20th Century

A true love story – and a pattern

I barely knew my grandparents.   I grew up in Hawaii, and my surviving grandparents lived in California, so my memories of them are limited to a few trips to the Mainland, and their few trips to Hawaii.

I last saw my grandfather when I was in university, six months before he passed away.   My grandmother had been gone for five years, my grandfather had just moved into a nursing home, and my aunts were clearing out the house.

I was about to head off to New Zealand to study abroad, and knew I might never have another chance to see my grandfather.

While I was visiting my aunts showed me a few pieces of Grandma’s clothes, and her enormous hat collection.   We had the loveliest time looking at all the hats, laughing at the flower-covered 1960s beehives, and cooing over little veiled ’40s numbers.   My aunts insisted I try on Grandma’s dresses.   They fit like a glove, and thus, as the only grandchild the right size (and the only one with any interest in old stuff), they became mine.

Trying on Grandma’s debutant gown in the living room of her house

For the last visit with Grandpa, just before I went back to university, the aunts suggested I wear one of Grandma’s dresses —  a fabulous blue number, wonderfully vintage, but also timeless.   I paired it with my favourite of all of Grandma’s hats, a charming, crazy little item in dark blue with diamantes and wings.

Grandma’s blue hat

Grandpa loved that I had dressed up.   And he had a story about the hat.

When he and Grandma were courting in Joliet Illinois at the end of the Great Depression he took her to the movies.   On the way home they walked slowly, enjoying the evening and the date.   They stopped in front of the fanciest department store in town, and Grandpa noticed Grandma looking at a hat in the window.   He asked if she liked it, and she said yes, but that at $4.50 it was ridiculously expensive,  far  too much to spend on a hat.

The next day, Grandpa turned up at Grandma’s house with a parcel, which unwrapped to reveal the $4.50 hat.

And that was the hat I had picked to wear.

In Grandma’s blue dress and hat

In addition to her hats and dresses, I own all of Grandma’s patterns, each neatly marked with her name.   The earliest of them Butterick 8044, which she must have bought and made up when they were courting, or in the earliest days of their marriage.

Butterick 8044

From the moment I owned the pattern I’ve loved it, and I’ve imagined it made up in blue wool, paired with the $4.50 hat.

Blue must have been Grandma’s favourite colour, blue was the commonest colour among her hats, and three of the four dresses of hers that I own are in shades of blue (the fourth is her debutant dress, in white).

Posing in Grandma’s debutant dress

A few months ago I found the perfect vintage dress-weight blue wool in an op-shop ($7 for 8 metres!), so have just been waiting for the opportunity to make it up and realise my vision.
Opening up the pattern was such fun.  I could see which version Grandma had made up (short sleeves), and that she had carefully pinned alterations into the skirt, probably to conserve fabric.  Figuring out what Grandma made with patterns is like having a conversation with her.  It’s part of why I love her things so much: I feel like I get to really know her.

Pinned in pleats in Butterick 8044

Sewing up the pattern was a dream.  Felicity helped.

This is helping, right?

Tomorrow I’ll show you pictures of the finished outfit.


  1. I loved reading this. It must be so wonderful to be able to share something like that with your Grandma.

  2. Mary says

    WOW! What a fabulous find. And they were in such good condition. You are truly a lucky girl!

  3. …I just teared up about the hat story..I couldn’t even finish reading the post…oh my..that just tore me up…grandmothers/grandfathers…ugh…

    ..pardon me.

      • Oh, it’s not said…I’m just very sensitive to that stuff. My grandparents are in their 90s, WWII, marriage, love, all of that just is very close to home with me. (Just wore my grandmother’s wedding suit and hat to get married.) Knowing that he spent *that much* on a hat….just too romantic…pulls the heart strings. 🙂

  4. Hayley says

    That is the most wonderful dress, but the HAT! It was worth every cent of the $4.50

    • Isn’t it fabulous? The $4.50 in the late 30s/early 40s just leaves me gobsmacked though – that was so much money!

      • Elise says

        But man oh man–what a way to say “I think that you are the super-bestest, and you are worth a whole lot to me already.” Sigh!

  5. Claire Payne says

    Your best blog ever. It has everything, family history, glamour, vintage patterns and of course Felicity. I should also mention that my favourite colour is blue so I love the dress. It is very similar to a 1950’s one I own. The dress maker in my own family was my great Aunt Annie who unfortunately had a stroke and had to stop sewing and I suspect she got rid of most of her patterns at that time. How I wish I had such a wonderful collection of dresses and patterns from family as you do. You are very fortuntate indeed and it is made all the more special because you will appreciate and treasure them. I look forward to seeing the finished dress.

    • Wow, thanks Claire! That’s quite a compliment!

      I spent a long time wondering the date of the original blue dress, but I’m pretty sure it’s early 1950s now, and hearing that you have a similar one helps, so thank you again!

  6. And now you can add to your Grandparents story, but keeping the sewing/hat/dress memories alive…

    • Elise says

      My happy grandmother was a published cook, and wrote a cooking column in the newspaper for 15 years, much of it how to use the local wild food in Arizona. This year, I am collecting everything we have of hers and I’m writing it all together. This is my way to keep her alive.

      I bet that you have a thing or to that you do, too…

      • How fascinating Elise! Have you ever read ‘Her Father’s Daughter’? by Gene Stratton-Porter? It’s got dreadful examples of 1920s racism, but the parts about the girl writing recipes for local wild food in California intrigued me to no end.

        Could you re-publish your grandmothers recipes?

        • Elise says

          Isn’t it wonderful when we find ways to spend more time with people we love? I want to know more about the green-dress person, too! I wonder what other people do…

          Re-publish? I’m honored that you think it would be interesting. I had considered doing it for friends/family during the holidays, but I *suppose* that I could! I’ll contact the paper and see what the rules are.

          I read somewhere that many people ate off of the land until the 40s when food marketing became ubiquitous and touted the un-safeness of wild food. Much traditional Mexican food consists of wild things like nopales (prickly-pear cactus), which my grandmother helped put into the mainstream recipe consciousness in Tucson. She spent a lot of time writing about how to preserve the local berries into jams.

          I love learning that stuff, too. I wonder if NZ has a strong Guide program that teaches girls about how to gather local food. Or would the university have a seminar? I should read the book you suggested!

          • I love reading that stuff, so I’d be interested in a re-publish! Old newspaper articles are fascinating, and local food is one of my passions.

            There isn’t actually a lot of native food (other than fish) in NZ, but hunting and fishing and gathering are pretty big here. I doubt the main impetus comes from Guide programmes, but certainly there are Wild Food festivals where you can eat pikopiko fern shoots (yummy but carcinogenic in large quantities), huhu grubs (yummy if you can get past the raw grubs part), and wild game. A lot of the gathering, hunting and fishing is supported by Maori communities. There are also introduced wild foods – you can find wild apple and cherry trees along old roads.

  7. Demented Seamstress says

    How wonderful to have so many things to remember your grandmother by, and to be able to wear them. That blue hat is lovely and it suits you very well. How much did a hat usually cost back then?

    I can’t wait to see butterick 8044 sewn up, it looks like a really pretty pattern, the buttons up the side of view A are awesome.

    • I do feel very privileged to have all of Grandma’s things.

      Sears and Roebuck catalogues from the 1940s have hats for under $1, but $1-$2 is the general range.

  8. What a truly lovely story. I’m sure your Grandmother would be cooing over you in her hat and clothes. Its hard to believe that one upon a time $4.50 was high priced, its romance like that- that lasts a lifetime.

    • Thank you. I do hope Grandma would like me using her things. And it’s pretty amazing to think of how much $4.50 was in the early 1940s!

  9. What a sweet, sweet story! (What a tremendous amount to spend on a hat back then. But it must have been worth it, since it’s still in such good condition!) I look forward to seeing the new dress 🙂

  10. Lynne says

    I agree with Claire – best blog ever. It has everything.

    Isn’t it amazing how many things come down to chance? If you hadn’t been able to join your good aunts to sort your grandmother’s things… If you hadn’t been the woman you are… As it is, you have gained such riches in knowledge of your grandmother, and I’m sure she would be so happy to know that things that represented so much that was good in her life lived on.

    The pinned alterations to the pattern are especially touching. You can just imagine her, down on the floor, just as you are, with her face in ‘serious thinking’ pose, checking the measurements and working out how she can get that skirt out of that much fabric…

    A tribute to all sewing women, ever!

    • I often think about chance – it’s affected a lot of my life. If there hadn’t have been a flood, I wouldn’t have applied to the university I applied to. If Hawaii wasn’t the only state in the US with one statewide school district, and if the teachers hadn’t gone on strike, and if the university I had applied to kinda by mistake hadn’t offered to fly me out to visit during the strike I wouldn’t have ended up going to it, and then I wouldn’t have gone to see Grandpa, or come to NZ to study abroad. Mr D was also supposed to be at another university in NZ, but events that happened a year to the day before I met him meant that he was at the same university as me. And he was planning to skip the class we met in, but decided at the last minute not to. Chance is amazing!

      And the alterations are my favourite. I can see her, but it’s also such a telling story of the end of the depression WWII era, when fabric was so scarce and precious, in general.

  11. What a sweet story. I know my when my grandma got married one of the things she was bought was a sewing machine, and first thing she made on it was a green velvet dress. I would like to find an appropriate pattern to make my own green velvet dress.
    You have inherited some fab outfits. I *love* the hat. Would you object to taking some more detailed photo’s and letting me try to recreate it (I’m surprisingly good at making hats and that would be perfect for my winter hat)?
    I also find it interesting that you fit your grandmothers clothes, just shows peoples ‘sizing’ hasn’t really changed that much over the years.

    • Oh, how wonderful! I do hope you find the right pattern for a green velvet dress, and the right velvet.

      I can take some more photographs of the hat.

      Well, people’s sizing hasn’t changed in some ways, but I also share a reasonable amount of genetic heritage with my Grandmother, so that is a little less surprising. She did have more of a waist/hip differential than I – makes sense as she would have worn shaping undergarments on a regular basis.

      I do fit 20s/30s patterns with no alterations though! I think that’s just the right period for my figure 😉

      • LadyD says

        That would be fantastic. 🙂

        I know my grandad said they were married same year singing in the rain was in the cinema. So looking for a dress pattern from 1952.

        • Or a few years before – people held on to patterns and made them up years after too! I like to think of Grandma making and adapting this pattern for a full decade after she bought it – using a sleeve pattern to make it more late 40s etc.

  12. That was a lovely feel good cry. Thanks for sharing. I’m glad you were there to hear that story. Just think…if you hadn’t gone to see him that lovely story would have been lost to your family and lost to the world. A good reminder to us all that we need to grab any opportunity we may have to talk to our elders.

  13. Dawn says

    Priceless, this brought tears to my eyes. What a wonderful gift you’ve been given. Thanks for sharing.

  14. Susan says

    This brought a tear to my eye. What a lovely inheritance. And to be able to wear the dress and have your grandfather tell you such a sweet story is worth a million dollars!
    You look lovely in your grandmother’s dresses, and I love the one you made.
    Treasure those patterns and dresses.

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