstaff when her veil arrived. She was shocked because half of them were off when she took it out of the shipping box.

    Please don’t give short shift to the lowly seamstress who works in the factories. There is a LOT of skill involved. Thirty years ago I had people turn their nose up at me because I was a seamstress and now, from the skills learned in those “hellholes” are holding me in good stead. No one knows how to sew anymore and are just amazed at someone who can. So I can ask and get $25/hr teaching sewing instruction.

    • I know that the less expensive dresses have glued beads, but the very expensive ones we see on the fashion programmes are handsewn. I had bought a secondhand bridal gown at a charity sale, and decided I didn’t like all the beading, so I put it in a warm bath and soaked off the superfluous beads. My grandmother and many of my family, and later my parishioners in my student church, worked in sewing factories in Maine, making men’s shirts and suits, and church vestments and paraments. The conditions in sewing factories one hundred years and until the time of unionization were deplorable everywhere – but shifting fashion changed the price people were willing to pay for clothing. I knew sewing factory workers in Honduras. Back in 1994, they were paid 25 cents an hour, and searched each evening before they left to make sure they weren’t stealing. The factory owners were Asian and found it cheaper to employ women in Central America than their native Korean workers back home. They would not hire anyone over the age of twenty-five as the work was physically too hard – I believe they had the women carrying bolts of material as well as sewing – and most workers left by the time they were thirty.

      Here in Canada, the Women’s Institute taught sewing, knitting, cooking and even weaving. The young women are not interested in keeping up the WI. My mother and grandmothers taught us to sew. Both my grandmothers were seamstresses and tailors, and my paternal grandfather had worked as a tailor until he took up printing.

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