1930s Sew-along with Norma: Tubbing your Paris frocks at home, Part 2


As part of the 1930s Sew-along with Norma, a discussion arose about hand washing clothes using natural soaps, laundry soda and borax.  I decided to make my own laundry soap based on recipes found online.  While researching I realized these products were used for decades.  In my own family Ivory soap was a staple when I was a child.  My Mom even used Ivory Snow to wash our clothes.  To keep true to the spirit of the 1930s Sew-along and try out the hand laundering and ironing techniques in “Paris Frocks at Home”, I experimented with the fashion fabric for my 1930s dress using a scrap.  I also washed and ironed several shirts and blouses.  What follows is a simplification of the process.  There are many kinds of ironing accessories like shaker bottles that are still available today.  I substituted a technique my Mom taught me using a damp towel.  The idea was to make do and adapt the techniques to my budget and limited space in the apartment.

This posting starts out with a section about my experience using the home made washing soap with colored clothes.  This topic was not included in part 1 because I hadn’t washed the blouse last week and did not want to hold up the posting of part 1.

Hand washing colored clothes

I made two kinds of fabric softeners as described in Part 1 of Tubbing your Paris frocks at home.   The home made soap powder did not stop the color of this blouse from bleeding.  This is why I washed it separately.  It does this even with Zote soap when I hand wash it.

The softener made with distilled white vinegar and lavender essential oil stopped further bleeding of the color.  As you can see here the blouse is soaking in water to which the mixture was added and it is clear.

For the red and white checked cotton shirt shown in the photos of this posting I used a powdered softener made with lavender oil, Epsom salts and baking soda.

Preparations before ironing

The shirt and the fashion fabric were completely dry when I placed them on damp, white towels and rolled them up.  It would be ideal to have a towel as long as the blouse so it would roll up more neatly.  Since this was the only white towel available I folded the shirt in half.

One of my Aunties used an ironing sprinkler to dampen her clothes.  It consisted of a glass bottle that had a top on it with perforated holes.  The sprinkler enabled adding a little moisture to the clothes.  I do not believe there were misters available like we have today.  My Mom hated sprinkler bottles because they took so much time to use.  Her shortcut was to roll the clothes up in a damp towel.

The ends of the towels are tucked in and they are ready for the next step.  Make sure your refrigerator is clean and does not have any odors lingering from spicy foods or eggs.  Yes, the shirt and fabric were headed for the fridge!

The shirt and fabric stayed in the refrigerator about 3 hours.  This results in the fabric becoming very manageable when ready to iron.  The wrinkles diminish considerably.  The important thing is not to leave the garments in the fridge overnight.  They start to smell badly when kept in there for too long.


I decided to forgo using steam when I ironed since the clothing was moist enough.

The fashion fabric was very relaxed and the crinkling shown in the photo of part one of this posting was not evident.  I worried about ironing too quickly or with too heavy a hand.  The fabric seemed so fragile.  I was concerned about stretching it out of shape.

The iron glided along.  I ironed in one direction at a time.  The rayon challis responded very well and was not troublesome as I thought it would be.

This is the cotton shirt before ironing.  The sleeve was so smooth and so easy to iron.  This process exceeded all my expectations.

The instructions in “”Paris Frocks at Home” recommends drying your clothing with the electric fan on once you’ve finished laundering or pressing.  The only available place that was dry and airy was in the little corner near the bow windows.  So I let the clothing hang from the ironing board while the fan was on.

What I liked most about this process was that the ironing time was reduced and I did not have to use a high temperature on the iron.  Not having to deal with the steam was also good.  This means less electricity consumption.


The crinkles were completely gone from the fashion fabric.  It was soft and still as colorful as when I first took it out of the package when the fabric was delivered to my house.

My cotton Hollister shirt, which is going on 6 years old, looks great.  The laundering process made the colors bright and the fabric soft.  The ironing technique made it look better than when I’d ironed it in the past.  I’m very pleased at finding the results worked out so well.  I plan on keeping them and bringing some vintage housewifery up-to-date and use it in my life.










1930s Sew-along with Norma: Starting at last!

A quick update…At long last I’ve started to make the 1930s influenced dress.  I cut all the pieces on Sunday.  I haven’t worked with a rayon challis before and realized very quickly this fabric has to be gently handled.  It is lightweight and given to shifting around.  I used a cutting mat and rotary cutter which worked out well.

I don’t have pattern weights and at first wasn’t sure how to proceed.  I placed the large mat on the floor and then the folded fabric on that.  After laying out the patter pieces and coming to the best arrangement, I marked the fabric into lengths that would accommodate the smaller pieces like the sleeve and flounces.  This is one of the things about making your own patterns that isn’t always discussed.  Figuring out the most efficient layout takes time and maybe even a few attempts.  Once this part was done I straightened the grain on the pieces and lightly steam pressed.

Rayon challis shreds a lot so I used a 3/4″ seam allowance when marking with tailors chalk around the edges of the pattern.  I plan to use a turned under seam finish.  One of the 1930s pattern sheets I found online has the stitching being done by hand using a running stitch.  I think I’m going for this one since I do not feel confident stitching close to the edge of this fabric by machine.   I also do not want to use a stabilizer out of concern that when I tear it off it will distort the grain.  I also do not want to use a water soluble stabilizer since that can start running into an extra expense I don’t want to incur.  I’d rather spend that money on the finishing touches like silk thread for the button loops or a pair of earrings to go with the dress.

I used a tracing wheel and dressmaker’s tracing paper to mark all seam lines.  Since the dress is a simple cut and consists of straight lines it was easy to do without much shifting of the fabric.  I held a clear plastic ruler on top of the pattern right at the sewing line after inserting the tracing paper.  Since I cut patterns with the right side of the fabric facing up this worked out well.

I’ll photograph how the progress on the v-neckline proceeds. In the meantime, to continue our review of laundry and pressing techniques from the past here is a YouTube video about how a happy housewife of 1947 experiences greater joy, health and satisfaction once she buys an IronRite pressing machine.  As you watch the video you’ll realize using this machine required a skilled operator.  Not everyone could be so adept and clever at assessing which way to apply the presser to more complex garments.  To think that a housewife would be expected to do all this work for her family and derive greater happiness from their crisply pressed clothing is sad in some ways, if looked at from our vantage in time.  At the end of the day, what was the Mary Jones of this video left with?  If this was upped in time to the modern day, Mary Jones would take several courses to earn a certificate of competency in using this pressing machine.  She’d get authorized and certified by the training institute and manufacturer.  Then with a loan from the bank, she could open her own pressing service, earn a salary from this skill and join the ranks of other women who run small businesses.  From housewife of 1947 to entrepreneur of 2016 we have come a long way.

I will also post “Tubbing Your Paris Frocks at Home, Part 2” soon.  I tried some of the vintage ironing techniques in the chapter.  At first I treated it like a bit of a joke, but they worked very well.  The results were that I did not need to use a high setting on the iron and I spent less time ironing.  Which means less electricity to heat the iron and no water needed for the steam.  I adapted the techniques a little and I think I will keep them.  I took photos and it will be fun to show you how I made do in my small apartment.

1930s Sew-along with Norma: Tubbing your Paris frocks at home, Part 1


Over the past week or so I’ve had very productive exchanges with Norma and Naomi about homemade laundry soaps and fabric softeners.  The discussion arose in part when I posted a book review of the 1930 book “Paris Frocks at Home”.  An entire chapter was devoted to the correct way to hand wash and dry clothing.  The emphasis and the great detail given to the subject revealed how women were moving away from a wash day based on the use of boiling water, heavy scrubbing and the use of soaps that were harsh on fabrics.

I was greatly encouraged to try making a batch of my own all natural, home made laundry soap and fabric softener.  I also did three test batches of hand washing afterwards.  I was pleasantly surprised with the results.

It’s the Spirit of the Thing

I decided to take on this project as part of the 1930s Sew-along with Norma since “Paris Frocks at Home”, published in 1930, emphasized hand washing techniques in more detail than I’d seen in any sewing book.  I thought about the ingredients of the home made preparations I was about to make.  Since they were in common use in earlier decades I think this offered me a chance to see how laundry may have been done in the past.  It also offered a chance to see what the results were like.

Selection of Soap

I have read that only Ivory soap should be microwaved.  People at other forums have tried microwaving Fels Naptha soap and gotten a very ugly odor  that is hard to get out of the microwave and surrounding area.

How I Made The Soap Powder

I’m sharing a batch with my Uncle.  We both remembered how Ivory Snow was a favored laundry soap in the family back in the 1950s and 1960s.  This determined the soap we chose for our homemade soap powder.  What follows are photos of the process I used based on several recipes I found online.


1.  Organize your supplies.  For the soap powder you’ll need:

-2 cups 20 Mule Team Borax
-2 cups Arm & Hammer Super Washing Soda
-1  5 ounce bar of Ivory Soap.  I couldn’t find a 5 ounce bar so I used two 3 ounce bars.  Since Ivory is very mild I didn’t worry about the extra ounce of soap.

For the softener you’ll need:

-32 ounces of distilled white vinegar
-8 ounces baking soda
-4 cups Epsom Salts
-Lavender essential oil

I did not want to grate the soap so I microwaved it.  This was so much fun watching the soap explode in the microwave.  It turns out that Ivory Soap does not have a strong odor.  Although some of the soap stuck to the walls of the microwave it washed off easily leaving the microwave very clean.  I remove any lingering soapy odor by putting some white vinegar in a microwaveable bowl  and let it heat for 4  minutes in the microwave.


2. Microwave the soap one bar at a time.  Set the time for 75 seconds.


3. This is what the microwaved soap looks like.  Let it cool for a minute or two.  Then remove.  It will be crumbly.  Break into little pieces.


4.  Put 2 cups of washing soda in the blender.


5.  The microwaved soap cools quickly.  You’ll want to break it all and get it into the blender as soon as possible.  Put the blender on pulse setting and be patient.  You’ll have to turn the blender off every so often and stir the mixture to ensure all the soap is pulverized.


6.  Soon you’ll have a fine white powder.  Now it’s time to add 2 cups of Borax to the blender.  Pulse again and turn off to stir.  Keep pulsing until all the soap is turned to powder.


7. You’ll end up with a fragrant and very fine white powder.  The soap powder will be slightly warm from the blender.  I took it out and put it into two plastic containers but did not cover them until the soap was cool to the touch.

Making The Fabric Softener:  Epsom Salt and Baking Soda


1. Add 4 cups of Epsom Salts to a bowl.


2. Add 40 drops of lavender essential oil and mix well into the Epsom Salt.

3. Add 1 cup of baking soda and mix until well blended.

Liquid Fabric Softener:  Vinegar and Lavender

To 4 cups of distilled white vinegar add about 10-15 drops of lavender oil and shake well.

Finished Product


When I was finished I had 2 containers of soap powder and 2 containers of powdered fabric softener as shown in this photo.

For a washing machine about 1/4 cup of the soap powder can be used and about 1/4 cup of the fabric softener.  I think experimentation is best to see how much you need.

Using home made laundry soap and fabric softener

Please note that some discussions on the use of home made laundry preparations caution against using vinegar or Epsom Salt.  Some say that they are harmful to High Efficiency washing machines.  Others advise that Epsom Salt hinders the cleaning action of the soap.

I plan to use the soap powder and powdered fabric softener for hand washing.  No Epsom Salt is added to the washing powder so I am not worried about these concerns.  I do recommend checking the topic further if you plan to use them in the washing machine.  One poster at forum said the vinegar rinse corroded the gasket in her washing machine.

RetroGlam Test:  Tubbing various wearables and fabrics at home

I washed a 100% cotton shirt, some lingerie and kitchen towels with the soap  The first thing I noticed was how soft my hand felt when I took them out of the water.  I always wear rubber gloves but had to take them off because of a hole.

The next thing I noticed was that it was necessary to swish the water around a little before putting the clothes in.  The soap powder did not make lots of suds but there was enough after I used 3 T of the powder for the second wash.  I let the clothes soak 15 minutes and then rinsed in cool water.  The suds rinsed out quickly, unlike the detergent I buy at the 99 cent store.

I then used the vinegar and lavender oil as a softener for the kitchen towels.  The baking soda and Epsom Salts softener was used for my head scarves, cotton shirt, lingerie and fashion fabric scraps.  I rinsed the softener out after 15 minutes.


The blouse, lingerie and kitchen towels dried soft and without any wrinkles.  I was surprised at how soft they were.


Before hand washing.

The next test was using the soap powder and fabric softener on cuttings of fashion fabric.  The lighter floral prints are rayon challis, the print with navy blue flowers is polyester.


After hand washing.

I was very surprised to find that the rayon challis responded well to the home made laundry soap and softener.  The colors remained bright.  The polyester was very soft and did not have the odor it had from being in a plastic bag since April.


One rayon challis did not come through the wash as smooth as the other.  This one took on a crinkled appearance.  I think it needs to be ironed while damp to remove the crinkly lines that run through the fabric.  I will do a test following the ironing instructions in the chapter “Tubbing your Paris frocks at home” and report back.



1930s Sew-along with Norma: Delivery delays

The hot days and high humidity continue here in Brooklyn, New York.  I can’t move around the way I want and find it’s better to wait for a cool, dry day to resume sewing or any other creative project.  I’ve also had another factor delaying the start of sewing my 1930s dress:  the package containing my sewing supplies has yet to be delivered.  The store I ordered the interfacing, dressmaker’s tracing paper and stay tape from used the wrong zip code.  The package has to go back to them for relabeling and redelivery.  Everything else about the address was correct.  In a way, though, the delay is working out in my favor

Carol at bywayofthainks blog continues working on her V-necked cardigan while sharing the results of her research on the best ways to stabilize and finish such a neckline.  This additional information is helping me rethink and refine my own approach.  Once I start sewing I will post about what develops.

The green glass vintage belt buckle I thought I’d use has a flaw:  there isn’t any prong.  No wonder it only cost me $2.50!  Since I’ve no idea how to create a metal prong for a glass buckle I thought I’d buy another buckle.  I was very happy to find another vintage glass buckle at Etsy.  Not only does it have a prong but it’s a similar shade of green.  I’m very happy about that.

I also found some green glass vintage buttons that I will purchase.  There are six of them and they are close in color to the buckle.  I’m thinking of putting three buttons on each sleeve.  They will be sewn along the vertical elbow dart along with thread loops to create a mock closure along the dart.  Here are photos from Etsy along with links to the vendor’s shops.


Green Czech glass belt buckle from Pastoria on Etsy.

The buckle is from the 1950s but it has a kind of 1930s look to me.  I think it will look just right with the style of the dress.  It is from the Etsy shop, Pastoria.


Green glass buttons I hope to buy for the dress.

The buttons I hope to buy also are from the 1950s but I think they will work well with the overall look I’m working for with the 1930s dress.  These come from the Etsy shop, Hampton House.

The package I’m waiting for contains an interfacing that should work perfectly with the rayon challis fabric for the dress.  I’ve read that rayon is a tricky fabric to interface.  You need a weight similar to the challis.  The one I ordered fits the description so I have to be patient and wait for its arrival.  I also need the dressmaker’s tracing paper.  I don’t like using chalk or tailor’s tacks.

In the meantime I’ve got the supplies needed to make the all natural laundry soap.  Again, I plan to wait for a dry, cool day before starting that project.  I don’t fancy grating soap in the humid weather.  I’ll post about that, too.  I found an interesting description of how clothes were laundered in a novel I’m reading entitled “Candleford Green”.  The story is based on the life experiences of Flora Thompson.  She describes the people and daily life of the English countryside with a love and warmth to which she adds the wisdom of maturity as she looked back at the past.  The washday scene from the story gives us an idea of what a big event this was.  I’ll post the text soon.


Coffee-Break: Wash day in late 1940s

Norma, Naomi and I are having an extended conversation about how clothes were washed in the past.  We’re also sharing information about how we care for the clothing we make.

This video from YouTube shows the drudgery a British housewife feels during a typical wash day in the late 1940s.  As the video progresses, we see the new appliances that were coming onto the market.  The narrator offers tips on how to organize and plan for laundry day so that the time and effort are used efficiently and to maximum effect.

I recommend this video not only as an extension of the conversation.  It shows just how much a housewife in the past had to know.  The expectations were very high.  Learning how to use the different types of washing and pressing devices required clarity and attention to detail.

Housework really was a form of domestic engineering or domestic science.  We need to rethink and look at the level of discipline the role took and the quality of life the homemaker created for her family.  I don’t think families appreciated all the little details a mother did like press tablecloths, towels and sheets.  My Mom refused to get to that level of detail but my Grandmother did.  Today, the place where I can experience neatly pressed and folded sheets and towels would be in a hotel.  And that comes with a price well over $100+ a night, even at a budget hotel.


The Dressmaker’s Library: “Paris Frocks At Home”

Book Review

“Paris Frocks At Home” is one of the sewing books I’ve used during the preliminary phase of the 1930s Sew-along with Norma.    It was published by The Butterick Publishing Company in 1930.  The value of this book lies in the details and the illustrations.  We see all the elements of what is now considered the essence of Depression Era styles:  godets, long hemlines, fluttery capelets,  as well as interesting collar and neckline treatments.  Included in the book are several reproductions of pattern layout and sewing instruction sheets from Butterick Patterns.  Although these are small in the book, the pages can be scanned and enlarged .  The results are the complete sewing details for one or two of the Butterick styles use in the book.    I have also found that taking photos using the zoom capabilities on my camera also made clear the details in the small illustrations of the instruction sheets.  This alone made the book worth the purchase price.  These details have been very useful for the creation of my own 1930s influenced dress.

The styles chosen for the book may have been used in conjunction with these patterns since the book would enhance the learn as you go approach.  The explanations for each technique covered are clear and simple.  This is slightly deceptive for a beginner since some of the methods of finishing a garment using bias binding are more for an intermediate level seamstress.  The book seems geared towards the homes ewer who had a good understanding of cutting, basting, and basic alterations.  Intermediate techniques are covered but not in great detail.

The instructions for creating butterfly bows and different kind of neckline ties are brief but the illustrations show that their creation can be done by an experienced person.  I’ve included scans at the end of this posting to get you started on your own adventures into these feminine necklines using bows and capelet collars.

The book ends with a guide on how to launder clothes by hand.  Much emphasis is placed on letting the clothes soak in the soap suds.  There is  much repetition of the delicate nature of the synthetic and natural fibers used to create the lightweight garments women were wearing as the 1930s began.  The reader is urged to stop wringing and scrubbing her clothes so much.  It was better to swish the clothes around in a wash basin and let the garment soak so the dirt would float out of the fibers.   There seems to have been a conscious effort to educate women on how to keep their clothes longer.  Scrub boards and vinegar rinses weakened fibers while gentle laundering kept the fibers looking and behaving better for much longer.

The attention a housewife was expected to pay to the hand laundering of fine woolens, silks and rayons was, if I take this book as the norm, very burdensome.  Stain removal treatments included a combination of steam from a kettle, peroxide and oxalic acid crystals.  Maybe some home seamstresses took their interest in fibers, fabrics and clothing to this level but how widespread it was is hard to say.  What I did get from this chapter was a reminder of how much my own Mom knew about hand washing clothes.  She taught me many of the ways to launder lingerie, sleepwear and special occasion wear in a manner similar to what is described in this chapter.  The washing machine was used for sheets, towels, children’s clothing but never for finer clothing or lingerie.   Since she was born during the Great Depression these laundering techniques were in use at that time.  They are similar to what she learned and then passed on to me.

This chapter on the laundering of one’s delicate Paris inspired frocks includes recommendations to turn on the electric fan when some fabrics are almost dry so that the air from the fan can finish up the job of dyring.  One was supposed to shake the garment every so often so the fibers would not become shriveled or flattened as in the case of wool.

After reading this chapter I am even more grateful for all the wonderful fiber blends we have today that wash easily and do not require heavy ironing or fussing to look good.

Some Collar and Neckline Treatments from “Paris Frocks At Home”