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Sewing Sisters, Super Shoppers


The aged Willcox & Gibbs sewing machine reverberated arrhythmically, sending a whirring sound across the stout pine floors of the house on Guilford Avenue.

My grandmother Lily Rose and her sister Cora were both excellent seamstresses. They seemed to be able to make anything, from first-Communion dresses to evening dresses, from beanbags to 1950s-regulation Bermuda shorts. They outfitted themselves, my mother and my four sisters. And I even got an English tweed sport coat and trousers the fall I went off to kindergarten.

Sewing was serious business in my house, and every effort began with a trip down the steps off the kitchen. The destination was the Baltimore club cellar, which was the result of a remodeling project after our sooty coal furnace was replaced by a cleaner oil-burning model.

One whole wall was sectioned into varnished wood cupboards for rug storage, Christmas-garden supplies, out-of-season lampshades and, of course, the women's fabric inventory.

These women could not walk past a department store yard-goods table without making a purchase. We had stockpiles of wools, Belgian linen and voile. There was also rare (in their estimation) pre-World War II silk.

The two sisters kept their supplies separate, including sewing machines. There was little, if any, sharing of the big cardboard cutting board, pinking shears, special sewing scissors and staggering thread inventory. They may have been sisters, but each had her own way.

Great Aunt Cora's machine stayed in her bedroom behind her favorite reading chair. Grandmother Lily Rose's model rested in the pantry not far from the pans she used in making chocolate caramels.

By October, they'd be wearing their new outfits for the season. But before these new clothes could be realized, there had to be a trip downtown for sewing supplies.

Those expeditions for pins and zippers fascinated me. In the 1950s, the sewing sisters were still using pre-1915, non-electric sewing machines, full of complicated moving parts. The machines were cast-iron, with foot treadles and spinning wheels.

The New York Sewing Machine Co. (still in business today on Eutaw Street) always seemed to have Willcox & Gibbs needles and leather wheel belts, which sometimes broke and needed fixing. Though the ladies tortured their sewing machines with heavy usage, the machines themselves never seemed to break down.

Another amazing -- and still surviving -- sewing-goods house was Morton Schenk, on West Baltimore Street. This was the button university and the sewing-supplies graduate school. The sisters would spend what seemed like half-days looking through boxes of buttons and buckles and belting to find the right shade and tone to complement what they were making. They also bought their zippers there -- in the precise length and color.

I liked to tag along on these trips downtown. The old garment district was still operating then. It was a side of downtown Baltimore that was distinct and full of character. Maybe, if I was patient, I might get a trip to the caramel popcorn shop next to the Hippodrome Theatre.

The dreaded part of sewing trips was hanging around while the (( women selected material and dressmaking patterns. Patterns were on the first floor of the Hutzler Brothers South (Palace) Building, near a little art deco stair ramp leading to Clay Street. I think I spent ages 3 to 5 there, with time off for holidays.

This was a kind of department-store pattern library. Women would sit for interminable sessions poring through big Simplicity and Vogue pattern books. For me, it was worse torture than shopping for millinery or shoes, another all-morning trial of a 5-year-old's patience.

Pattern patience was the supreme test. If I behaved, though, my grandmother and aunt would treat me to a fruit salad and raspberry ice in Hutzler's basement luncheonette.

Yard goods came after patterns. The women didn't hold the selection at Hutzler's to be the best. Stewart's dominated and they were friends with the buyer, a thoroughly knowledgeable woman named Gussie Curry.

The three huddled and discussed the weight of a piece of linen like sports fans do baseball averages. After hours of poking and searching through heavy bolts of material, the sisters always made the same assessment: The best fabrics stopped being made at the end of the Depression. But that didn't stop them for carrying something new home.

In a few weeks, a new creation for fall would make its debut at a wedding reception, school play or funeral. The sisters secretly .. loved to receive compliments about their sewing. But if a friend gushed about their clothes, the reply was always the same: "Oh, it's nothing. I made it myself."

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