Longtime readers of this blog may remember the joy with which I discovered Jane Eayre Fryer's The Mary Frances Knitting and Crochet Book, an early 20th century kiddie lit masterpiece in which the title character has trippy (but educational) encounters with an animated pile of craft supplies, a fairy, and a petulant baby doll named Mary Marie.
Well, Mary Frances is back in da house. This week I didn't have to pull extra shifts at the forge and that left me free to concentrate on sewing doll clothes. There is, I maintain, no better companion to that than The Mary Frances Sewing Book, or Adventures Among the Thimble People.
Everything that makes the knitting volume such a hoot was already present in this earlier volume, in which Mary Frances learns to cut and sew with guidance from such merry, indelible characters as Mr. Silver Thimble; Scissors Shears; Tommy the Tomato Pin Cushion; and Ma Chine, the matronly Sewing Machine. (Ma Chine–see what she did there? See?)
When the tale opens, Mary Frances is cooling her heels during summer vacation at the home of her grandmother. Her father has business in San Francisco (unspecified business, but I like to imagine it has something to do with white slavery as depicted in Thoroughly Modern Millie), and has taken dear, compliant mother along with him.
Brother Billy is away on a long camping trip with the Boy Scouts, leaving our heroine with only Grandma and bitter Aunt Maria for company.
It should be mentioned that there is another child in the house, an implausibly cheerful Irish maid-of-all-work named Katie.
Katie is barely older than Mary Frances; but while Mary Frances has nothing better to do with her time than lie on the verandah like a boneless chicken in a pinafore, Katie has to rise at dawn, scrub the floors, answer the door, cook, clean, carry parcels, and pretend to be delighted by the steady stream of expensive guilt presents that Mother and Father keep sending to their widdle princess from San Francisco.
I earnestly hope that after the Great War, Katie either married well enough to hire her own maid; or joined the American Communist Party and set fire to the ballroom with a Molotov cocktail on the night Mary Frances made her début.
The Sewing Book provides us with an Origin Story for Mary Marie, the prissy porcelain doll whose insatiable demands for warm clothing and accessories fuel so much of The Knitting and Crochet Book. She arrives from California nailed up in a crate–which Katie, of course, has to haul into the kitchen. Katie pries the crate open with her strong arms, toned from long years of work in a spinning mill, and out pops the doll. She's naked except for a frowsy little slip and a painted-on smile.
Where are her clothes? Does she have a wardrobe in the trunk that came with her? No, she does not. She has, instead, a pile of fabrics that mother's explanatory note reveals are for Mary Frances to use in learning to sew. Except there's a wrinkle.
Per Mother's note:
"I've asked Grandma to let you do exactly as you want to with these things, and I ask you not to go to her with your sewing problems: for the doctor said that Grandma must not strain her eyes with any such work. I know you understand."
Understand? What's to understand? You send your daughter a nearly-nude doll and a bunch of dry goods and–then what? Expect her to pull the proper methods for cutting, tailoring and dressmaking out of her twelve-year-old butt? Don't ask Grandma. Who the hell else is she supposed to ask? Katie? Not Katie. Katie pried the nails out of the damned crate and then had to go back to hauling ash buckets and picking weevils out of the grape arbor. And Aunt Maria is only good on days when the pharmacy won't send her any more laudanum or medicinal whiskey until she pays the bill.
This, of course, is where the fairies and the magic needles and the talking pincushion come into play. But is it truly good parenting to rely on that sort of thing happening to further your child's education?
I'll add that this sort of spotty affection has already taken a toll on Mary Frances's budding maternal instincts. It's never openly stated, but is strongly suggested, that she is as capable as her mother of shutting off affection like a water tap. Case in point: When the book opens she's already got a "daughter"–a doll named Angie. After Mary Marie rears her curly blonde head, Angie gets one more brief mention and then entirely disappears from the book. If that doesn't give you a chill, you have no heart. Where did Angie go? Was she put out on the street to fend for herself? Was she buried behind the vegetable patch in Mary Marie's crate? Did Mary Marie eat her?
Don't bother hunting through the rest of the canonical Mary Frances literature for any sort of latter day Velveteen Rabbit-style Angie redemption. That doll is just gone, baby. Gone.
Mind you, all this (and a miasma of C-list Art Nouveau illustration) tends to obscure that The Mary Frances Sewing Book is truly a thorough and well-done introduction to sewing. Though the projects are graded by difficulty, there is no dumbing down. Mary Frances begins with a sampler of common hand stitches; by the end, she's experienced at just about everything an adult dressmaker needs to know. The intended audience for this book may have been juvenile, but it was still expected to learn to do things the right way, not the easy way.*
Example. In my own project–I'm getting to it, don't scroll down yet–I considered using buttonholes, so I spent some time working them using the step-by-step instructions dispensed to Mary Frances by Aunt Maria. I cross-referenced those with Claire B. Shaeffer in the classic, not-for-dummies Couture Sewing Techniques. The methods are identical.
Bad puns and questionable parenting aside, I ponder this book and then look at the modern equivalents–in which kids "learn" to slap ugly crap together with glue and tape because it's Kwik! and Eezee!–and I think Jane Eayre Fryer was really onto something. In addition to possibly being On Something.
Ethel, Now Half-Dressed
My own doll sewing took the lace I was knitting here and here and put it into a petticoat for poor Ethel, who until now has been nakeder than Mary Marie on the day she killed her sister.
I don't often say this about stuff I make, but this came out better than I expected. I have only the barest prior experience with sewing, but I was able to adapt the two petticoat (!) patterns in Mary Frances to fit Ethel's smaller, more womanly shape. Everything was sewn by hand using methods from the book.
I learned a lot about working with handkerchief linen, including that it starts to fray like the dickens if somebody sneezes in the next room. I realized pretty quickly that none of the seams would last if they had raw edges, so every edge (inside and out) is finished. You know what? I'm proud of that. Even if my gathers aren't distributed as evenly as I would have liked. And even if I chickened out on putting in pin tucks.
Attaching the laces was a treat. (If you're curious about doing that sort of thing, I teach a class about it called Lace Edgings: Before, During and After.)
Now she needs an underwaist and a dress. This time, I'm putting in buttonholes. If Mary Frances can do it, I can do it.
*Though it's amazing how often in sewing the right way, once fully learned, becomes the easy way.