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The author’s antique 1921 Singer 66-1 treadle sewing machine, named Miss Hazel in honor of Hazel MacKaye. Photo courtesy of the author.

A Stitch in Time: Sewing a 1920s Dress Inspired by Hazel MacKaye

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On a sunny afternoon this past July, I sat up straight in my chair and placed my feet perfectly still on my antique sewing machine’s iron treadle base, right foot forward. One hand held the fabric steady as my other hand gave the balance wheel a confident spin, engaging the leather belt and bringing the machine to life with a quiet whir. Tickatickatick, tickatickatick. The needle zipped right along as the fabric fed through underneath it, creating a beautiful straight seam as I hemmed the bottom of the dress, treadling rhythmically to keep the momentum going until I had made it all the way around. Tickatickatick, tickatickatick

I learned how to sew as a teenager, my mother patiently teaching me as we worked together to create elaborate ensembles and stuffed creatures. My grandmother, an avid quilter, had taught my mother how to sew when she was a teenager, and so I was the third generation of sewists in our little family. Now often considered a niche hobby, we loved practicing a skill that was once as essential to American daily life as cooking or woodworking. Recently, a friend gave me a 1921 Singer treadle sewing machine picked up at an estate sale back in the early 1970s. The previous owner had used the machine as her primary workhorse for the entirety of her decades-long career making Broadway costumes. Now it was in my living room, waiting to be taken out of the cabinet and used again for the first time in more than fifty years. Although I sew regularly, I had never used a treadle, and I wanted my first project on it to be something that would represent not only the history of these machines and the women who operated them, but also the women who wore the garments created on them. Turning to Manuscript Division collections for inspiration, I found the perfect fit in a 1923 photograph of Hazel MacKaye.

“Hazel MacKaye, noted pageant director, who is in charge of the big outdoor Pageant to be held in the Garden of the Gods – Sept. 16 – Colorado Springs,” 1923. Box II:275, National Woman’s Party Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

A notable pageant director, Hazel MacKaye (1880-1944) wrote and directed pageants advocating for women’s suffrage and equal rights. Popular in the early twentieth century, these elaborately produced historical dramas captivated the public, raised money, and through their sheer spectacle made political messages more accessible to a broader audience. The National Woman’s Party (NWP) held two pageants directed by MacKaye to honor the 75th anniversary of the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention in July and September 1923, in Seneca Falls, New York, and Colorado Springs, Colorado, respectively. The NWP’s aim with the pageants was to declare its support of the Equal Rights Amendment, proposed in Congress that year to “guarantee legal equality for women.” The rock formations in the Colorado Springs park Garden of the Gods served as the perfect dramatic backdrop for the first repeat performance of the pageant, which included women representing ten states as well as a “chorus of 500 women’s voices.” MacKaye remarked of the Garden of the Gods performance, “Only a noble idea is worthy of being interpreted in that awe-inspiring spot.” Scrapbooks found in the National Woman’s Party Records contains photographs and newspaper clippings documenting the event from rehearsals to public reception.

Fashion also played an important role during the women’s suffrage movement by communicating identity and values and signaling the wearer’s affiliation with various activist groups. As a visual medium, pageants especially relied on the symbolism of costumes to represent their causes. I found it personally meaningful to re-create MacKaye’s dress, which in 2023 had now transitioned from fashion to costume, but still represented the women advocating for equal rights.

“Pageant celebrating the 75th anniversary of the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, Garden of the Gods, Colorado Springs, Colorado,” 1923. Box I:159, National Woman’s Party Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

The first step in my project was actually learning my way around the 1921 Singer treadle. Although I had received it in good condition, some mechanical issues took me hours to troubleshoot. I crowdsourced my questions on antique Singer forums online, working together with other sewists with over a century of combined experience in order to get my machine working. I’m an archivist, not an engineer, but I envisioned another sewist sitting at the same machine in 1923, running into the same problems and solving them the same way—by taking apart the tension assembly, carefully cleaning and aligning the pins and springs, and re-calibrating it through trial and error. I began to feel ownership of the machine, my hands covered in oil and grease as I finally managed to coax a beautiful stitch from it.

With the machine now working, I could start on the dress. I chose a vintage pattern which closely resembled MacKaye’s dress in style and silhouette. Modern patterns typically come in multiple sizes and include detailed instructions for every single step, but my original 1920s pattern was alarmingly spare. The pieces were printed for one standard size, and the instructions were equally concise, with the assumption that the sewist already had the skills to tailor the garment to her own measurements. For example, while there were instructions on how to insert the dress’s sleeves, nowhere in the steps did it tell me when I should do it! Fortunately, this was not the first dress I’d ever sewn, so I could make an educated guess, but I was about five minutes away from calling my mother… just to check.

My colleague, Shandra Morehouse, who crocheted the collar for the dress, reported similar challenges with the vintage pattern she used. The language describing the stitches had changed, and the techniques used to create a foundation for the collar didn’t initially make sense to her. She had to modify heavily the pattern to work with the materials she had on hand. However, she could easily imagine women in the past also making adjustments based on the supplies available to them. Both of us improvised to create a final look inspired by Hazel MacKaye, while learning and connecting to the women who had made, modified, and worn these designs before. It was certainly tempting to cheat and use modern machines and methods, but we had to trust the process and challenge ourselves to see it through.

Manuscript Division staff member Rachel McNellis poses in the Hazel MacKaye-inspired dress. Photo courtesy of the author.

Ultimately, the dress came together beautifully. I used a cotton polka dot fabric in white and navy that evoked the era, and Shandra’s lacy crocheted collar gave it a stylish touch. Using antique tools and techniques of the past, we created a modern costume of our own to invoke the image of Hazel MacKaye and the causes she championed while celebrating the hundredth anniversary of the pageant held in the Garden of the Gods.

Sources Cited

The National Woman’s Party (NWP) held two pageants…”Tactics and Techniques of the National Woman’s Party Suffrage Campaign,” Women of Protest: Photographs from the Records of the National Woman’s Party, Library of Congress.

“chorus of 500 women’s voices…”The Garden of the Gods,” TIME Magazine, October 1, 1923, page 4.

“Only a noble idea is worthy…”The Garden of the Gods,” TIME Magazine, October 1, 1923, page 4.

As a visual medium…” Mary Dockray-Miller, “Why Did the Suffragists Wear Medieval Costumes?JSTOR Daily, March 4, 2020.

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Comments

  1. Nice story; nice job, and nice “red-eye” decals on your Singer 66!

    In my experience, the coordination of two hands on different tasks, plus the timing of rocking the treadle with two feet is awkward when compared sewing with an electric sewing machine. I guess it’s a little like learning to drive car with a clutch and stick-shift after years of automatic transmission. I can drive the stick-shift, but not the treadle.

    Kudos for mastering the skill, Rachel; you have given me inspiration to try again on my own Singer treadle sewing machine: a model 15-1.

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