"Make It Yourself"

by Sarah A. Gordon

Home Sewing, Gender, and Culture, 1890–1930

Interview with Helen Schwimmer

Helen Schwimmer: From when I was a little girl I used to sew all the time. When I was a little girl I used to be the child in the neighborhood who did the sewing. We used to have a little sewing club, even with the boys.

Sarah Gordon: Oh, really?

Helen Schwimmer: Even with the boys. And I can still remember buying… We used to be able to buy little small dolls, for twenty-five cents apiece, even with china heads on them, with eyes that moved. And we used to buy those dolls and I would make dresses for them. And I remember making that. But I never seemed to get much with my sewing because my mother would never let me sew on her sewing machine as I grew up.

Sarah Gordon: Why not?

Helen Schwimmer: Because she said I would break the sewing machine. This was coming on toward the, the, World War One, and the Depression, during the Depression. But I remember then, finally she let me sew on one. I was fourteen. I made my first dress.

Sarah Gordon: When you were fourteen. You made that on a sewing machine?

Helen Schwimmer: On the sewing machine.

Sarah Gordon: And you didn’t break it?

Helen Schwimmer: No, I didn’t break it! I have memories of ripping out all the time, though. Now I don’t mind ripping out. I rip out mostly weaving and knitting, but I don’t mind it. But at that time it used to kill me as a child. And my mother would never tell me, “just leave it go.” It had to be done right.

Sarah Gordon: So she wanted, she liked… a stickler for details.

Helen Schwimmer: Yes. Yes. That’s how I started in sewing. So that when I had five daughters I’d sew. I was well able to buy clothes until the second depression that came during World War Two, because that was a bad time for everybody, too.

Sarah Gordon: So you bought clothes before then?

Helen Schwimmer: I used to sew clothes and sew the same dress for three little girls, you know, at a time. They would be all dressed, dressed alike. I never sewed for myself. I used to buy my own clothes.

Sarah Gordon: Oh, that’s interesting. Why, do you think?

Helen Schwimmer: I never was satisfied with them. Even now. Although I can make things over for myself.