Household Sewing · Vintage Ways

Bags for Every Use

Simple drawstring bag with a small cross stitch design on the front and a fringed bottom.
This bag could be used for a day out, sewing, or lace.

How many bags can one person use? Well, in a vintage world without pockets –– unless you happen to be wearing an apron –– quite a few bags, actually. You need a knitting bag, a travel workbag, a sewing bag, an evening purse (for those nights you go out), and a day purse. Most of these need to be updated every year or two as the fashions change. Oh! Don’t forget the storage bags, the travel bags, the organization bags…

For someone who enjoys making bags, the 1910s through the 1950s is a world of creativity waiting to happen. Every needlework magazine offered the latest in bags for this use or that one. Individual crochet booklets offered bags. Once in a while, a company published a booklet containing instructions for bags for nearly every use imaginable.

Vintage bags organized life

In a vintage household, a bag was a sign of organization. Items that needed their own places found themselves nestled into bags or containers specifically made for them. The most obvious example of this in the vintage home was the string holder which hung in the kitchen or pantry.

Have you ever tried to keep a ball of string from unraveling until you used the last of it? Regardless whether it’s thin or thick, slick or rough, string tends to unwind. And it often unwinds in large bunches, a layer at a time. Let’s say you’re in a hurry, you need some string, you open that kitchen drawer and… it’s everywhere. Somehow the string got caught in the ice pick and several layers lie strewn about the top of the drawer. You can’t even see the cut end to pull it. And you are in a hurry. You were on your way out the door to a meeting, and planned to take this package with you….

Keep the string handy

You can see the problem. Thus, one of the most oft-used bags in a kitchen was the string bag. Sometimes it looked like a tomato hanging from a hook. Other times it looked like a puffy round ball of fabric. At all times, though, a thin string of some kind hung from an opening in the bottom of the bag. You pulled the string, it unwound inside the bag, and you cut off whatever you needed to use. The rest of it waited in the bag until next time.

And why did everyone need a ball of string or twine in the kitchen? Because before 1930, Scotch/cellophane tape did not exist. There was no tape. The only tape that existed was for medical use. Everyone else used string. Need to truss a chicken? Cut some string. Tying a roast for dinner? Use the string. Need to get that package ready for the mail? Grab the string. (This, by the way, is why the U.S. Postal Service still states that they cannot accept packages tied with string for mailing. Because for many years, they did! You can find that in this list of packaging suggestions from the USPS.)

Keeping a ball of general purpose string handy is still a good idea. Several times a year I find myself poking through my yarn stash, in search of some inexpensive cotton string or yarn that I can use to tie or measure something. And to keep it neat, I can make a string holder for the pantry.

Organize that linen closet!

If you really had your act together in 1925-1945, your linen closet held a selection of specially made bags. Some held sheets and pillow cases. Others held your best tablecloths. Opening your linen closet door, you could take immediate stock of what was available and what you needed. Your linen closet might even hold a closed bag for soiled laundry of some kind.

Keep your crafting separate

Do you tat lace? Then you need a small bag that hangs from your wrist so that your lacemaking thread remains untangled –– and stays with you instead of rolling across the floor. You also need a small bag to keep your tatting shuttles and other implements safe. In that bag goes your current project.

If you knit, you need a knitting bag. Or two. Or more. Some knitters are One Project At A Time knitters, but most knitters I know have two to three projects going on a time. Often they are a quickly made project, an intermediate length project and something large like an afghan or a detailed cardigan that takes many hours of work. Mixing these together in one knitting bag is not wise. All those knitting needles start talking together while you aren’t looking, and before you know it you have a knitting mutiny on your hands.

Seriously, though, keeping projects separate means that they remain clean. They also survive with fewer poked holes in them. I don’t know what those knitting needles do in there, but I inevitably find a stray needle poking through my current project if I have more than one per knitting bag.

Crocheters need bags too. Even though it uses yarn just like knitting, a crochet project works best by itself in its own organization bag. For one thing, crochet can get bulky as the project grows.

Today many crafters grab a large ziplock bag to create a “project bag” with yarn or thread, needles or shuttle. Then they are ready to go. These individual crafting bags predated the plastic ziplock bag and fulfill the same function. Truly, they were bags for every use.

Sewing on the go

Although makers use their sewing machines a lot, keeping a sewing bag close at hand can be quite useful. A few vintage lovers find themselves making garments and items completely by hand. Others (myself included) prefer handworked buttonholes to machine buttonholes. (The fact that I can’t seem to get a buttonholer attachment to work with any of my vintage machines doesn’t help either, but I digress…)

Mending used to be never-ending in the vintage household. Someone always needed a replaced button, lengthened dresses or pants, darned socks. The clever worker kept a mending bag just for these items, with a darning egg, matching threads, strong threads for attaching buttons, and other such necessities. That way, when ten spare minutes presented themselves, they could grab the bag, open it up, and complete a quick project.

Other people kept a sewing bag specifically for pickup work. This included small handmade gifts, embroidery projects for spare moments, and that placemat project you wanted to start last year. Items you can pick up, spend half an hour on, and put back down until next time.

So when you see those lists of bag projects from vintage years, keep in mind that the vintage worker kept bags for every use under the sun. If you’re looking for an easy project to carry in a bag, these Outline Stitch squares go together to make up a small quilt.

The Creative Corner · Vintage Ways

Make Yourself a Rainy-Day Box

Sometimes I come across vintage advice that is so good that it stops me cold. It doesn’t have to be huge, or timeless. It just has to be useful. Like the suggestion to iron a circular tablecloth from the center out to keep it straight and even, and then to roll it on a curtain rod to keep it that way instead of folding it. Who figured that out? And more importantly, how did information like this ever fall into the black hole of forgetfulness? Today’s advice: Make yourself a Rainy-Day Box.

A lined basked filled with a ball of yarn and sock knitting needles. Next to it sit four spools of silk thread in green, pink, red, and blue.
My Rainy-Day Box filled with socks to knit and silk thread for lacemaking.

A vintage idea that still stands strong

Rainy days can be dreary. A truth no less accurate today than it was 100 years ago. The air carries a chill, rain pelts on the windows, and the skies look gray and foreboding. This is not exactly the type of weather that makes us want to grab a filled picnic basket and head for the nearest park. So what do you do if rain falls and cancels your plans? Open your Rainy-Day Box!

I used to dislike rainy days. The patter of the big drops on the roof was a signal for the entrance of the gloom family, in droves.

Clara M. Neville, contributor to Needlecraft Magazine, 1921.

This idea appeared in a small article in an 1920s magazine. The suggester wrote “I used to dislike rainy days. The patter of the big drops on the roof was a signal for the entrance of the gloom family, in droves. … I doubtless succeeded in making other folks as miserable as I was myself by my low spirits.” This struck me, for sometimes I feel gloomy on rainy days as well.

So I followed her advice. I found a small box to serve as my Rainy-Day Box, and then I sat for a while, thinking. The little empty sewing box sat in front of me as inspiration. What did I really want to do but never seemed to find the time? What did I want to finish but always found myself pulled in seventy different directions as soon as I sat down to work on it?

A box of opportunities

As I looked around my work room, the answer became clear quickly. I love working with silk thread and yarn. It doesn’t have to be shiny and slick; it can be nubby and matte. Over time I’d amassed a small collection of Gütermann silk threads. Because I wanted use it for lacemaking instead of sewing, I specifically bought the flower and leaf colors. These would find their way into my Rainy-Day Box for making Oya/Armenian needle lace.

So I gathered a few things that you can see in the photo. These launched my own Rainy-Day Box, and now I too look forward to inclement weather. It’s filled with colors I love, threads I long to use, and projects that once upon a time filled my someday list. When I finish one project I will slip another one into the box for the next rainy day.

Put your box together

What kinds of things can you put into your own Rainy-Day Box? Here are some ideas:

  • Drop into your box that book you’ve been dying to read but never seem to find the hours to make it happen.
  • Do you relax by cooking? Slip that recipe you long to make into your box. If it requires non-perishable ingredients such as raisins or currants, purchase those and put them in your pantry with a big inked X on the front so you don’t use it for anything else.
  • If you want to learn a new skill such as tatting, place a shuttle and small ball of thread into your box and spend the day learning. (Try size 10 thread for learning. It’s bigger and easier to see the stitches.)
  • Interested in spending time watching a movie you can’t fit in any other way? Put a DVD in your Rainy-Day Box. If you use streaming services, write yourself a note with the title and the service and drop it into your box so you can find the information when you need it.
  • Would you like to immerse yourself in a project like knitting socks or crocheting a vintage yoke for a camisole? Place your goodies into your box and await the next day filled with wet skies.

As you can see, it doesn’t matter what you are into. If it fits in your Rainy-Day Box and it brings you joy, it works. And if it doesn’t fit, find yourself a bigger box. It doesn’t matter what you put into it as long as it makes you happy.

If you need ideas for projects to fit into your Rainy-Day Box, check out these posts I wrote on learning to make tatted lace with a shuttle, five great vintage crocheted edgings, or this turn-of-the-century travelogue about England.

Keeping in Touch · Vintage Ways

Why You Need Monogrammed Stationery

Not so long ago, when someone wanted to send a note, they reached into their desk drawer, pulled out the pen and ink, and then selected a sheet of printed stationery. It might be decorated with the sender’s full name and address. Or perhaps a three letter monogram sets the page apart as unique.

For friends who corresponded often, the monogrammed page was a very simple way to communicate who sent the letter. A business letter looks sharp on stationery that features the sender’s name and address. Nothing says sophistication like monogrammed or printed stationery.

Photo of dip pen and ink set on several monogrammed sheets of stationery. Caption reads: declare your style.
Show your style with monogramed or printed stationery.

If you lament loss in communication, or you want to send and receive pages that you can keep to read over again later, monogrammed stationery may be for you. It’s definitely more classy than a printed email message. And even before you put pen to paper, your printed stationery reveals your style to the receiver. Does your monogram have a Victorian-esque flourish? Does it sport more of a retro vibe? Is it printed in classic black, or did you choose green or dark red for your monogram and return address?

Printed stationery is a joy to use. It’s fun to order. In the past I’ve used stationery with my full name and address at the top. When I was very young that worked well. Everyone not only knew who was writing, but they had my return address at the top of the page, ready to go.

Now that I’m a bit older, the next time I order a set (which will be soon), I’ll order pages that feature my monogram. The envelope carries the return address, so there’s no reason for me to repeat it on the writing pages. So how do you order printed stationery? And where do you get it? And most important, what kind do you need?

Adding that Monogrammed Touch

You can get printed stationery in business size, which is a normal 8.5 x 11-inch page. But frankly, that’s a little large for a personal letter. Most letter stationery is 6 to 7 1/2 inches wide and 7 to almost 11 inches long. A smaller size, sometimes known as Social size, is closer to 5 3/4 by 7 3/4 inches. This size is perfect for an invitation to dinner or afternoon tea, or a nice letter-esque thank you note. If you prefer, you can also find preprinted correspondance cards, often called note cards. All stationery types come with preprinted envelope flaps announcing your name and address.

Which size do you choose? Well, what do you want to do with it? These are questions you must answer when selecting a style and size. Often browsing through the options will give you the information you need. One style, or one size, will speak to you, and then you know which one to order.

What kind of writer are you? Do you

  • Prefer very short, one-to-three sentences with sentiments like “I’m thinking of you” or “You’ve got this!” If so, you might really enjoy a box of monogrammed correspondance cards. Reach for them when you want to send a special quick note telling someone you care, or you’re grateful.
  • Long for an opportunity to turn off the computer or put down the texting device and send a chatty letter to old friends, like people used to do? Then look for a nice medium-size letter page that gives you enough space to set your thoughts down.
  • Fall somewhere in between, or find yourself wanting to throw a vintage party once in a while and send out authentic invitations? Maybe you need a solution for how to say thanks but don’t want to use notes? Look for the smaller social size sheets.

In the past I’ve ordered my printed stationery from American Stationery. They’ve been around since 1919, and I’ve never received an order I didn’t love. Even in the past 20 years or so they’ve expanded their offerings. I remember that while placing one order, I had a choice of four type styles for my name and address. Four. Today I can choose between 27 styles. They offer six different monogram styles, and many different styles of paper/envelope combinations.

How do you organize your initials when you order stationery or use a monogram in another way? Find out how everything goes together in How to Style a Monogram.

Vintage Ways

Dipping One Toe into History While Keeping the Other Foot Firmly in the Present

What intrigues us so much about yesteryear? 

We think of it as a simpler time. In many ways, it was. Parties in the 1960s featured items like cocktail wieners, spicy cheese balls, and that newfangled concoction we call Chex Mix. If Chex Mix appeared on your appetizer table, you were a winner.

Think about it. Chex Mix was new. Not bagged, not re-engineered with different ingredients. It was novel, and simple to make. And 60s partygoers loved it. Easy to scoop onto an appetizer plate, the mix wasn’t too greasy to eat while playing cards or chatting with a drink. It was a hit! And in time, those 60s partygoers fed Chex Mix to their children and their grandchildren.

Earlier times brought us simpler ingredients. Not one cookbook published in the center of the United States in the 1920s seems to feature avocados as an ingredient. Avocados were the hot new thing by the end of the 20s in California, but recipes incorporating them hadn’t made their way to the middle states or East coast by 1930. Recipes during this time focused on easy to obtain, seasonal ingredients – much like many of us prefer to cook today.

These examples center around food. What about fashion? Decorating? Writing? Entertainment? The answers remain the same. Life seems simpler to us as we look backwards, so we find a decade that appeals to us (or two, or three, or five…) and we peer a bit closer. Then we might be interested enough to chase down some crepe paper and attempt to make a few vintage decorations. You know, just for fun. And to add some sparkle to our next seasonal decorating scheme. 

How Old Is Vintage? 

Although some modern “antiques” dealers will dispute this, the term antique refers to an item more than 100 years old. Anything less than 100 years old but more than 20-25 years old is considered vintage. Retro generally applies to the 1950s decade. At least, it does currently. I’m sure that will change with time, and 1960-1980 will become retro in their turn. 

My focus is generally older vintage, but I love it all. 

My vintage house

Currently, I live in a 1985 one-story house. It definitely fits into the vintage range, since it is over 25 years old and it was all the rage when it was built. My laundry is in a closet off my kitchen, which I love — and which hearkens back to an article from the 1930s by Cheaper By The Dozen mom Lillian Gilbreth. She was actually a psychologist and a trained efficiency expert in her own right, and Dr. Lillian Gilbreth designed the basis for what we know as the modern kitchen. 

When I first moved into my house, I was a bit sad. I desperately wanted a 1920-1940 bungalow, but in my area of the country these were all built with basements, and multiples of stairs were not in my future. 

Once we got settled, though, I looked around. The 1920 china cabinet looked right at home next to the corner fireplace. The piano and the treadle sewing machine… they looked like they fit, like they belonged. 

Suddenly, I realized something. Something important. This house was the mid-1980 redesign of the 1920s and 30s bungalow. It was small, functional, fashionable, and popular as a design. The kitchen was an update of the Kitchen Practical design from Lillian Gilbreth 50 years before. The only thing it was missing was the kitchen sewing machine area and ironing station.

Whew. I could relax and enjoy my new house. It was everything I’d wanted, only 50 years later and all on one floor. 

Do we accept everything labeled Vintage?

Well, let me ask you another question. Do you accept everything – absolutely everything – that exists in your culture right now? No, of course you don’t. Some things you refuse due to lack of time, or money, or interest. Other things you eschew due to ethics, or morals, or beliefs. Where you stand on any issue isn’t important right now. The point is, you choose sides for many topics. 

This means that when you embrace vintage living, you don’t have to accept everything just because it existed in a particular time frame. As part of the simplicity we see as appealing in the past, it tended to give rise to odd and offensive opinions every now and then. 

“But they believed” — of course they did. Most people are a product of their time. We can enjoy the gold nuggets they left us without ascribing to strange views. Once in a while, coming across outdated views (especially in literature) gives us a chance to ponder how things have changed. Or how they haven’t.

Just because it looks like a duck…

In the same way, not everything labeled “vintage” is truly that. Some of it, frankly, wasn’t popular enough to be considered vintage. It’s simply old. A self-published book that talks about your family line, that only existed in 150 copies to begin with is not vintage. It certainly qualifies as a family treasure, and it may be very old. But neither of those things marks it as vintage. To be vintage, an item must be culturally popular at one time. Radio shows are vintage. So are radio show commercials. The radio script that never found a buyer and so was never recorded is not considered vintage in the same way.

I’ll focus on vintage gems that will enhance your life. The fun, the quirky, the memorable. Those things that add joy and sprinkle charm.