While sewing throughout history has always been an integral part of the domestic scene and children were encouraged to sew at a young age, home sewing was especially important during times of crisis — it was in its own right, a form of survival during a war and nevermore so than during WWII. With so many goods in short supply, making do and making over were necessities of life — see Part , WWII Fashions Never Out of Style.
One of the most remembered and nostalgic sewing products to entice young fingers and imaginations during America’s WWII war years was probably the miniature fashion mannequin doll kit offered by Simplicity, McCalls, Butterick and other pattern companies. They emerged around 1940, surviving into the 50s and paving the way for future adult fashion dolls such as Barbie and those which followed her. Dolls ranged in size from 12″ to 13″ and were crudely formed of a variety of composition materials or lastex, a rubbery compound which was prone to fast deterioration. Beauty definitely was not the object here.
What set these dolls and kits apart from other sewing offerings was that matching patterns could be purchased in adult size; thus mom and daughter could sit side by side and sew the same dress or crochet miniature hats, a nice diversion to keep minds off the realities of war. Kits varied. Some came boxed with doll, wooden stand base, several patterns, a booklet to make accessories and order form for other available patterns and replacement arms; other kits included fabrics and basic sewing supplies.
Additional patterns for clothes were also featured in pattern books and through newspaper pattern services such as the Marianne line. While such projects might have been fun for mom or older sister, patterns were a challenge to the age group they were designed to attract. Instructions called for the same construction used in adult sewing: intricate shaping with darts and tucks, side placket openings, facings and lapels – no shortcuts allowed! That grubby, uncoordinated hands could handle such tasks would be the exception. Picture elementary children tackling the following sewing project when there were more interesting prospects — kick the can, tag, hopscotch contests and swapping baseball cards!
Love for our country never changes. The sentiments of this pillow kit by Wonder- art Needlework from S.S. Kresge’s 1942 fall craft catalog is timeless.
Latexture Products provided the 12-1/2″ Fashion Dol ; Simplicity the patterns. Arms were removable for dressing and were replaceable for 13 cents each.Doll in Simplicity dress pattern 4710; basted by either hasty adult or loving child’s fingers. Fabric is cotton plain weave similar to poplin.
Dritz-Traum produced 13″ compo Peggy McCall; 1942 kit contained 2 McCall patterns and sewing booklet.
- Blueprints of Fashion Matching Simplicity adult pattern 4710 issued in 1943.
- Blueprints of Fashion
Educational Crafts made this 13″ Jr. Miss for Butterick in 1944. Included were base, sewing booklet, fabric and pattern. Ideal also made this doll in early 50s.
- Blueprints of Fashion Headwear patterns were included in kit booklets with instructions for crocheting in adult and doll sizes.
This is from Simplicity’s Miniature Fashion Hints for the Young Designer, 1943. Anatomy of a mannequin dress Simplicity pattern 4965, early 1940s
Pattern pieces Pieces ready to cut; fabric is early 1940s 80 sq.
PercaleReady – made trim & color by separating fancy bias tape, 1930s-40sCloseup of neckline showing trim. Dress opening is a side placket using two # 4000 snaps. Finished dress shown with pattern. Fit varied with year of and substance used in doll production.Similar style dress, Sears spring and summer 1943 catalog. It is surprising how much was available for the consumer despite shortages, rationing and government regulations.
For sewers, fabrics were cheerful and casual styles belied the curtailment of frilly adornment. Looking back, women never looked more fashionable in the simplicity of those designs with shorter but flattering hemlines. However, that is not to imply that rationing and shortages didn’t exact any tolls. Most noticeable was the cessation of car production; even sewing machines became a casualty.
Rayon jumped to the forefront as fiber of the moment to conserve future allotments of natural fibers needed for military clothing and never relinquished its popularity after that. Vegetables and dairy products were sources of new-found fibers – milk, soybeans and corn in particular made up a group called caseins and azlons to be blended with existing yarns as yet another way to conserve textile inventory.
One such fiber was Aralac, developed just before the war by the American Research Associates and the National Dairy Association. First manufactured in Italy as Lanital [lana = wool + ital = Italy], later in this country as Aralac. Name was derived from ARA = American Research Associates and lac, Latin for milk. Fiber was made from casein of skim milk similar to wool in chemical nature. It was blended with rabbit fur in making felt hats and also with wool, mohair, rayon and cotton in varying proportions for fabrics.
Although clothing in this fiber was available as late as 1947 the impact of manmade fibers following the war eventually caused the demise of this fiber which could not compete with low price of new synthetics. Plus when damp, this fabric smelled like sour milk, causing many consumer complaints! Beginning in 1942 the Office of Price Administration created the Bureau of Rationing to implement a program for obtaining certain goods and food which would require ration stamps to purchase them.
The system was very sophisticated with OPA issuing three billion stamps monthly. But overall, rationing was accepted by consumers during its enforcement despite some inconveniences. With the rubber shortage limiting tire availability, gas was first to be rationed in late 1942; sugar, coffee, meat and shoes followed in November 1942, canned foods in the spring of 1943. Gas stickers were issued for cars. A were for those who only drove for pleasure were limited to 3-5 gallons per week; B for those who drove to work received a sufficient quota; X for emergency vehicles with no gas limits.
It was noted that by 1943 gas rationing had reduced the country’s auto mileage by one-third! To be eligible to receive ration booklets each household had to complete a Consumer Declaration listing persons living in their house as well as inventory on hand of canned and bottled foods and coffee. Stamps were deducted according to amount of declared inventory. A booklet was only good for a period of time and for certain items, then replaced by a new series. Red stamps were for meat; blue, green and brown for canned goods. Each family was allowed 48 points a month to spend on canned and other processed vegetables and fruits.
Points were printed on cans and often fluctuated from week to week as did supply and demand for sugar and coffee. Depending on status of war at time booklets were issued, some goods were removed; some added. Coffee was taken off in 1944. It was the norm when looking at magazines and catalogs to see ads stamped not available at this time or limited quantity available until it runs out or will be available after such and such a date or will be available on such and such a day between such and such hours. However arduous America’s rationing situation, it by no means compared to the sacrifices and severe ration systems overseas.
On the lighter side, Nigel Cawthorne states in his book The New Look that American women were wont to complain “While we are wearing rayon, the French woman is wearing yards of silk” which was due to in large part to France’s huge inventory of that fabric.
CARE SAVES WEAR Sewing machine production was put on hold.
Sears offered parts and preventative maintenance tips during this period in its 1943 catalog.
Times may have been grim but there were always colorful, cheery fabrics and 15¢ patterns by Advance, Superior and Hollywood to lift the spirit.
- Sears 1943 catalog
Sears offered Aralac clothing and fabrics in its 1943 catalog Shown are Ara-plaids, Ara-gabardines and Ara- flannels, 20% Aralac, 80% spun rayon; 57¢ – 67¢, 38″ wide; $1.29 – $1.79, 54″ wide.Color was also directed to the legs to help promote Milena cotton hose as a fashion statement in this 1942 Vogue ad.
- The New Look – the Dior Revolution
Typical ration stamp booklet. This was # 3 issued in June 1943 and to be used when #1 and #2 stamps were exhausted. Unit stamps bought sugar, coffee shoes; point stamps were for canned goods, meats, cheese, oils, fats.
- Woman’s Day, June 1943
Stamp schedules appeared in most newspapers and publications to assist consumers with their use of correct stamps. And you thought filing your income tax was complicated! This calendar and other rationing information appeared in Woman’s Day, May 1943 and in all its issues until rationing was ended.
Sorry Not Available was a commonplace stamp on many consumer goods – watches, blankets and wood furniture were often in short supply.
- Sears 1943 catalog What dolls wore and what we wore from Sears 1943 spring and summer catalog .
Simplicity 4977 in 1940s 80 sq. percale and its Sears percale counterpart, $1.59. Other suitable fabrics: chambray, pique, lawn, crisp voile, dress poplin sears dress Simplicity 4496 in 1940s wool flannel and rayon pebble crepe with wool yarn trim. Blouse sleeve edges had unpressed pleats! Sears piqué version includes playsuit; $3.98 sears jumper.
Simplicity 2-piece dress suit and Sears pique polka dot version. $2.98 Style suitable for any cotton or rayon. sears 2-piece dress A medley of 1943 clothes by McCall’s to fit its doll. Sears offered slack/work suits in denim and covert, $1.69 to $2.69 and the classic boy coat in wool tweed or fleece, $19.98. slack suit and boy coat .. and a few words about men.
Casual wear all-wool leisure jackets in a variety of colors and combinations ranged from $6.50 for economy to $8.75 for best. 2-piece leisure suits of poplin, rayon gabardine or rayon tropicals were a bargain at $3.39-$6.75 for the ensemble and the fabrics and colors we wore, great choices considering the shortages Fashion Appearance –twills, small floral sprays and polka dots, pin stripes, glen plaids were the latest fashion statements Fashion Fabrics – for the women — Rayon topped the list in Luxables [washable in recommended Lux soap] slipper satin, Celanese, panne, taffeta, shantung, spun, Bemberg sheers, romaine crepe, alpaca, pebble crepe, jerseys, sharkskin, blends with every fiber and Aralac.
Wool twill, flannel and heather flannel, fleece, gabardines, ribbed crepe, herringbone predominated; cotton was still supreme in allover eyelet, broadcloth, sports poplin, seersucker, nubby prints, and solids, ginghams, percale, dress muslin also known as a 67 x 62 percale, voile and flocked voile, corded checked lawn, velverey flocked double dotted swiss, dimity, organdy including navy, sateen/batiste/plisse for loungewear, nainsook and longcloth.
For the men – panamas, wool, rayon suiting, tropical rayons, cassimere, poplin and slubbed poplin, Celanese sharkskin, cotton gabardine, worsteds. Fashion Colors: for the women — air corps blue, sundeck blue, powder blue, heaven blue, glory blue, colonial blue, cadet blue, soldier blue, copen blue. lt copen blue, dk copen blue, turquoise, aqua, rose, dusty rose, Mexican rose, tea rose, Miami rose, lt pink, blossom pink, violet, lilac, med. green, nile green, moss green, apple green, lime fruit, flag red, apple red, sunlight yellow, lt. yellow, gold, sandbeige, hickory brown, luggage brown.
For the men – oatmeal, tropical sand, sand tan, camel, beach brown, cocoa brown, coffee brown, vicuna brown, pilot blue, stone blue, teal blue, heather green, teal green. A note about color – the dye industry was a major supplier for war resources; chemists for scientific projects and dyers and dyes for military fabrics created manpower and inventory shortages. Curtailment of new dye allotments for civilian use meant reduced strength in coloring, creating many “washed” shades and other color variations.
The devastation of war can be viewed from many aspects — movies, history books, publications.
But a stroll though catalogs and magazines evoke another side to more unpleasant times and that is that life goes on as best it can to keep alive hope and faith. It is the same spirit expressed by this ad in Woman’s Day April 1943.
Sources of information: - Blueprints in Fashion, Home Sewing of the 1940s, Wade Laboissonniere, 1997 – The New Look:-the Dior Revolution, Nigel Cawthorne, 1996; courtesy Yvonne Williams – Sears 1943 spring and summer catalog, courtesy Betty Wilson collection – S.S. Kresge 1942 fall needlework catalog – Aralac information: Fabrics, Grace Denny, 1942 The Modern Textile and Apparel Dictionary, George Linton, 1973 Fairchild’s Dictionary of Textiles, 1996 – Rationing information: Woman’s Day, February, March, April, May, June, November 1943, courtesy Betty Wilson collection U.S. government national archives www.nara.com – 1940′s percale for doll dresses courtesy Kim Haynes The arbitrary cut-off date for this Vintage Fabric column is 1960.
To stay within the scope of this timeframe, reference materials published up to that date are the prime source of information to more accurately capture actual thoughts of the time.
Joan Kiplinger is an antique doll costumer and vintage fabric addict who learned to sew on her grandmother’s treadle and has been peddling fabrications ever since.