“It’s up to you to keep the home fires burning, to see that you and your family stay easy-on-the-eyes. Fortunately, you can be patriotic and pretty both. It’s easy to teach an old wardrobe new tricks, to resurrect the skeletons in your closet and bring them up to date. Come on, take those old knockabouts and turn them into knockouts, keep that glint in Uncle Sam’s eye and still do your stint towards Victory!”
That’s how the Spool Cotton Company enticed American women to sew during World War II. Everyone was asked to do his or her part for the war. Children saved pennies and collected scrap metal. Families planted vegetable gardens. Women learned to cook meals without meat, wheat, and sugar. Other women went to work in factories and farm fields. They also picked up a needle and thread.
Sewing had fallen by the wayside for many Americans with the growth of ready-made clothes in the 1920s. A whole generation of young people grew up thinking that they maybe didn’t have to sew anymore.
But during World War II, sewing became patriotic and women were urged to mend old clothes or make new ones. In 1942, the War Production Board issued regulation L-85 rationing natural fibers. Domestic supplies of wool, cotton, linen, rayon, silk, and nylon were needed for military uniforms and supplies. The government need for fabric grew so great that it depleted supplies of clothes and shoes.
To save on fabric, the War Production Board even regulated style, limiting fabric color choices and restricting the length of skirts and the fullness of pants. Cuffs were forbidden. Dresses were limited to one and ¾ yards of fabric.
As a result, women’s hems rose, pants legs narrowed, and jackets fell at the hip. Women stopped wearing silk stockings (which cost too much, while the new wonder fiber nylon was commandeered soon after its launch for parachutes, airplanes, netting, and tents) and began painting seams on their legs to give the appearance of wearing stockings. Men adopted single-breasted suits without pleats or cuffs. Some men struggled to even find a suit as the clothing industry focused on military needs.
And Americans began to mend their old clothes – “make do and mend” as the effort was known in Britain. “You’ve no idea how quickly wilted wardrobes respond to kindness,” counseled Make Mend for Victory. The booklet advised women on easy repairs for holes in stockings, fixing tears, and patching holes. Not oblivious to trends, it also covered alterations and restyling, the addition of collars and dickeys, and smart hats made from “a ball of yarn” and “a scrap of felt.”
Sewing for victory created a sewing boom but it didn’t last. While fabric shortages in Europe kept women sewing longer, many American women put aside their machines once the war ended.
4 thoughts on “Make And Mend: Sewing in the Second World War”
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Great article, Erika! I’m currently working on a novel set in 1942-3 (US), with a main character who sews. I suspected that home sewists would have difficulty getting some kinds of fabrics, but your article really helped clarify. A question for you: I’ve looked through lots of pattern books from the time, and have been unable to determine what kinds of fasteners were used besides buttons. Shirt-waist styles were popular of course, but I also see some dresses that have no visible buttons. With the close-fitting waistlines, it would have been hard to get into these dresses (including party dresses). Did they use zippers? I can’t see any detail on the pictures. If they did have zippers, were they positioned in the back seam or side seams? I would guess that zippers would also be hard to come by in wartime. Thanks for any help you are able to provide.
Hi Debra! I believe most of those dresses would have had side zippers. It’s possible they would have hook and eyes but zippers are more secure. This might provide some insight – https://visforvintage.net/2012/11/17/vintage-zippers/
That was a really helpful link! Thanks so much for your quick and helpful reply. I’ve learned so much today!