The fit of homemade clothes was just another way to hug a kid

Justin Isherwood
The Wellnitz brothers, Bob, second from left, and his brother, Edgar Wellnitz Jr., right, are joined by their cousins on the farm in the town of Byron in 1940. Many farm kids were relegated to wearing homemade clothing out of economic necessity.

As a farm kid, homemade kinda creeped me out. It seemed we were intrinsically and fatalistically surrounded and defined by homemade; homemade bread, homemade clothes, homemade preserves, homemade houses, homemade heat, even our fun was homemade. Homemade was our social station as much as it was a craft skill.

Every year our mom made us a new set of school clothes, mostly shirts, if there were also mittens though I don’t remember a string, sweaters of course, stocking caps, scarves, snow pants that as I recall didn’t bend in any of the right places. 

To suspect there is an incipient mothering instinct to dress children alike out of fear we aren’t otherwise recognizable as her own. We soon realized homemade clothes were not the cultural norm and besides, our mom had not taken an advanced course in clothing metrics at college. To the result her shirts were an analogue of building a house out of slab wood, it can be done but the result is a bit rugged.

Homemade clothes to my memory felt like chainmail, designed for the crude purpose of covering the kid of his or her nakedness. Homemade didn’t necessarily need to fit the kid, just protect the same from most of the elements. One of the elements as went unprotected was that eventual realization by the kid that he/she/it was wearing homemade. 

If what should have been instilled in that kid is an abiding sense of love, craft and protection. And maybe this happened. But probably not. Instead what the kid sensed was that they were stylistically out of phase, out-classed, rural, country, maybe even defined as poor.

As that farm kid I never thought of myself, our farm, our family as poor. We had 45 milk cows, three tractors, a dozen young stock, three silos, half a million chickens, three squares a day that I’d put against any other fare in the western hemisphere. We had dogs, cats, crows, horses, woods, creeks, and the entirety of a semi-wild, semi-savage lifestyle in a big hollow farmhouse with a root cellar full of mason jars to defend our fort.  From an early age I sincerely believed it was the other people who were poor. Homemade should by all rights have fit into this milieu of self-reliant stuff. Walden Pond Sometimes what a kid wants is to be plain ordinary.

I blame our mama’s tendency to the homemade as a basic tutor to the country kid’s natural attraction to naked. Problem with homemade clothes was they didn’t bend and wallow in the right places.  At least not on the first wearing.  As we all know a good pair of blue jeans still has this design flaw, following an unspoken American work ethic that you don’t deserve a good pair of jeans unless you spend the time taming them in the first place. 

Victoria’s Secret does sell pre-worn jeans where that angular stiffness has been countermanded by spandex that does naked a favor. This is both cheating and un-American, and probably contrary to Scripture.  A pair of jeans needs breaking in same as a horse, a pillow, a rocking chair, a pair of work gloves. 

Until those jeans have been flexed and lassoed and rolled in the dust a decent length of time they ain’t fit to wear. Which is the basic conundrum, not fit to wear till you wear them enough. Problem with jeans is they don’t really feel good as naked until they start to resemble the poverty stricken state. A demarcation my wife continues to point out to me. “You can’t wear those jeans.”

Homemade clothes were the same way, they didn’t feel good until the odometer hits 100,000 miles, at which point the flex of the shirt finally aligned with the body it contained. The body feel sense of this went from a touch too angular and way too stiff, to what was a second skin. Need I mention the word naked again? 

Suddenly a homemade article of clothing went from the last shirt you choose to the first.  Unfortunately by this juncture the kid has out-grown the shirt; and the younger brother just inherited the best darn shirt in the world. The hope was to have an older brother of size who just out-grew his shirt.

Mothers, and I mean here sewing mothers of that ardent tribe of homemaker mothers, suffered a private sorrow in their hearts, knowing their kids preferred store-bought to their homemade. If only our mama hadn’t bought fabric in such volume to the resulting ignominy of having to wear the same shirt as your dumb brother. Worse yet, I had two dumb brothers that at the first day of school we looked like a clutch of cute goslings all dressed alike. There are sins of mothers that are hard to forgive.

If there is a paradise...there is a farmhouse with the sound of a brown-backed Singer sewing machine.

I have since forgiven my mom, and spoken the words of atonement to her stone. A bit too late to tell her that the character of those homemade clothes, that bullet-proof feel has made it to the supreme altar of the marketplace. That a host of clothiers out there sell at full retail that same homemade feel; Duluth Trading, L.L. Bean, Carhart, Filson, Peterman. Not that any of these companies will admit it, but these are clothes you don’t have to horse-break until they finally take on the birthright of your person and yield that genuine honest to god naked feel.

If there is a paradise, which I doubt, but I can still spend the metaphor, there is in this paradise a dirt road realm with farmhouses, where the night is dark, and in that darkness is the sound of a brown-backed Singer sewing machine.  The bolt of the cloth was on sale being last year’s pattern, and there is my mom in her nightgown making another shirt the kid can’t possibly appreciate until much too late. As is why metaphors exist. 

I now realize that fit of homemade clothes was just another way to hug a kid.

Justin Isherwood

Justin Isherwood of Plover is a fifth-generation farmer and the author of Book of Plough,Christmas Stones & The Story Chair, and Farm Kid: Tales of Growing Up in Rural America.