MARY BROOKS PICKEN- The Sewing Industry’s Most Influential Woman
Modern Sewing has its many influential people that have shaped the way you sew, where you sew, and how you sew. We know the names of Eleanor Burns, Nancy Zieman, Alex Anderson and many talented women that introduced us to new ways to design and fabricate everything from quilts to home décor. These women are held up in modern times as leaders in the sewing industry and their means of delivery has been in large part through television and the internet along with many published books.
Let me introduce you to the most influential woman that literally transformed thousands of women from ordinary clothing menders, to clothing specialists, capable of making a living and improving their homes with their sewing machines. At a time when most women were not able to vote, and less than 10% worked outside the home, a widowed woman from the Midwest moved East and began the most fascinating and influential career in sewing I believe I have ever witnessed.
Her name is Mary Brooks Picken, and if you stop for a moment, and look thru your library of sewing books, you may find The Singer Sewing Book , published by Singer in 1949, and written by this remarkable woman. This book is the authority on proper sewing technique covering everything from dressmaking to rugmaking. Although, upon closer inspection of your library you may find several of her books, since she wrote 91 during her career. I find writing 91 books exceptional? Why? By the time she was 28 years old in 1914, Mary had already written 64 textbooks and two dressmaking courses for the popular International Correspondence School located in Scranton, Pa.
Widowed at the age of 25, she was recruited by the school and opened the Women’s Institute under the ICS parent company. Courses offered at the institute were in sewing, dressmaking, millinery, and cooking. At 35 years of age, Ms. Picken had earned the role of Vice President for the Women’s Institute and a million dollar structure was built across the street from the ICS June 3rd, 1920.
The 125,000 women enrolled mainly from the United States, but also internationally, earned the praise from many influential sources including the U.S. commissioner of education at the time, P.P. Claxon. “In America at least, the home is the most important of all institutions” for it is the home that establishes the “physical, mental, and moral education” of children.” During the same period from 1920 thru 1925 Mary was editor of her quarterly publication, Fashion Service, and enrollment at her institute doubled to 253,000 enrollees.
Women from all over the United States wrote to Mary praising the school, and its education courses for improving their skills all around. In addition to earning money on the side to help support their family, women were opening businesses and supporting themselves. During early 1920s, “Most women were housewives, but by this time, a significant number of women did work outside the home, or even within it to earn money. Figures released when the cornerstone of the building was laid show for every 100 women enrolled in courses, 63 were married, 34 were single and three were widowed. Sixty-three percent of students studied to meet or enhance the requirements of their own home. Out of every 100, 17 planned to establish their own businesses, nine to prepare for a position in a business and 11 for both home and professional roles.” (Kashuba, 2011)
Having accomplished the monumental task of opening a school advancing women’s domestic skills, Mary moved forward and “begins a career in advertising with Singer Sewing, Dennison Crafts, and The Spool Cotton Company” (Barickman 2010). The Women’s Institute survived until 1937, due to a downturn from the Great Depression. In 1939 Mary opened the Mary Brooks Picken school on Madison Ave. in New York. She also released 3 books on fashion that same year.
During World War II there was a huge revitalization in sewing and women were encouraged to repurpose old clothes. The women that had completed courses from the Women’s Institute were skilled in accomplishing this and many were writing to magazines about what they had altered and renewed. By 1942 fabric sales were up by 50 percent over the previous year, and in 1943 70 million patterns were sold over the counter.
In 1949, Mary at the age of 63, wrote The Singer Sewing Book, which in 2 years sold 380,000 copies, and at its completion of printing sold over 8 million copies. At the age of 74, she was syndicated, writing a weekly column that reached 300 newspapers. Not much is written about her golden years, and she died the 6th of March, 1981 at the age of 94.
Mary Brooks Picken led an extraordinary life, and not only made a wonderful career from sewing and writing, but directly influenced women to take pride in their craftsmanship, and encouraged other towards entrepreneurship. I wonder today how many of Mary’s techniques are being replicated as “new” or “modern” in the sewing industry. Her methods taught women to abandon the ordinary, mundane task of sewing, and instead put their new skills toward making their homes and family fashionable and stylish. Mary Brooks Picken, an exceptional woman, whose techniques are still utilized today in everything we sew.
For further reading I encourage you to pick up a copy of Vintage Notions by Amy Barickman. The book is a compilation of patterns, techniques, recipes, and other things taught by Mary Brooks Picken at the Women’s Institute.