IMG_3090First lesson: “At school one learns lots of good and useful things: one learns to correctly speak and write one’s mother tongue; one learns the history and geography of one’s country; one learns above all to know and love chores of all sorts that morality commands us.”P1090437So begins a 1919 French home economics book aimed at middle school girls. It was among the trove of treasures we found in various cupboards, cellars and attics of the apartments we renovated. P1090440It instructs in detail, well, everything. For example, how to set a table: “First, place a cotton cover on the table, over which you lay the tablecloth. This cover absorbs the noise caused by contact with utensils, and prevents glasses from breaking.”

“Then, you place the plates, leaving an interval of at least 60 centimeters between them. The guests shouldn’t bump elbows or feel restricted in their movements.”

I guess today we have the Internet for these kinds of details, though what’s out there is mostly about selling something.P1090438The treasure trove also contained portfolios done by the previous owner herself, on sewing, cutting (separate from sewing!) and layette. Girls were steered along a narrow path 75 years ago.

The ones related to sewing fascinated me. I grew up learning to sew. My mom made a lot of my clothes, very much like Ramona’s in Beverly Cleary’s books. I remember going to the fabric store and flipping through the pattern catalogs, where anything was possible. The suits I wore to my first post-college job I made myself. They were dreadful. And I HATE sewing. But while I might not enjoy it, it is useful to know. P1090415

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“Pieces on thick fabric”
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Cross-stitch.

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General notions of sewing. Necessary materials: thimble, two pairs of scissors, long needles (50mm) for thread, pins, tailor’s chalk…

P1090422P1090423P1090424I can’t sew without a pattern (unless it’s a simple rectangle, like curtains), just as I can’t play piano without sheet music. Sewing without a pattern–creating a pattern–is like composing music or at least like improvising jazz. I am in awe.P1090427P1090428

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How to make different kinds of sleeves.

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And then there’s the absolute worst: ironing.P1090425

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Instructions for ironing napkins, including folding.

Did you take home ec? I refused. I also refused to take typing, upsetting my mother to no end, though I eventually took it in summer school and now can type as fast as a person talks. I’m still not sure an entire year-long class on sewing, ironing and baby care is a good use of school time, but we might be a lot healthier and less wasteful if people knew how to cook and how to repair their clothes. The wonderful blogger Garance Doré (a must for francophiles!) interviewed Jean Touitou, the founder of A.P.C., who said that everyone should know how to mend their clothes, to not throw away perfectly good pieces that are, say, missing a button.

The young generation seems to be into DIY; the last time I was in a fabric store here, the other customers were very young, pierced and tattooed. I had the impression they knew not just how to mend but how to create and improvise–play jazz with material.

Do you mend? Iron? Actually sew and enjoy it?

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37 thoughts on “French Home Lessons

  1. Yes, I like to sew! Its more about creating one of a kind garments, or a tablecloth that fits my odd sized old French country table. And of course mending, so important! I am old (!) and learned in the 50s, first from my grandmother on her treadle machine (which I still own) and later at school in Home Ec classes. I don’t believe we had to take Home Ec but it was sort of a fun class, no studying, just making messes in the school kitchens etc. And in the sewing classes we made clothes under supervision which we were able to wear. Boys had the option of taking classes like auto mechanics, woodworking, metalworking, etc. I would have taken those also, but it was not allowed, nor could the boys take cooking etc. All of those skills were very useful in life. I still sew on a treadle machine, bought here in France where no one wants them. A Singer made in Scotland for the French market, in fact. No, it doesn’t make buttonholes. Most recently I’m working with a line of unconstructed patterns from Tina Givens, which are totally easy to use as everything is simple and oversized. I’m not oversized but I like the layered look and fitting is no problem. I don’t mind ironing either. I also like building stone walls, tiling, a bit of electrical and plumbing as necessary, fixing anything I can, and I garden like a madwoman (perhaps I am). Its good to be versatile.
    bonnie in provence

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    1. Wow! A polyvalente! I’m impressed. It’s very powerful to know how to do so many things. My husband knows how to fix almost anything, and I wish I had learned all those tricks.
      One of our doctors is a talented seamstress. She makes clothes for herself and her kids with no patterns.

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      1. What I forgot to say is that you have a real treasure trove there, what an amazing piece of household, day to day history and vignette of a woman’s life at the time.
        bonnie in provence

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  2. My mother did not sew; I learned how to sew in Home Ec. As a young mother on a tight budget, I made all my daughter’s dresses, embellishing with embroidered pockets/collars, fancy buttons. It felt fun and creative. Only my youngest daughter (of three) sews today.

    Home Ec also taught me cooking basics, household budgeting (how to balance a check book), but we were not taught ironing and baby care. Like you, I refused to take typing, not wanting to end up a dreaded Secretary! Was it all a bit sexist? I guess: but Home Ec eventually opened up to the boys, who also benefit from these skills.

    Looking at your treasure trove, and the impressive portfolio of the former occupant, makes me sad and nostalgic for these “lost” skills. You truly have a treasure there.

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  3. Those copybooks are a treasure. The handwriting is exactly as my grandmother’s!! I have a copy-book with her poems. Never saw her cooking or sewing, but alas, she passed away when I was 10 years old.
    What we learnt as kids was to set the table with silverware and cristalware. Today, soooo many years later we still set the table everyday in the same way, whether at home or at my sisters.
    I have one of her “couvertures de coton” to place under the tablecloth as mentioned in the first part and use it when I have guests. With really old tablecloths and napkins. I hate ironing but I iron these old napkins with the special pleats I remember from my grannie’s and my mother’s tables.
    It is so encouraging to know I am not the only one who loves “old” things.
    Sylvine

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    1. Wow. We do tablecloths and candles and proper wine glasses and silver, but I admit I don’t iron the tablecloth nor do I do the underneath layer. Hats off to you for attention to detail!
      The restaurants that get multiple Michelin stars definitely use pads under the tablecloths, to keep noise down. Very different from U.S. restaurants, with their extreme decibel levels.

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  4. From the time I was 12 I made most of my own clothes and continued sewing for my girls until they decided it was not cool to wear Mom’s homemade outfits. For many years I did all the cutting and sewing for one of a kind garments made from my handwoven fabric. Finally, I’ve burned out and sit down at the machine only when I have an idea for something that requires a bit of stitching. What a find the book is.

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  5. Somehow I think you and I were sisters in another life. So much of what you say and show seems as though it is coming out of my mouth! I love the sewing pictures. I also was taught to sew from a very young age and made all my clothes, including (western pant) suits during high school (I showed calves, so western attire was a must). I love all things french and can’t wait to see what you post each time.

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  6. What a find!! I love it all. As a matter of fact, I collect old stitchery books for the details you don’t find anymore. I sewed for my girls, their dolls and myself. Made their wedding gowns, all very different, according to their tastes. I still sew and thank God for the 6 week course on sewing in home-ec. It sparked my interest to go way beyond as I had expensive taste in clothes. Love to see my pressed cotton pieces after ironing, all smooth and crisp. I sew, mend and repurpose for myself , girls and grandkids. We can’t all be adept in the sewing room but someone has to pass it on. So I’ve taken upon the task of teaching as many young girls as cross my path…so they won’t pitch a coat because it lost a button!

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  7. this was fun to read…I’m an over 70 man who learned sewing to keep sails in good order and be a valuable crew member on the sailing races. Now my sewing is restricted to buttons and patches. The thought of tossing a shirt or jacket just because of a small tear haunts me but local peer pressure does exist…..I’m now retired in Palm Springs where the drill is toss if worn a season………

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  8. I hated to sew when I was young. My mother did. She did all the cut work and embroidery that women of her generation did. I remember wearing smocked dresses. I wish I had kept one. My husband was in cadets when he was young and his mother taught him to iron his shirts and sew a button on….smart women. So you can guess which one of us irons shirts, and blouses. I have been know to do almost my share though, just to prove that I can. I happily iron serviettes because I love to set the table.
    Ali

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  9. What a wonderful treasure trove to find in the house!! These items almost have a museum feel to them, together they give a glimpse into another time, when skills and values were very different! I went on a typing course when I was about 14 and I’ve been glad of the skill ever since!!

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      1. I graduated from high school in 1961 and my senior year in high school I took a half year of typing, at my mother’s insistence. She was right, I was able to get a job immediately after graduation because I could type well! Although I had many jobs throughout my life, I always had typing to fall back on, and it was an important part of some of my work, which it speeded up. All in all, being a fast and accurate typist helped me a great deal, even if it was not my only job.
        bonnie in provence

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      2. I went to evening classes, a couple of hours a week, I think, and I don’t remember it being a whole year. And later I got a programme called typing tutor II, which was great – it came with a game to improve speed!! 🙂

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  10. My mother sewed, knitted and crocheted.
    My aunties embroidered, made lace,tatted, hooked rugs and made elaborate soft furnishings and patchwork quilts.
    My grandmother was a talented dressmaker.
    I can do all the above ( save tatting and lacemaking and I am, as you know, obsessed with old textiles.
    I just absorbed it as I ant along. Or taught myself how to do stuff.

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  11. I have a very old American homemaker’s book which tells how to make a fire in the grate or stove, what to cook for someone ill or with an upset stomach…so fascinating. It also tells about ironing and how one should never iron creases in a tablecloth or napkins or linen towels. I love to sew, do needlepoint, cross-stitch, and smocking. I took home ec in middle school for a semester. My father and grandmother taught me how to cook. I wish I had known my Great grandmother O’Brien as she could see a dress in a store, purchase the material and go home and make it. That’s how she made my great aunt’s wedding dress. My sister does quilting, which I find fascinating, but it takes longer to make a quilt than it does to needlepoint a picture, so I’ll stick with my needle crafts. I love gardening, both vegetable and flowers/shrubs. My sister and I can vegetables, fruits, pickles, and sauces as well as make jams/jellies. No one ever said we had to do these things, but since Dad did, we just followed his lead. We never have to worry if the weather’s too bad to shop; we already have food on hand. I also love polishing my grandmother’s silver flatware and ironing. Both are my “quiet” times.

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    1. Oh, to know so many things! You hit on an important factor–your family did these activities, and so you participated. Who can teach kids today? You are lucky to have learned to be self-sufficient.

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  12. I was a girl born in 1960 …. cooking, sewing, knitting, crochet, embroidery and all manner of other household skills were absorbed from and guided by my feminine elders both at home and school and I am grateful for it. My daughters all have the same skills and use them …. the difference is my mother had no expectation of my brothers in domestic skills whereas I taught several of the make waifs and strays and fosters the same skills.

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  13. NO MENDING
    YES TO IRONING
    NO SEWING.
    HOME ECONOMICS was not offered nor was typing!
    My Mother said I should LEARN TO TYPE as I could ALWAYS get a JOB!My answer back was someone will TYPE for me!WISH I had taken TYPING!!!!!!!Maybe the BLOG POSTS wouldn’t take me so LONG!By the way it’s up…….MAIL CHIMP did not DELIVER hopefully tomorrow!
    XX

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    1. You have your priorities! I bet there are IRL or online courses for learning touch typing. It isn’t rocket science. You do exercises to memorize the keyboard (your brain and fingers memorize it), adding one row at a time. There are only four rows.

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  14. Yes, I do mending. New England Yankees grow up frugal.
    And, oddly enough, I like ironing, within reason. I find it mindless and meditative, so that my mind can wander and come up with all manner of interesting other things.

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    1. Interestingly, at my Pilates class we discuss such things. Some actually love ironing, finding it a very zen thing to do. Others find it a complete waste of time (or, considering they want nicely pressed clothes, a distasteful necessity).

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  15. I love those books! Early in my writing life, I chastised women for not knowing how to take care of their homes properly and waxed obnoxious on how they might improve. Books from the 1800’s were the best for invoking Protestant shame and inadequacy, lol. Ugh, forgive me!!! So unproductive.

    I did take home ec, and typing! However I refused to pursue an interior design degree because in 1984 at UT it was part of the Home Economics DEPARTMENT (gasps in horror at the thought). I feel super snobby and regretful about that decision now, considering I think interior decoration is NOT a high art, in most cases, rather a skill that most people, not just women, learned because a healthy, cheerful living environment is worth knowing how to achieve, because who wants to live in a dreary dump? Ironically, typing and home ec are my “career”, now – and a much gentler approach to sharing and cultivating those skills with others. I love cooking, cleaning, sewing, mending, ironing – and I also love farming it out when the situation calls.

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