Today we are getting an intimate look into the life of Martha Pullen, the woman who started it all. We had the privilege to sit down with Martha and ask her a few questions.
Sew Beautiful: Why are people drawn to heirloom sewing, and by “heirloom” we mean French sewing techniques, smocking, fine embroidery and, of course, fine materials?
Martha Pullen: First of all it is beautiful, very beautiful. Classic heirloom has been in style for over 200 years and I believe it will never go out of style. I was taught the joy of beautiful sewing and materials as a very young child from my mother and Aunt Chris. They both loved fine materials. Mama told me when I was very young, “When I went to college, my mother bought me two nice dresses which were way too expensive for her budget. But she said to me,’We cannot afford cheap clothing since we can only have two things. These will last and look good for a long time.’” Mama only sewed on nice fabrics and only used nice thread. She said her time was too valuable to sew on cheap materials.
I fell in love with smocking the first time I saw beautiful smocking. It was truly love at first sight. Our only daughter, Joanna, was just a baby and I remember thinking, “ I have to have these clothes for Joanna.” I have always loved to sew beautiful children’s clothing. I love fine embroidery although my hand sewing has consisted mostly of hand smocking.
The very word, “heirloom” relays to me that my work will be appreciated for generations to come. My love which has gone into every hand made garment will last possibly 100 years from now. The memories will be in the heart of those for whom I made the garment. Heirloom simply means to me-Made with love for someone I love. I especially love christening dresses, communion dresses, portrait clothes, wedding clothes, and other special occasion clothes. I also love white bedrooms and beautiful white home decorating pieces. I love the white clothes and sometimes pretend that I knew the lady who made them. I simply love white heirloom clothes—new or 150 years old and Joe and I have traveled all over the world searching for them. This is really quite funny but I thought as I bought each one, “Oh, we will make a pattern out of this dress. Or I’m sure we will reproduce this embroidery design in Sew Beautiful magazine. This will be a great centerfold pattern.” If we had used every garment I have bought over the last number of years Sew Beautiful would be 500 pages long each issue.
SB: Machine embroidery vs hand embroidery; it’s an ongoing debate. Can you share your feelings on this subject?
MP: I love them both. The beauty of hand embroidery is magnificent and no one appreciates the beauty more than I; however the reality of time to do hand embroidery is ever present in most lives today. I have to admit also that it takes a lot of skill to accomplish beautiful hand embroidery in addition to lots of time. Frankly I am not accomplished in hand embroidery. Years ago I found out that shadow work by hand was the easiest hand embroidery and I truly enjoyed that. Surface embroidery with one strand of embroidery floss is not going to be in my repotoire during this lifetime. With today’s magnificent embroidery machines one can choose heirloom designs and have gorgeous machine embroidery in a blink of an eye. Not only do most not have the time to accomplish hand embroidery when one gets older and has more time to sew the eyesight is not as good as it once was and fingers many times are not as agile as in earlier years. One of my sweetest quilting friends simply wore her hand quilting fingers out and now she adores machine quilting. Life is all about change and truthfully one should choose whichever makes one happy! Both are magnificent to me.
SB: We all know that fashion and current dressing trends drive sewing. Can you speak to how Martha Pullen Company has weathered changes in the industry due to lifestyle? To what do you attribute your company’s stamina in the market?
MP: Classic heirloom clothing will never go out of style. It never has. Christening dresses, communion dresses and other classic heirloom garments are as strong a pull as they ever were--maybe more now that more people know about gorgeous family heirlooms for special occasions. We now include more casual clothing in Sew Beautiful for a more casual lifestyle but in many churches the heirloom clothing is stil prevalent on Sunday mornings. I see smocked dresses every Sunday morning. Nearly every wedding in the south has an heirloom dress for the flower girl and most have an heirloom pillow for the ring bearer pillow. Many have an heirloom suit for the ring bearer. Heirloom sewing is still prevalent for certain occasions. I guess most kids don’t wear smocked dresses to school anymore since jeans and shorts seem to be the usual school uniform if actual school uniforms aren’t worn.
Personally, I cannot wait for Prince William and Princess Kate to have children. My guess is that they will wear classically styled clothing and that heirloom sewing will be stronger than ever. Princess Diana certainly dressed her little boys in elegant clothing. Some of the top designers have started a children’s clothing line; it is all classic with a lot of smocking. The royal children of Holland wear smocked clothing. Special occasion clothing is still heirloom. At my grandchildren’s pre-school, the children wear cute clothing a lot—lots of smocking.
SB: You have written books, founded a magazine, established a retail shop and catalog business. You teach, you inspire. What has been/is the most rewarding part of your career?
MP: Sharing the love of sewing with YOU my sewing family. Getting to know YOU, our friends who love to sew. Getting to introduce someone to heirloom sewing for the first time and her/him saying, “This is so easy!"
Getting pictures and letters about a special garment that someone has made for someone that she/he loves so much.
Hearing about how sewing has truly helped someone to weather a major storm in her/his life.
Feeling the love which surrounds heirloom sewing the the precious ones who love this art. It is truly the people’s reaction to our beloved art that is the very best. I love sewing ladies. I love sharing this joy.
SB: If you had unlimited time and any materials you desire to sew your dream creation, what would it be?
MP: I’m glad you asked that question! As many of you know, I have older grandchildren—the oldest are 20 years old and just this summer one asked me, “Nannie, you are going to make my children beautiful clothes aren’t you?” I have an urge now to start baby daygowns and maybe a christening gown or two. To put away in my great-grandmother’s hope chest. With 18 grandchildren I will probably have many great-grandchildren and I simply cannot wait to make baby clothes again!!! That is my favorite part of heirloom sewing—baby clothes! My dream creations would be batiste and French lace or silk dupioni and French lace and lots of machine embroidery including putting the family data on the slips and on the hems of smocked dresses.
A big thanks to Martha for taking the time to answer our questions! She also provided some pictures of her childhood to share with you.
Also, in honor of it being Martha Pullen week, we want to give away a copy of Martha's book,
Precious Baby Daygowns: Round Yoke Collection.
We are going to do another
DIY (Design-It-Yourself) Challenge with the
Heavenly Bliss Daygown pictured.
Tell us in the comments below, what supplies from the
you would use to make this beautiful daygown!
One winner will be chosen to receive all the materials they listed as well as a copy of the book!
*Total not to exceed $200*