The Home Ec Retrospective

Behold, Frankenshorts! It's aliiiiive! (I think the red box in the sewing basket is my old Home Ec "pincushion.")

This weekend I did a couple of things that I don’t do often. I baked meringues for my husband as part of a you-do-yard-work-and-you-get-cookies arrangement. I also — in a desperate and probably vain attempt to extend the lifespan of my favorite cut-off shorts — sewed a patch and re-sewed a seam.

Both of these activities made me remember my Home Economics classes in junior high. My district called our school junior high, and not middle school then, although by the early ’90s lots of school systems were switching over to the 6-8 middle school format, rather than the 7-8 junior high school model. We were taught Home Economics and Industrial Arts, which roughly translated to Cooking and Woodworking in the seventh grade and Sewing and Printing in the eighth. I knew from books and television and people in other towns that not all schools had these extras, and I remember wondering if we were weird because we did.

I didn’t think I needed Home Ec. I had already done baking projects at home. My mother, an accomplished seamstress and the granddaughter of a professional tailor, had already taught me a little about sewing. She taught me to work with patterns and sewing machines when I was in grammar school. We made doll clothes together during summer vacations.  Like many middle schoolers, I figured I already knew everything when I walked into Home Ec class in junior high school. Yet, today as I finish repairing the seam on Frankenshorts, I find myself tying off the thread with a knot taught to me by my Home Ec teacher, not my mother. I’m even using the same spool of thread and the same box of pins we bought when I started the course in the fall of 1991.

At the time, Home Ec seemed silly to me. I liked the break from regular classes, but I didn’t feel like I was learning anything useful. Our cooking curriculum seemed – except for one notable day when we made pizza – completely made up of cookies, learning measurements, and cleaning up. In our sewing class, we made pillows and stuffed animals from plush “kits” ordered from a catalog. I can’t deny that I enjoyed making pillows and bringing them home, but I still think the course might have been more absorbing if it featured some element of clothing repair. At 13, I was definitely interested in learning how to patch my beat-up denim jacket, in letting down the hems of my pants (I was too tall for almost all my clothes) and in fixing the holes in my favorite shirts before my mom used those holes as an excuse to throw them away. Our teacher had her own methods, and so we made the probably-less-controversial pillows.

Looking back at it, there was a feeling of fiefdom to my junior high school Home Ec classes. When you walked into the rooms on the Home Ec corridor, you were entering the teacher’s world. Sewing machines, mixers and ovens were fiercely protected. Names were assigned to things that didn’t need new names. Baking mix was called Master Mix. Anything that held pins was a pincushion, even if was a box or a bag or anything else that is manifestly not a cushion. There seemed to be this war, waged in semantics, that was constantly being fought, although I didn’t feel like the teacher was struggling against me or my fellow students. As a former schools reporter, I now wonder if that war was being waged against an administration that questioned the need for cooking and sewing classes in middle school.

I could be wrong about this theory. When I check out my old school’s website, I see that cooking is still taught. In fact, the most popular recipe from that course, beloved of even the most jaundiced seventh graders, is posted on the site. Cinnamon rolls. Mmmm.  Click here to download, and enjoy.

Sadly, there are no sewing classes listed. And I didn’t see many sewing classes in other schools when I covered education for the newspaper. As I finish work on Frankenshorts, I can’t help but think that sewing is really a valuable skill for anyone to have. Even if they learn on silly plush pillows. Even if all they know how to do is sew a stupid Band-Aid patch onto a pair of jeans. Sewing and cooking are a couple of useful skills and they will be until we evolve fur or photosynthesis.