1930s Dust Bowl Dress – Made by Me
Pink Wicker Handbag – Marks & Spencer (years ago!)
1930s Style Sunglasses – eBay
1930s Style Yellow Shoes – Hotter Shoes
1930s Jade Drop Earrings – Gift
The term ‘dust bowl’ comes from a period in 1930s when severe dust storms ravaged the landscape in the American and Canadian prairies. These storms created a severe drought and many farms in these regions failed to produce any crops. The first wave of storms came in 1934 at a time when every day Americans were already suffering greatly from the effects of the Depression.
Out of this devastation and poverty came a fashion known as the dust bowl dress. The style was simple, wearable but also incredibly stylish. Women used whatever they could to add interest and detail to the basic early 1930s shape and often mixed different fabrics they had scraps of. During this time producers of flour and feed realised that women were using their sack packaging to create clothing and decided to print them with very distinct patterns rather than leaving them plain.
Today these prints are instantly recognisable as being from the 1930s dust bowl or Depression era. They’re often brightly coloured and have that real Art Deco feel about them. However, purchasing an original feedsack is not only costly but also almost impossible if you want to buy matching ones to make a dress. But not all is lost, there is a sector of the fabric industry that reproduces these 1930s prints and that’s the quilting cotton sector. (Quilting was huge during the 1930s and the distinct 1930s quilt was made from small scraps of feedsack fabric and matched with plain fabric.)
So, when I stumbled across Country Threads Patchwork in Bath whilst on a hunt for a particular wool shop, and walked into a room full of 1930s printed quilting cotton, you can probably imagine my excitement. I’d seen this type of fabric online but had never seen it in real life, so literally had no idea of the weight or feel of it. It was great to finally be able to see it and touch it for myself.
Unfortunately for me, it is quite a heavy and stiff fabric, despite being 100% cotton. It’s not ideal for 1930s dressmaking but when I spotted this absolutely amazing green, pink, yellow and cream print I just could not resist. I knew I had to try and make something from it but also knew that it was going to be a complete experiment, which could go either way.
Now this fabric isn’t cheap and it’s also not very wide, so at £13 a metre and only 110 cms wide, I chose just two metres. I knew this wasn’t going to be enough to make a whole dress, so I decided to take a leaf out of the dust bowl ladies book and match it with a plain fabric. I decided to go with quilting cotton again to make sure the weights were the same, but as it was plain it was much cheaper. I chose cream rather than any of the bright colours to make sure it really stood out.
When I pinned the cream yoke onto the main fabric I thought it still looked a little bit too plain for a dust bowl dress. It needed something to go between the plain and the patterned fabric. It was common during this era to add bias binding or ric rac to define certain areas, so I went digging in all of my trimmings boxes. Eventually I pulled out yellow ric rac, bright pink ribbon and green bias binding. I spent ages trying to decide which one of them to use but in the end the yellow ric rac won out. It was from a card of different coloured ric rac scraps my mum had back in the 1970s, so it fitted the bill of just using what I had perfectly.
The buckle is an original 1930s celluloid one and again was in my stash. I did try a yellow one and a cream one but this green one was the most special and stands out perfectly against the pattern. The bows, however, are my favourite bit. They were so easy to make but look so cute. I can just imagine a lady in the 1930s making these from little scraps of feedsack and adding them to an old dress to liven it up again.
The skirt part is a 1930s classic and simple slight A-line shape with a single kick pleat in the centre. In typical 1930s fashion, the front and back of the skirt are just one piece of fabric each and the pleat is just created by top stitching the folded pieces above the knee. There’s no messing about with matching up a separate back piece to the pleat, just fold, top stitch and press. Also, there’s no waist seam line. Again, in typical 1930s fashion, it’s what they call a one-piece dress, i.e. the skirt and bodice are all in one, rather than being two separate sections you sew together.
The darts on both the front and back waist areas were not part of the original pattern and you can read more about why I chose to add them here. They’re not ideal but it does mean that the shape suits me better. There’s still a little bit too much fabric around the waist line as it folds in a couple of places when the belt is pulled tight. If this had been a much softer fabric, i.e. much more of what would’ve been used back in the 1930s, then this would’ve gathered nicely around the waist and there would’ve been no need for the darts.
Despite the troubles I had with dress and the messing about with the pattern, I am sort of happy with it. I would say about 70% happy! I did get a lot of compliments when I wore it on Sunday, which did help me feel a bit better about it. And I do still looooovvvvveeeee that print!
So, what did I learn from this experiment?
- Never use quilting cotton for 1930s dresses ever again. It’s not suitable and is far stiffer than what would’ve been used originally. It could work for a skirt though.
- Always, always do a mock-up first. I was too eager with this dress and had some serious fitting issues that would’ve been ironed out at the toile stage.
- I need more casual, easy to wear dresses from the earlier 1930s because, despite the 26 degree heat, this was so comfortable to wear and I didn’t feel sticky at all.