The Great Hand-Me-Down Chain

Long before there were traveling pants, designer jeans, and department stores – long before eBay was a mote in anyone’s eye, there was The Great Hand-Me-Down Chain.

The Great Hand-Me-Down Chain was born in a time when fabric was scarce and ready-made clothing was non-existent. It was born of a time when families were large, and garments were hand-made, in a world where two-parent families lived on a single salary, and our mothers had to make do with much less than we are accustomed to today. The Great Hand-Me-Down Chain was robust and sturdy enough to survive many generations, many migrations, and many cultures. Every family had its own Great Hand-Me-Down Chain, even those families who were extremely wealthy and who could afford to have many servants. Black, white, yellow, or brown; Jew, Christian, Hindu, or pagan; free, bondsman, or slave – chances were, you were part of a Great Hand-Me-Down Chain.

Most of us, at some point in our lives – more frequently when we were children – got most of our “new” clothes through the Great Hand-Me-Down Chain. Garments could enter The Great Hand-Me-Down Chain at any waypoint. They usually entered at the top – the oldest child in a middle-class household, the lord’s or master’s children on a great estate, or even the monarch him (or her) self. Some garments entered the Chain by being remade from a larger garment – perhaps a woman’s gown – into a smaller garment (such as a dress for a nine-year-old girl); others were made new for the oldest child in the family. When those eldest siblings, cousins, or other relatives outgrew those garments, they would return to the Great Hand-Me-Down Chain to be picked up by the next child in birth order – and when that child outgrew the garment, it would re-enter the Chain to be picked up by the next child down the line. If the garment showed signs of wear, it could be mended, or remade into a still smaller-sized garment, and placed back – sometimes a step or two further down the Chain than originally expected. By the time the garment went through the youngest child in the family, the oldest child would have children of his (or her) own who could wear it (or grow into it). Not until the garment was worn out beyond repair did it leave The Great Hand-Me-Down Chain.

As times changed, the garments entering a family’s Great Hand-Me-Down Chain changed, too – in style, in fabric, in purpose. As sewing machines became more readily available, machine-sewn garments entered the Chain. When haberdasheries and clothing stores grew in an area, store-bought clothes may have entered the Chain. And as we moved from country to country, and into new territories, our hand-me-downs might include garments from other places as well.

Unlike Pollyanna, we never perceived hand-me-downs as “used” clothing or as being in any way different from clothing made, or purchased, especially for us. The garment was new to us; therefore, it was new. Until I read Pollyanna, I didn’t know I was wearing “hand-me-downs” – to me, they were just new clothes that my cousin had outgrown.

The branch of my family’s Great Hand-Me-Down Chain that included my sister and me spanned, as far as I understood, seven girls and about eighteen years. It spanned the daughters and granddaughters of three sisters of my grandmother’s family. Did it start further back? Was my mother part of that Great-Hand-Me-Down Chain, or was there another? Since my grandparents were the only ones of their siblings in the area, did Mom’s Great Hand-Me-Down Chain include cousins, neighbors, friends of the family? She’s never discussed it.

What reminded me of The Great Hand-Me-Down Chain was, of all things, a can of Niagara Spray Starch, and ten yards of navy blue cotton broadcloth. For what it’s worth, I find starch – like many additives – serves only to ruin the most important qualities of natural-fiber fabrics: their ability to “breathe”, and to wick away moisture. Starch your shirt, perspire mildly, and expect to find yourself hotter and sticker than you would have been had you let that cotton be cotton. Sometimes, though, I need the starch to stabilize a fabric to be sewn, or to help me iron out stubborn wrinkles.

The spray starch is one of the few pressurized-can items I have in the house. While some companies have tried introducing more environmentally-friendly delivery methods, pump sprays still don’t seem to be able to give me the fine mist, and finer control, of the spray starch. Thinking of the pump sprays reminded me of an old commercial for a pump-spray fabric sizing, in which a young girl is chatting on about her new dress, while her older sister keeps teasing her that the dress is her old dress… A voiceover states how the product can make any garment seem new again. We return to the older sister going on about her new dress… until the camera pans to the oldest sister who reminds the middle sister that it is her old dress…

The commercial has to be at least twenty years old. With the speed at which children’s fashions (and children’s whims!) change, is The Great Hand-Me-Down Chain still practical? Or have consignment shops and eBay replaced them entirely? Does your family still have a Great Hand-Me-Down Chain?

Other paths in the story of The Great Hand-Me-Down Chain include clothing passed from master to servant (either as part of household livery, or as general largesse), from monarch or higher-level aristocrat to lower-level aristocrat (again as part of livery, as general largesse, or as payment for a task performed), and so on. Some of our outgrown garments were passed to Grandma’s “cleaning lady”, for use by her grandchildren. Some of our playthings also entered the Chain – our first two-wheeler, a 20" Huffy convertible, got passed to my mother’s nephews when we moved up to “StingRay” styled bicycles; a wealthier cousin passed on to my dad his 26" Royce Union 3-speed when his son left it out in the rain (we removed as much rust as possible, and it worked just fine).

I remember being very excited whenever my mother would get a bag of hand-me-downs for me from her friend. They would trade clothes, as my older brother’s clothes would be traded for girl’s clothes!

Now I work in a quilt store, and people all the time come in and want to make a quilt from a loved one’s clothes as a remembrance. We also sell a product called “Printed Treasures” - a paper-backed fabric that you can put it in your computer and print photos onto.
Enjoyed your post!

I also recommend “Mary Ellen’s Best Press,” a pump spray starch available at quilt shops and Keepsake Quilting. We sell a lot of it and it smells good.