While the menfolk were doing ”back breaking hard labor” (or so they said) on the farm in the good ole days the women were working their “fingers to the bone.” In addition to raising ”young’uns,” caring for animals and tending crops, women in the country focused on harvesting, preserving and cooking food. Even as young girls they realized that sewing was a necessary skill for making clothes and creating quilts.
In the 1920’s, when Ruby Turner Knight grew up on a tobacco farm in the Swann Station area of Harnett County about three miles from Broadway, she learned about all aspects of housekeeping and homemaking. Ruby and her three sisters, Mary Isabelle “Mamie,” Estelle and Lee Oma, worked together doing chores usually reserved to females, including sewing.
Rumor has it that after graduation from Boone Trail High School Ruby took a public job for a garment company in Sanford where she did sewing for many hours every day.
After Ruby married Puzie Doyle “Bud” Lett in 1942 she got tips about sewing from his seven sisters, Gladys, Esther, Alice, Cleo, Violette, Selma and Bettie Blue, and Gladys’ daughter, Maxine. Bud’s only brother, Gilbert, married Isabelle Patterson, who had grown up on a farm near Lillington. Ruby and Isabelle helped each other make dresses. Ruby was surrounded by supportive women who shared ideas, patterns and fabrics and were also excited about sewing projects.
Fashioning Clothes For Two Daughters When Ruby became mother to three children — Jimmy Doyle, Mary Carolyn and me — she developed her various talents in terms of cooking and learning financial skills to run the farm and contribute to Moore Union Congregational Church. While she was highly praised for diverse gifts, Ruby — who I proudly called Mama — gravitated towards sewing as a constant passion that was also practical and gave much joy to others.
Despite constant chores Mama discovered ways to be creative. She told me: “I could sew when I won’t no-size and made most of my own clothes while growing up.” She loved fashioning dresses, blouses and skirts for my sister and me.
In the ‘50s and early ‘60s our family would ride up to Stevens Milling Company in Broadway, only four miles from the Lett family farm in the Buckhorn community, and look through feed sacks in order to pick out the colors and prints we liked best. After the grain for the chickens was poured in metal barrels, Mama washed the sacks in the ringer washing machine on the back porch and starched the fabrics. Then she transformed the decorative sacks into frocks, blouses, skirts, shorts, pajamas, what-have-you for my sister, Mary Carolyn, and me.
Designing Dresses And Accessories During my student days at Broadway School I developed a flair for the dramatic in my sense of style, and Mama indulged me. In high school I used my work-intobacco earnings to buy a “citified” pair of shoes — something rare like a lime green/royal blue combination. Then Mama and I went to the fabric store in downtown Sanford where we’d pick out matching green and blue material. I would draw a design, and Mama would create a pattern and then whip up the frock on her sewing machine. Sometimes she even made me a matching pocketbook from the leftover fabric. When I wore this outfit other students were impressed, and I was in high cotton!
This custom continued as I went to The Bootery in downtown Sanford and bought more shoes and together Mama and I created matching outfits.
One day Mama and I bought an exotic print fabric with red fruit all over it, and we shopped all over town looking for matching apple buttons to go down the back. Back home, we were in the middle of the sewing project when Carolyn walked in and said, “Where did you get that wild strawberry dress?”
With eyes as big as saucers Mama and I took a closer look at the fabric to discover that, sure enough, the fruits were strawberries and not apples. We went for the fruit bowl effect and used the apple buttons anyway.
Creative Projects Continue To Impress During college days at Sandhills Community College in Pinehurst and later at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill I resided only 35 miles from the Lett farm. Classmates were amused about my distinctive attire and thought that since I dressed so well and drove a 1969 Chevrolet Camaro I came from a wealthy family. I had received scholarship funds and worked part-time at newspapers so made enough money to make $100 car payments way back in the 1970’s.
Back at home Mama would pick out a vibrant fabric, make me a long dress with a matching pocketbook and scarf and have a new outfit ready when I came home to visit. Mama was relieved that I did not wear old faded blue jeans and become a “hippie,” but I teased her that she helped me look like a Bohemian! When I allowed my hair to grow long and became a vegetarian Mama’s creations helped me appear avant-garde.
While I was studying and working in Ohio for several years I received surprise packages in the mail with more unique clothes and still have some of these priceless creations. Since I still wear the same size I may just don these outfits again!
Through the years when a dress, blouse or skirt had “slamdamn wore out” and “weren’t no good” for passing on as hand-medowns its scraps became pieces in quilts. Mama and other women used leftover material to create patterns for colorful quilts, and I still have my favorite on my bed, but we’ll talk about that next time.
Memories of Mama during Mother’s Day season remind me how hard women worked on the farm and how many skills they had to develop to take care of their families and keep the household running smoothly.
Whether it was harvesting fruits and vegetables, cooking up a storm in the kitchen, or using fabrics decorated with strawberries, Mama’s work on the farm was never finished. Back then men crowed the loudest but women ruled the roost when it came to taking care of their biddies and providing us “young’uns” with fine feathers, comfortable nests and mighty fine food.
AlexSandra Lett lives near Broadway and is the author of six books. See www.atimelessplace. com. She can be reached at (919) 499-8880 or LettsSetaSpell@aol. com.
LETT’S SET A SPELL
Above, in this photograph taken about 1944, Maxine Thomas Patterson, Isabelle Patterson Lett, Ruby Knight Lett (who became my mama), and Bettie Lett Garner show off dresses they sewed. At left, in this picture from 2007 I accept a dare from my nephew, Wayne Lett, that I am still slim enough to wear a dress Mama made me during the 1970s.