featuring guest authors; crafting tips and projects; recipes from food editor and sleuthing sidekick Cloris McWerther; and decorating, travel, fashion, health, beauty, and finance tips from the rest of the American Woman editors.

Monday, August 18, 2014


Donis Casey's Great-aunt and Grandmother
Donis Casey makes a return appearance to Killer Crafts & Crafty Killers today. Donis is the author of the award-winning Alafair Tucker Mystery series, featuring the sleuthing mother of ten children. The series is set in Oklahoma and Arizona during the booming 1910s. Today Donis stops by to discuss fashionistas of a bygone era. Learn more about Donis and her books at her website.

Self-Made Fashionistas
I have been called penurious in my time. Yet, in comparison to my mother, or even more so with her own parents, who actually had to support themselves and their families during the worst downturn in U.S. history, I am downright profligate.

Nobody knows from frugal any more. 

I recently saw a woman on television saying that there is a trend among fashionable young people to buy cheap, hip clothing that may fall apart the first time you wash it. But they don’t care. They only spend $30 or so for something they throw away when it’s ruined, and then they can buy something even more stylish and up to date.

I make no judgment. I’d rather be in a position to do that than have to wear clothes I made myself out of a flour sack. For much of American history, few farm families had the money to buy ready-made clothing from a store. Clothes were homemade and worn until they were so patched and stained that they were unwearable. After which, the mother would use what was left to make a quilt, or a rag rug, or a mop. Then use the scraps to make a patch for a shirt elbow or the knee of some trousers, or a button cover, until the material disintegrated into molecules and floated away on the breeze.

In the mid-1800s, companies that sold sugar, flour, and animal feed began selling their goods packed into heavy cotton sacks instead of boxes and barrels. It didn’t take long for women to realize that once the bag was empty, they were in possession of a piece of durable fabric that made really nice, cheap clothes for the kids. Or work shirts for the men in the family, or aprons for themselves. Once the flour and chicken feed companies found out what was going on in homes around the country, they started printing pretty designs on the bags, and suddenly every rural child in America was wearing a dress or shirt with little pink flowers on it, or underwear with “Pillsbury” printed across the seat.

Not long ago I received a note from a second cousin of mine who said, “Aunt Thelma always bragged about how Grandma Bourland (our mutual great aunt and great-grandmother) only had to look at a photo of a dress to be able to copy it.” That comment made me smile, because my grandmother on the other side of the family had said exactly the same thing about her mother.  

“Ma didn’t even need a pattern,” Grandma Casey told me. “You’d just tell her, ‘I want pleats here and this kind of sleeve,’ and she’d whip it up.”

She did, too. I have a photo of my grandmother (above photo) and her sister, both clad in dresses their mother made for them. For a fictional wedding in one of my books, I dressed the bride in my Grandma’s fabulous outfit.

I suppose if you had seven daughters and you made every stitch of clothing they wore from birth until they left home, not to mention clothing for your sons and your husband and yourself, you’d become an expert seamstress in short order. Even if you had to sew it all on a treadle machine. Many years ago I tried to make something on my grandmother’s treadle sewing machine. You really have to get the knack of pumping the treadle up and down with your feet. It’s like rubbing your head and patting your tummy at the same time.

Handmade 70's Dress
My own mother made a lot of clothing for her three daughters. We did not live on a farm and could well afford store-bought clothes, but Mama grew up in the country during the depression, and she was the living embodiment of frugality. If she could make do, she did. I never felt put-upon by wearing homemade clothes, because what my mother made was excellent. She had a great eye for material and color and we girls always looked tres chic. I so loved some of the dresses she made for me in the ‘70s that I still have them to this day. I think they are museum quality. I’d model some for you, Dear Reader, but these days I couldn’t get into them with a shoehorn.

The world has changed. Even if you wanted to make your own clothes, it’s not as easy as it used to be to find a place to buy fabric. My mother taught me to sew, but I learned in school, too, back when all the girls took Home Ec and all the boys took Shop. I have the skills, but no longer have the time or equipment to make my own outfits from scratch. I still mend and patch and make it last, if it’s a piece I like. But how I envy anyone who has the eye, and the will, to make a piece of clothing that is unique and totally hers. 

Hell With the Lid Blown Off
In the summer of 1916, a big twister brings destruction to the land around Boynton, OK.  Alafair Tucker’s family and neighbors are not spared the ruin and grief spread by the storm.  But no one is going to mourn for Jubal Beldon, who made it his business to know the ugly secrets of everyone in town. It doesn’t matter if Jubal’s insinuations are true or not. In a small town like Boynton, rumor is as damaging as fact.

But as Mr. Lee the undertaker does his grim duty for the storm victims, he discovers that even in death Jubal isn’t going to leave his neighbors in peace.  He was already dead when the tornado carried his body to the middle of a fallow field. Had he died in an accident or had he been murdered by someone whose secret he had threatened to expose? There are dozens of people who would have been happy to do the deed, including members of Jubal’s own family.

As Sheriff Scott Tucker and his deputy Trenton Calder look into the circumstances surrounding Jubal’s demise, it begins to look like the prime suspect may be someone very dear to the widow Beckie MacKenzie, the beloved music teacher and mentor of Alafair’s daughter Ruth.  Ruth fears that the secrets exposed by the investigation are going to cause more damage to her friend’s life than the tornado. Alafair has her own suspicions about how Jubal Beldon came to die, and the reason may hit very close to home.

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Kathryn Joy said...

I made nearly every stitch my children wore (born in 1973 and 1975)from 5-pocket jeans to my son's graduation suit and my daughter's prom dresses. I did, however, use patterns, but could borrow a collar from one and a sleeve from another. Both my kids learned to sew--I considered it a life skill as much as fixing a tire or cooking. Both of them use their skill, and still enjoy the satisfaction of doing it well.

Donis Casey said...

I think it is a life skill, Kathryn, and an art, as well, just as much as painting, writing, or cooking. Much more room for creativity than buying something off the rack.

Angela Adams said...

I can barely sew a button...which means I really admire your skill.

Donis Casey said...

I used to be a lot more domestically talented in all things than I am now, Angela!