Monday, January 30, 2006

Two Mary Frances Books

The Mary Frances Sewing Book (1913) and The Mary Frances Knitting and Crocheting Book (1918)

Last year I read that an old book intended to teach sewing to little girls, The Mary Frances Sewing Book, had generated buzz among doll fanciers. Although it's in the public domain and has been re-released by a couple of publishers, it remains hard to find; the article or post I first read about it in said original copies could fetch nice prices on Ebay, and I found that secondhand copies of the recent paperback editions were priced higher than one might expect. The reason for the popularity is not just that it's a charming book, prettily illustrated and full of nostalgic appeal, but that it does a good job of teaching handsewing skills most contemporary women have never learned and provides a set of patterns for an authentic 1913 doll wardrobe. Some part of my mind remains in the 19th to pre-WWI 20th century (maybe I read too much Alcott as a girl) so of course I was interested.

Several weeks ago a new copy, shrinkwrapped with patterns turned up for under $20 on one of Amazon's affiliated sellers. So I had to get it. Although why I had to order the readily available The Mary Frances Knitting and Crocheting Book (there were several Mary Frances how-to books written) to go with it I'm not sure; I'm turning into quite the spendthrift lately. My books are paperback, but you can buy hardcover, "heirloom editions" at ; it might be worth it for the sewing book, especially if you want a gift for a special little girl, but I can't imagine the other books are worth bothering with hardcover.

The sewing book begins by teaching various hand stitches. What I thought was clever here was that the book has the reader learn to do these on canvas (Aida cloth, the stuff cross-stitchers use) instead of normal fabric, so it's easy to see how wide or deep to make the stitches and to keep them even; I used a piece of size 14 Aida cloth because that's what I had, but size 11 would work better. I wanted to see how good the book was for learning, so I worked through the stitches using the directions in the book. All were fine, until I got to the blanket and buttonhole stitch. I already knew how to make a blanket stitch (although it'd been nearly a decade since I'd used it), but I had trouble following the directions until I decided to ignore them and followed the illustration instead. The buttonhole stitch directions were impossible. The illustration wasn't helpful either. I finally gave up and just made tiny blanket stitches the way I already knew. I'm guessing I'm not the only one who had trouble with this. I tried looking up the buttonhole hand stitch online to see if I was offbase in my understanding of it, and I found a website that blatantly plagiarized the stitch lessons from Mary Frances--except for the blanket and buttonhole stitch directions, which were rewritten.

After the basic stitches, the book moves on to making a doll's wardrobe. These projects I have not worked through, but they seem pretty good. The clothes are cute and presumably authentic to the Edwardian or Titanic era, as they come from then. Anyone new to sewing could learn a lot of dressmaking skills here. While the "Thimble people" are walking Mary Frances through the projects, they teach things like seam finishing and plackets. Unless I overlooked something, all the sleeves are cut on, so there's nothing about setting a sleeve, but that's the only thing I could think of that I might like to have seen covered that wasn't. The lessons seem to be pretty well laid out, so that easier things are presented first.

The patterns are sized for a sixteen-inch doll of that time period. There are at least two different Mary Marie (the doll's name in the book) "reproduction" dolls for sale, and the lacis site I linked above sells a pattern for making a cloth doll that will fit the clothes. These would be worth looking into if you want to give the book to a little girl interested in sewing. Otherwise you could just size the patterns up to fit the very popular 18-inch dolls of today. The size is already close. I recently bought a pattern for 18-inch doll clothes (I'm definitely becoming a spendthrift) and laying the contemporary pattern pieces over the Mary Frances pieces suggested they might need a bit less grading up than I'd thought.

There are also a few non-doll projects.

Typically for children's books of the time, there are some moral lessons woven in. One of these I found kind of catchy: "Miss Never-Try/Never can do;/Miss Never-Begin/Never gets thru." Also like a lot of period children's books, the characters may seem too good and nice to be true and to speak in a slightly stilted way at times. It didn't interfere with my enjoyment (much less the educational parts), but some might find it more distasteful; I didn't "buy" the level of goodness and niceness any more than many would, it just didn't bother me. A potentially fruitful topic of discussion with friends or a discussion group would be why modern people find depictions of the very good and nice to be distasteful.

The rhyming and some corniness might get on some adults' nerves. Children might have to look up a few words or find some obvious-by-context word uses odd. That never hurt anybody, though. I had to look up the definition of "guimpe" (a blouse worn under jumpers) myself and survived the trip to the dictionary with dignity intact.

Verdict: I recommend The Mary Frances Sewing Book for adults or children. It is to be hoped someone will put out a new reprint. If they're really smart, they'll package it with a 16-inch doll pattern or offer a separate pack of patterns already resized so little girls can sew for their American Girl or other 18-inch dolls.

The knitting and crocheting book is a bit different from the sewing book. Starting with the cover illustration. Uncle Pookie saw it and said he thought he might have been watching too much anime, because Mary Frances looked kind of hot! I would have said she looked like a young woman, instead of the little girl I assumed her to be and that she clearly is in the sewing book illustrations; maybe she's supposed to have aged since the previous book, but she's still playing with her dolls so I don't know.

I've worked through some of the early crochet directions--the stitches, a couple of scarves, and a petticoat. I found the directions really easy to follow, and there's no doubt a person could learn to crochet from them. The projects look okay and can be made to fit a contemporary 18-inch doll. On my petticoat--which looks better than I expected (to be frank, I'm not a huge fan of crochet and am a bit bewildered as to why I'm bothering with it)--I added six stitches to the base chain to make it fit an 18-inch doll better, but it could have worked as is; I'm guessing most would work as is. I probably won't bother with any of the other projects, except for the cute little "turban" (it looks more fez-ish to me) and even cuter tam.

I don't know how to knit with needles and am not ready to learn, so I can't vouch for the quality of the knitting directions. They seem okay to me. The book teaches English knitting, although there's a brief bit on Continental knitting in the supplementary material ("The Magic Paper") included in the back. It seems like pretty basic stuff, which is a good thing for beginners, especially if they're children.

Now the bad stuff. The Mary Frances Knitting and Crochet Book just isn't as appealing as the sewing book. It relies on photographs, and reproduced photographs just didn't look very good back then. (I'm guessing the photos made the original book a bit pricey.) The projects may seem a bit weird-looking to modern eyes; the clothes in the sewing book don't seem odd, perhaps because many mothers today like to dress their little girls in somewhat old-fashioned dresses for special occasions, old styles remain popular on dolls, and Titanic-era styles are somewhat in favor since the big Titanic movie in the late '90s. The story's still cute enough, but a bit less engaging.

Crochet hooks (and probably knitting needles too?) were sized differently back then, but there is a gauge given near the front of the book so you can approximate what you need; children might find it frustrating to have to do this, though. A more annoying problem is that the names of yarns have changed. "Knitting worsted" is easy, as is "Angora wool". "Teazle", which the book says is used for trims or, brushed up, as a substitute for angora, could be figured out. The problems are with the yarns used most frequently in the projects. "Germantown Zephyr" I'm guessing is just a softer worsted weight. "Saxony Wool" seems to be baby yarns. "Woolen knitting floss" has me stumped. I thought it might refer to something like the thicker crochet thread, but I substituted baby yarn for it with good results, so I don't know. I found a yarn site online that addressed this question and the author, though seeming extremely knowledgeable, wasn't sure either.

Be warned the knitting and crocheting book has a project that doesn't mesh with modern sensibilities. Mary Frances makes a baby yarn doll out of white string and then gets the idea to make it a nurse doll out of, you guessed it, black yarn or string. There's nothing inherently undignified or degrading about working as a nurse-maid and it is a simple historical fact that a lot of black women in the US did work as childminders for white families, but something about a doll made of very black yarn caring for a white baby doll doesn't sit well with us, even if the doll isn't as garishly stereotypical as some nurse figures I've seen. The black doll is described as "funny" and fortunately that's as far as any racist comments go. She is also given the stereotypical name of Dinah, but I've always assumed that name is often used for black female characters for the simple reason that Dinah was a common name; at least it's not called a "Mammy" doll. (Another interesting topic for discussion groups would be why we find the Mammy figure so offensive.) It's a very small part of the book, but I wasn't expecting it and it was off-putting.

Let's see, what else? Pacifists might find the inclusion of patterns for soldiers (the book was written during WWI) offensive. The self-esteem brigade might be offended by the idea, expressed in the introduction, that knitting for soldiers and parents "makes a person feel of very much account". Atheistic materialists and the kind of Christians who think The Wizard of Oz is satanic will probably be offended by the inclusion of fairies in the book. And I suppose really hardcore vegans might be offended by the very mention of bone needles. Not fitting into any of these categories myself, I'm okay with these things.

I don't recommend the book though. Some adults might find it interesting historically and the directions are fine, but there are better books out there for learning to knit or crochet. I'm afraid children might be turned off the subject by the old-fashioned pictures and find the difference in old terminology and new to be too frustrating.

I'd be interested in comments about others' experience with these books.

1 comment:

Jo Howard said...

We grew up with the Mary Frances books during WW2. Somehow my family had acquired them and they were among the few books we had. Avid readers as we were, we read them more as story books than as instruction books. Lovely to read about them here