My good friend and owner of Kimberly's Fabric Stash, Kimberly Chaffee wrote this amazing article on Mary Brooks Picken for her County Register. I am so happy that she is allowing me to share it here on my blog :) It really is just amazing to read about some of the beginning of this amazing industry that we now love ;) So without
further ado . . .
MARY BROOKS PICKEN-
The Sewing Industry’s Most Influential Woman
Modern Sewing has its many
influential people that have shaped the way you sew, where you sew, and how you
sew. We know the names of Eleanor Burns, Nancy Zieman, Alex Anderson and many
talented women that introduced us to new ways to design and fabricate
everything from quilts to home décor.
These women are held up in modern times as leaders in the sewing
industry and their means of delivery has been in large part through television
and the internet along with many published books.
introduce you to the most influential woman that literally transformed
thousands of women from ordinary clothing menders, to clothing specialists,
capable of making a living and improving their homes with their sewing
machines. At a time when most women were not able to vote, and less than 10%
worked outside the home, a widowed woman from the Midwest moved East and began
the most fascinating and influential career in sewing I believe I have ever
Her name is Mary Brooks Picken, and if you stop for a
moment, and look thru your library of sewing books, you may find The Singer
Sewing Book , published by Singer in 1949, and written by this remarkable
woman. This book is the authority on proper sewing technique covering
everything from dressmaking to rugmaking. Although, upon closer inspection of
your library you may find several of her books, since she wrote 91 during her
career. I find writing 91 books exceptional? Why? By the time she was 28 years
old in 1914, Mary had already written 64 textbooks and two dressmaking courses
for the popular International Correspondence School located in Scranton, Pa.
Widowed at the age of 25, she was recruited by the school
and opened the Women’s Institute under the ICS parent company. Courses offered
at the institute were in sewing, dressmaking, millinery, and cooking. At 35
years of age, Ms. Picken had earned the role of Vice President for the Women’s
Institute and a million dollar structure was built across the street from the
ICS June 3rd, 1920.
125,000 women enrolled mainly from the United States, but also internationally,
earned the praise from many influential sources including the U.S. commissioner
of education at the time, P.P. Claxon. "In America at least, the home is
the most important of all institutions" for it is the home that
establishes the "physical, mental, and moral education" of children.”
During the same period from 1920 thru 1925 Mary was editor of her quarterly
publication, Fashion Service,
enrollment at her institute doubled to 253,000 enrollees.
from all over the United States wrote to Mary praising the school, and its
education courses for improving their skills all around. In addition to earning
money on the side to help support their family, women were opening businesses
and supporting themselves. During early 1920s, “Most women were housewives, but
by this time, a significant number of women did work outside the home, or even
within it to earn money. Figures released when the cornerstone of the building
was laid show for every 100 women enrolled in courses, 63 were married, 34 were
single and three were widowed. Sixty-three percent of students studied to meet
or enhance the requirements of their own home. Out of every 100, 17 planned to
establish their own businesses, nine to prepare for a position in a business
and 11 for both home and professional roles.” (Kashuba, 2011)
accomplished the monumental task of opening a school advancing women’s domestic
skills, Mary moved forward and “begins a career in advertising with Singer
Sewing, Dennison Crafts, and The Spool Cotton Company” (Barickman 2010). The
Women’s Institute survived until 1937, due to a downturn from the Great
Depression. In 1939 Mary opened the Mary Brooks Picken school on Madison Ave.
in New York. She also released 3 books on fashion that same year.
World War II there was a huge revitalization in sewing and women were
encouraged to repurpose old clothes. The women that had completed courses from
the Women’s Institute were skilled in accomplishing this and many were writing
to magazines about what they had altered and renewed. By 1942 fabric sales were
up by 50 percent over the previous year, and in 1943 70 million patterns were
sold over the counter.
1949, Mary at the age of 63, wrote The Singer Sewing Book,
which in 2 years sold 380,000 copies, and at its completion of
printing sold over 8 million copies. At the age of 74, she was syndicated,
writing a weekly column that reached 300 newspapers. Not much is written about
her golden years, and she died the 6th
of March, 1981 at the age of
Brooks Picken led an extraordinary life, and not only made a wonderful career
from sewing and writing, but directly influenced women to take pride in their
craftsmanship, and encouraged other towards entrepreneurship. I wonder today
how many of Mary’s techniques are being replicated as “new” or “modern” in the
sewing industry. Her methods taught women to abandon the ordinary, mundane task
of sewing, and instead put their new skills toward making their homes and
family fashionable and stylish. Mary Brooks Picken, an exceptional woman, whose
techniques are still utilized today in everything we sew.
For further reading I
encourage you to pick up a copy of Vintage Notions by Amy Barickman. The
book is a compilation of patterns, techniques, recipes, and other things taught
by Mary Brooks Picken at the Women’s Institute.
Thank you so much Kimberly for sharing this with us!!! So amazing!!! Be sure to pop on over and say Hi to Kimberly at her blog
;) And I hope you all have a very Happy Quilting Day!!!