In Sarai’s previous post she very sweetly expressed that she enjoys vintage sewing books because ‘They give a glimpse back into the daily lives and skills of everyday women’. Recently I have been reading a book on Make Do and Mend, the skills and techniques employed by women in the UK during the Second World War to cope with the hardships that were enforced upon them, and have subsequently found myself struck by a similar feeling.
The book actually is comprised of reproductions of official instruction leaflets issued by the British Government but also has a well written foreword which puts these leaflets into the context of the times with some fascinating information. The privations women experienced in regards to resources begun as soon as the war started in September 1939 when petrol was rationed. The rationing system consisted of household ration books which contained coupons that had to be presented at the time of purchase. Before long, the restrictions began to encompass almost every item that pre-war could have been purchased with ease, including food, domestic fuel, clothing, fabric, cooking wares, footwear, furniture, soap, pens, and many, many others, and the rationing of some things continued long after the end of the war right up until 1953, in the lifetime of my own parents. These allowances took into account the circumstances of each family, including number of children and even what part of the country you lived in (Northern British dwelling families required more fuel). What’s more, rationing not only grew to encompass more and more products, but also became increasingly stricter with the number of coupons issued becoming less and less, or stopping all together. For example, the meagre amounts of petrol allowed for private cars and motorbikes stopped completely in 1942 unless your car use was essential for the war effort.
The rationing of clothing, fabric and knitting wool begun in June 1941, continuing until 1949. Every man, woman and child were issued coupons books. Initially each person was issued with sixty six coupons a year, but this eventually dropped to just twenty. With a woolen dress requiring eleven coupons, you can imagine how important preserving existing garments became. In response to this, the Government distributed more and more leaflets to offer women advice, tips and tutorials. These included topics such as how to avoid moths attacking your clothes, darning techniques for socks and knitwear, reinforcing areas of garments that suffer the most wear and making childrens’ clothes from adult cast-offs.
It is amazing to think that these concerns were an everyday reality for my grandmothers and their mothers. How society has altered so drastically from such scarcity that we tend to associate only with developing nations today, to finding our high streets and wardrobes awash with an abundance of cheap ‘disposable’ garments. But arguably parallels can be drawn between living with the threat of destruction through bombing and invasion in the 1949, to the comparatively safer yet still very real threats to our ecosystem through the climate change largely brought on by destructive industries and irresponsible production. I firmly believe that cutting back on needless and mindless consumption of manufactured goods is as relevant, essential even, today as it has ever been. Except, until our Governments can get together and agree on and then enforce changes in the causes of emissions, it’s up to everyone to personally take some of the responsibility by making necessary changes to the way we consume. We don’t have coupons or rationing today to force us to do anything, but should we chose to, those of us with sewing skills are at an advantage.
I will be looking into Make Do and Mend further, and will feature the most interesting and relevant tips and techniques from the campaign in future posts. I regret not talking to my grandmothers about the inventive things they did to keep themselves and their families clothed and looking as nice as possible, but hopefully by researching and sharing, we can all ensure that what those generations went through and learnt doesn’t get lost with their passing.