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Depression-Era Skills

Updated on June 21, 2011

Depression-Era Skills - Clothing and Fabric-Based Household Goods

With the economy still shaky and people skeptical about its recovery, many people are re-learning the skills of their parents, grandparents or great-grandparents. People who lived through the Great Depression or who immigrated to the U.S. from just about anywhere else in the world have a lot to teach us about frugality.

Oddly enough, frugal living is also better for the environment, so even if you aren't short on cash, you can participate in Depression-era living to improve the environment. And, in some cases, these skills and tips are better for your personal health as well.

This lens is one of a series covering all sorts of ways to save money and help the environment, based on the thrifty ways of our ancestors.

Clothing and Fabric-Based Household Goods

For people in the country, clothing was usually homemade, even before the Depression came along. People who had sheep or cotton could make their own clothing with the aid of a spinning wheel and loom. However, those are skills which are well beyond most people today, and weren’t terribly common by the time of the Depression; most people bought commercially-made cloth and made clothing from there.

Household goods, such as blankets, curtains and rugs were almost always homemade among the poorer and more rural people of the 30’s, and were usually made from recycled materials (and if they weren’t recycled to start with, then they would be recycled into something else when their usefulness was up).

Store-Bought Clothing

We have more options for clothing than was generally available during the Depression. Thanks to sweatshops in very poor countries, we can buy pre-made clothing for cheaper than we could ever hope to buy the material to make it. These clothes can be had at discount retailers like Wal-Mart and Target. You can also get a good price on higher-end and dressier clothing at places like TJ Maxx, Ross Dress for Less and Marshall’s.

Thrift Stores (and Clothes Recycling)

Thrift stores are generally the best place to get clothing because it’s usually cheaper than even discount retailers, you can often get higher-end and dressier clothing for just as cheap, and it’s better for the environment and decreases demand for more sweatshops when you recycle clothing. You also help support a charity when you buy clothing from them and when you donate unwanted clothing back to them. Even if you are too poor to give cash to a charity, buying your clothing (or other goods) at a thrift store is a way of giving to them.

In the same vein as recycling clothing through thrift stores is trading clothing with friends and family (aka hand-me-downs). If you are of similar size and shape with someone in your family or a co-worker, ask them if they would like to exchange clothes with you. When you get tired of something (or it no longer fits), collect it in a trash bag, and when it’s full, exchange it with someone. Whatever you get will be new to you and you can feel just as excited about getting these clothes as you can feel about shopping for new ones. And some things, like jeans, are much more comfortable used than new; they’ve already been broken in.

When I was growing up, a friend of my mother’s had a daughter a year older than me, and once or twice a year we got bags of clothes from them. My mother would always give her friend a little money for the clothes (since we didn’t have anything to trade back); that was easier on our friend than trying to have a yard sale, and she probably made more money anyways. I always liked getting those clothes, because they were cute and stylish and were more expensive than most other clothes that were bought for me. They were always clean and in good repair and some even still had the tags on them, having never been worn! If you have kids that are label conscious, buying used clothes by the bag off someone you know who spends money on the labels is a good way to appease your kids and still save money; no one ever need know they were bought used.

If you run into resistance from your kids in regards to recycled clothing (number one, call it recycled, which is a great trendy word, unlike “used” or “secondhand,” which sounds worse), offer them the option of decorating their recycled clothing. The ability to paint, bejewel and lace used clothing can often win over a reluctant participant. Many craft stores have an aisle of discontinued items, where you can usually find fabric paint, buttons, jewels and trim for cheap. Also look in the fabric section for bags of trim and lace scrap for very cheap; it doesn’t take much to add some trim across a back pocket. You can also look at thrift stores, when they are having a major sale, for clothing which has pretty trim or buttons that can be recycled; if you can get a garment for a dollar, it will be worth salvaging just half a dozen buttons off of it. Don’t forget to look at curtains for lace. You can also cut embroidery off T-shirts and the like and turn them into cute patches for shirts, jeans and even backpacks.

Sewing Clothing

Making your own clothing is a good idea if you, like me, are hard to fit, or you have to pay extra or shop at specialty stores to find clothing (i.e. if you are large, tall or petite); in those cases, discount retailers and thrift stores are not likely to be a viable option, at which point making your own clothing is cheaper than buying from a mall. Also, if you have to have dressier clothes for work, you can usually make those kinds of clothes cheaper than you can buy them.

I have one dress pattern that I bought on sale several years ago and I’ve copied it onto cheap muslin to make it both easier to use, and so I don’t have to worry about tearing up my pattern (patterning originals or copying commercial patterns onto newspaper or paper sacks or old sheets is an old-time skill too). With a proven pattern (meaning that I know it will fit me and I don’t have to alter it), I can knock out a dress in a day or two, at most. I keep a lookout for material that’s on sale, or really good coupons at Hanock’s or JoAnn’s stores (they will accept each others’ coupons too, by the way). The pattern I have chosen is also easily made in either broadcloth or knit, patterns or solid colors. It also can be made with short or long sleeves and with a long or short skirt. This allows me great flexibility in picking out fabric and using the same pattern all year round.

Patterns go on sale for $1.99 once a month at Hanock’s and JoAnn’s, and also go on sale at Hobby Lobby, but less frequently, I think. At the major holidays, such as 4th of July, Labor Day and Memorial Day, certain brands are often just 99 cents.

For novice sewers, pick a pattern that doesn’t require buttons and especially no zippers. With just a little skill, you’ll be able to make basic pants and shorts with an elastic waistband. Unfortunately there is little in the way of patterns for men’s clothing, perhaps because they have an easier time finding clothing, or perhaps because men’s clothing has evolved to the point that it’s not easily duplicated at home (I know I couldn’t manage a button-down oxford that didn’t look really homemade). However, women still have plenty of leeway when it comes to homemade clothing (no one can tell my clothes are homemade, unless I tell them), and it’s also easy to make children’s clothing.

In fact, children’s clothing can often be made at home cheaper than it can be bought. That’s because many places charge as much for a child’s outfit as an adult’s, despite the small amount of material used in children’s clothing! And because children’s clothing needs very little material, you have many options available for making them clothes. You can go to your thrift store and look through the adult’s clothing for shirts and dresses and find some things with enough useable material in them to make your child some clothing (you can also cut up your own discarded clothing, which is a practice so old that it predates the middle ages). Even sheets can be turned into soft pajamas or embroidered and lacy pillowcases (hunt for those at yard sales) into beautiful dresses for a baby.

Remember, one of the most common sources of underwear (and sometimes dresses) during the Depression were cloth flour sacks. Don’t underestimate the power of found material. I’ve bought curtains for the velveteen material, and my mother gave me some lace curtains which I plan on using as part of a dress.

If you can’t sew, find someone that you know who can and get them to teach you. Most people will be happy to teach you for free, if you provide your own material and patterns to practice with (although they’d not say no to a cake or some other gift-in-trade, I bet). If you don’t know anyone with a machine and the skill, check out hobby stores like JoAnn’s or a local sewing machine dealer; they often have classes in-store for a nominal fee. Keep your eyes peeled on Craigslist and at yard sales for an old sewing machine. Those yellow cast iron behemoths from the 60’s and 70’s are, in some ways, better than newer machines. In fact, I have one that I keep in reserve because my new machines won’t sew through leather, canvas and denim the way it will.

When you make your clothes by hand, you also tend to take much better care of your clothing; it’s too much work to replace it or to throw it away after only a few wearings. It’s also easier to alter homemade clothing if you change size or don’t like the way it came out.

Repairing Clothing

It doesn’t take owning a sewing machine to sew a button back on or to repair a torn hem. These are skills that EVERYONE (men and women) should have; make sure to teach your kids before they leave for college!

But what happens if you get a stain in a favorite shirt or pair of pants that just will not come out? Before you consign it to the garbage, why not attempt to bleach it lighter or dye it darker in order to hide the stain? RIT dye is commonly found in grocery stores in a variety of colors and is easy to use in a household washer. And at $2-$4 for a box, it can be worth the effort to try and salvage a $40 pair of jeans. It’s also a good way to restore color in faded garments (makes hand-me-downs look new again).

And even if you can’t make a go of repairing your item, hopefully you will be inspired to cut it up for the material and recycle it into something else!

Own Less Clothing

I bet if you ask any older person you know, how many sets of clothes they had when they were growing up, you will hear two or three everyday outfits and one or two for dress or special occasions.

In America today, it’s rare for anyone to have less than a week’s worth of clothing; most people can probably wear the clothes out of their closet for two weeks or more before having to wash.

When I started making my own clothing, needless to say I didn’t end up with as much clothing as when I could buy it cheaply and frequently. I have lived with a week’s worth of clothing for summer and another week’s worth of clothing for winter, and I have managed just fine that way for nearly two years.

If you have a closet full of clothing, ask yourself, why? With washing machines and dryers, it’s no trick today to wash your clothes when you come home from work and have them ready to go again next day. If your clothing is clean, does it matter if you don’t have a lot of variety?

I have read that French women tend to own very small amounts of clothing. Mind you, they tend to have teeny-tiny houses or apartments, so this American notion of a walk-in closet doesn’t exist there. They prefer to have 3 or 4 pairs of pants, a couple of skirts and two or three jackets that are all interchangeable in neutral colors and plain, classic cut. They add fashionable colors and cuts by buying blouses (which are about the cheapest things you can buy), or by buying a scarf or jewelry. They buy one or two pairs of shoes in neutral colors and wear them until they wear out. They also tend to only have one handbag (I have been carrying the same black Aigner purse for about 7 years now; I’ve repaired the strap on it twice myself, and it’s still going strong). Underwear is kept to black and/or white/beige so that it works with everything they own (no worrying about wearing a red bra under a white shirt).

If you lessen the expectations of your closet, you can save a lot of money simply by not buying more than you really need. Also, when you have little in the way of reserve clothing, you get right on making a necessary repair (no hanging it back in the closet to languish for the next five years). You also don’t wind up with clothes in your closet that you don’t like or that don’t fit; those things are quickly discarded in favor of something that works.

Knitted Clothing and Misc.

Knitting (and/or crocheting) was a common skill during the Depression and before (knitting was done in Europe at least as far back as the 15th century, and existed in the middle east prior to that). Knitting is a great way to make cold-weather clothing and accessories. Even if your skill is very basic, many things are easily made. You need only patience and knit and purl stitches to make an afghan for the couch or even for a bed. A knitted rectangle can be gathered on one end and sewn together to make a toboggan. And of course, there is always the ubiquitous scarf (you may see it referred to as a “muffler” in old books). If you can add and decrease stitches, you can make a simple pair of mittens with no trouble, or a more fitted toboggan. Even many patterns that call for knitting in the round can be made on two straight needles and seemed up without any difficulty.

You might be saying to yourself about know, it’s all well and good that I can knit, but I can’t save money because yarn is expensive. I have to agree that specialty yarns are very expensive, but the old Red Heart brand acrylic yarn is still a bargain and is particularly useful in making things that will not be worn against the skin, such as blankets (acrylic is very warm, albeit somewhat scratchy). You can also wait for a sale or a total-purchase discount coupon at some place like Hobby Lobby (see their website for printable coupons) and stock up.

Besides buying new yarn, you can also recycle yarn. Find a sweater, sweater-coat or homemade afghan at a thrift store or yard sale which contains yarn that you like. You can usually get these things for less than what one skein of similar yarn will cost (and you will get a lot more yarn). Cut the yarn at one edge and unravel it, being careful to wind the yarn around something as you take it off (the back of a chair works well). If the garment has separate sleeves, collar, etc., carefully cut those seams out, open them up flat and unravel them as you do the body of the garment (be sure and tie the ends of separate pieces of yarn together as you go for the benefit of the next step). When you have all of the yarn unraveled that you want, take some scrap and tie off your simple skein in four or more places. Then carefully wash the skein by hand in appropriate detergent (use Woolite if it is wool or silk), wring it out carefully, then hang it up to dry by one end. Hang some weight off the other end of the skein so that most of the kink will come out of the yarn as it dries. When it is fully dry, slip it back onto your chair back and unwind it and make it into a ball, where it will be ready to knit. If you wish to use this method to make a sweater, be sure that the sweater you buy to recycle is larger than you want your new sweater to be, because it won’t quite make up the same the second time around.

If you knit and crochet, you probably find yourself with tiny balls of yarn that you hate to throw away, but which aren’t large enough for a single project. If you save them up long enough, you could knit them into a multi-color sweater (trendy right now), tote bag or afghan (just keep tying the scraps end-to-end for rows of different colors and textures). You can also use the scraps to make cat, dog and even soft baby toys.

Plenty of free patterns can be found online, or you can check out knitting and crochet books from your library for free. And if you have friends that knit or crochet, swap books or make each other copies of desired patterns.

Even if you can’t knit or crochet to save your life, you don’t have to go without knitted items; you can buy sweaters and the like and cut out mittens or toboggans from them. Just be sure to cut it a little larger than you think you need it and run it through a serger or overlock the edges using a zigzag stitch on your sewing machine to keep it from raveling out. Smaller, finer knits are better for this method. You can also cut squares from old sweaters, fix the edges and then sew them together into a patchwork blanket or sweater coat. In fact, this can be employed as a way to preserve decorated sweaters, which are ill-suited to being taken apart for their thread.

Quilts

Besides making quilts from sweaters, you can also make them from other bits and pieces of clothing. Something which is gaining popularity right now are T-shirt quilts. You know how it goes—everyone has a pile of souvenir t-shirts that they love, but which are past the point of wearing. The new thing is to cut those T-shirts up (you don’t have to worry about overlocking the edges because the knit is too fine to ravel much and the seams will be protected) and make a quilt from them. Most T-shirt bodies are a true rectangle anyways, so you only need to rip out the sleeves and cut just under the collar. Depending on which side has the most text on it, separate out the decorated sides from the less decorated sides. In fact, just lay the shirts out across a bed as you cut them out so you can see exactly how many you need to make an appropriate-sized quilt, and can arrange them as you like based on color or text (how neat if you arranged destination T-shirts based on when you went on your trip).

Once you have enough shirts, it’s simple to sew them together into a quilt top. And you can do the same thing with the backs of the shirts that weren’t decorated, to make them into a backing for your quilt. Buy batting (or an old blanket) and place it between the layers and quilt according to your preferred method. Needless to say, the pattern of the shirts lends itself very well to quilting in plain squares. You can also do knotted quilting, which involves using thread or even scraps of yarn. Punch the thread through the quilt and bring it back up again and then knot it off. Repeat in a pattern all over the quilt. Even fairly young children can participate in this method and it is very fast to do.

To finish the edges, you can cut away a small amount of the batting, fold the two raw edges in on themselves and then stitch it down (you can also double-roll the edges and hem). Or you can take the sleeves from all of those shirts and sew them together into a long chain and use them like bias tape to finish the edge. Or, if you are handy at embroidery, try a blanket stitch all the way around the edges.

If you don’t want to use the T-shirts for a quilt backing (or if you are making a quilt from scraps from other pieces of clothing), look for sheets at a thrift store for a quilt back. Get a flat sheet as large or larger than you want your quilt (or get a twin flat and fitted sheet, cut out the elastic and seam them together). This is cheaper than buying muslin at a store (unless you get a really good sale or coupon). Of course, nothing keeps you from making a reversible quilt, so that the back is done the same as the front.

Totes

Grocery stores are selling tote bags for $1 or more each, and they’re not even that large. If you’re worried about the environment and want to save some money (many stores will now give you a 4 cent discount for every bag that you bring of your own), make your own tote bags. Make them from old sheets or blankets or, for really durable bags, make them from old jeans. If you make them with a flat bottom, you can use cardboard from a box to give them shape so they’re less likely to fall over and spill your groceries in the car. If the cardboard gets dirty, replace it; if the sack gets dirty, throw it in the wash. You can use a paper sack, cut open, to make a pattern, or you can probably find patterns for totes online for free.

I have even seen a tote bag made from strips of plastic grocery sacks that have been crocheted together. (You can hand-wash them in a sink.)

Good Uses for Old Towels

Most everyone consigns old towels to the rag bin, but what if a towel is only stained or torn on one end? In that case, cut it down to make washcloths or kitchen hand towels (serge or hem the edges). You can also add a fabric ruffle or lace trim along one edge to hide where the hem has come out of the towel.

Why buy a pet bed when you can use old towels as slipovers over old pillows? Wash just the towel, or the pillow and towel cover together, as necessary. Our cats sleep in a nest of towels under a bathroom sink.

You can also piece together a bunch of old towels and make a blanket to use outdoors—for picnics, to cover a car, or to use to work under a car (great at catching fluid spills before they stain your driveway)—or you can piece out the best parts of the towels and then cut out a patchwork bathrobe.

Can’t afford a rubber sheet under a young child or elderly person that has accidents at night? Sew a few towels together into a double-layer mat and place it under the fitted sheet; wash as needed.

Love the convenience of a Swiffer, but hate buying the pads? Cut a couple of towels down to size and stitch them together to form a thick pad. Add some Velcro and you’ve got a reusable pad; just toss it in the wash when it gets dirty.

You can sew together two towels to make a thick bathmat (you can either make it reversible, or use an uglier towel as the back of the mat and a prettier one on top).

Rugs

Rugs are great for cushioning feet where people spend a lot of time standing (such as at the kitchen sink), catching water and other spills (like outside a bathtub), reducing echoes in a room with hardwood floors, providing warmth on otherwise cold surfaces (such as tile or concrete), and they can even help provide insulation where floors are not properly insulated against the cold.

Cut strips of fabric (leftover from sewing projects or cut up worn-out clothing and sheets) and sew them into a long strand. You can then use a big crochet hook or set of knitting needles to make a rag rug. An even easier method (and one mentioned in the Laura Ingalls books) is to have three strands of fabric, which you braid together. You can’t have too long a strand without it getting tangled at the ends when you braid, so you will have to use a binder clip or similar to hold your braid, sew on more strips, then recommence with the braiding. When you think you have enough, stop and start sewing the braid onto itself to make an round or oval rug. If you find that it’s not as big as you want, add more material onto the end and keep going.

Curtains

Ma Ingalls used the girls’ old dresses as curtains for small windows. Cut recycled clothing out so that trim or lace hangs at the bottom of the curtains or across the valence. You can also cut pretty lace or trim off clothing and put it on plain curtains. Sheets are good for making larger curtains. In fact, if you want a matching bedroom set, compare the price of an extra flat sheet or two to the matching curtains; you can almost always make yourself some tab-top curtains out of extra sheets for far cheaper than you can buy curtains.

If you want to cut down on your utility bills, or you have old, drafty windows, consider making curtains from blankets. Blankets work wonders for blocking drafts around windows in the winter and for shutting out the hot western sun in the summertime (or keeping your nice cool air from leaking outside). They also make excellent blackout curtains for people who need a dark bedroom. Make them tab-topped or with a pocket (easiest method). You can hang them up on a separate rod behind existing curtains or sew regular curtains to them at the top and hang them together if you want to hide the blankets.

Wall-Hangings

For people who live in older homes with poor insulation, winter can be miserable—cold and with a high energy bill to boot. One of the things that can be done to help guard against the cold are wall-hangings. Ever wonder why tapestries were hung up in castles? Yes, they were decoration, but they also worked as a primitive form of insulation, keeping cold air trapped between themselves and the wall. You can do the same thing by hanging up quilts or pretty blankets.

The easiest method is to use clear push-pins to tack the quilt directly to the wall. However, if you don’t want to or can’t do that, another option is to make a large tube of fabric and either whip stitch it to the top edge or the back of the quilt and slip a curtain rod through it and hang it up that way (the pocket can be taken off easily later). With either method, you can hang your quilts up right over existing pictures on the walls; when spring comes, you need only take down the quilts and fold them up and your house will be back to normal.

Pillows and Slipcovers

In the middle ages, all furniture was made from wood and pillows were made separately for comfort; it was not until the 18th century or so that people figured out how to pad and upholster wooden furniture to make the couches and chairs to which we are so accustomed. If you are having to make do with less than comfortable furniture, add pillows to make things better.

Do you have a couch or chair with a hard cushion? You can fold up a blanket or quilt and stick it under the cushion for extra padding. I read a tip to store extra blankets under couch cushions as a way to save space, but when I added them under our futon cushion, our comfort level while sitting on the couch doubled. In the case of futons, it’s not a bad idea to store all the needed blankets and sheets under the cushion, so it’s ready to be made into a bed in an instant.

Decorator throw pillows can be very expensive to buy, despite the fact that they are so easy to make. You can take bed pillows, which are too worn down to use on the bed, and make them a cover from scrap fabric and use them on a couch or chair, or let the kids lounge on them in the floor. You can also buy ugly pillows at yard sales or a thrift store and take the ugly cover off and put a new one on. Hobby and craft stores also sell new pillow forms that are ready to be covered. That T-shirt quilt described above? Make T-shirt pillows to match.

Did you know that slipcovers are also medieval? Laying a pretty coverlet over a bench or chair to make it look nicer and be more comfortable was the original form of slipcover. Slipcovers can be made as simply as laying a flat sheet over a piece of furniture and then folding it and using safety pins to mold it into shape. There are also slipcover patterns that you can buy wherever clothes patterns are sold. Even if you have to buy a slipcover (you can get decent prices on them at Marshall’s, TJMaxx and similar stores), that is still cheaper than replacing a piece of furniture.

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      anonymous 6 years ago

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      Becksta 6 years ago

      Don't forget that you can also swap the toys your children no longer play with with another parent who has children around the same age as yours. Can be great for expensive items like computer games

    • Virginia Allain profile image

      Virginia Allain 6 years ago from Central Florida

      Some very good advice here. We could all learn a lot from how our grandparents or great-grandparents made it through the hard times of the 1930s.

    • Virginia Allain profile image

      Virginia Allain 6 years ago from Central Florida

      Some very good advice here. We could all learn a lot from how our grandparents or great-grandparents made it through the hard times of the 1930s.