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

Charles Dickens

I got very fed up with reading theology and churchy stuff. I don’t read popular literature much, and the “Plain” theme novels available at the library were, to my mind, rather poorly written and not very accurate. I absolutely cannot bring myself to read anything that is salacious in some way (i.e. most modern fiction). Which makes me sound like a prude, but really, I just find other people’s love lives way too boring, I mean, there is only so much you can do with falling in love, experiencing lust and the act itself. It is monotonous.

I wanted something to read that wasn’t boring and poorly written, and might have some redeeming social value. So I pulled down some Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend and Bleak House. These are not the big names in Dickens literature, but they are complex books with a good deal of commentary on poverty, government and law. Of course, there are the huge numbers of overlapping and interwoven coincidences and collisions of fate, which keeps the book moving while being somewhat implausible. It is just that sort of plot device that modern fiction fights so hard against, but once I get over the “so obvious” thoughts and suspend disbelief, I really enjoy the action.

I had forgotten the subplot in Bleak House about the obsessed mother who diligently tries to raise a scheme for growing coffee in Africa to benefit the natives of some fictional territory, while her own household goes to ruin and her husband is declared bankrupt. It was just too evocative of some of the nonprofit schemes we have seen over the years, and of the people who are motivated to run them. And the descriptions of the household itself, and the attempt of cleaning it before the wedding of the eldest daughter, were a little too realistic, if one has ever helped in such circumstances! It motivated me to clean out my refrigerator and cupboards.

Dickens was more than a little cynical about charity and greed. This is the most human side of him, even when the characters are a bit tedious, or too good, too beautiful, too sweet to be true. (His rough-hewn and villainous characters are more believable than the good-hearted, naturally refined ones, but maybe I’m a little cynical myself.)

 The horrors of poverty and ignorance he portrays have not gone away, despite the legislation and goodwill of nations and churches. We hide our slums and ghettoes better, our poor are less likely to beg on the streets, we blame the poor themselves (just as in Dickens’ day) but the suffering is still there. Our own schemes of “live simply so that others may simply live” don’t seem to be working. Maybe, like the reformers of Charles Dickens’ novels, we are just giving this lip service, while sitting down to a good dinner every night.