Domestic Economy

 At the practical examination in Needlework Mary had to produce her specimens. A large square of calico was stamped with her examination candidate's number and on this material she would give ten samples of her sewing: running and hemming stitches, backstitching and a run-and-fell seam, a French seam, a round-end button hole, a squared-end button hole, tucking, gathering and a patch. She was also given a small piece of knitted material with a hole in it to show her darning skills.

Before the examination she would have to knit on four shiny steel needles a little sock as far as the heel. The inexorable rubber stamp would mark its ownership, and Mary would have to take up her baby sock then and there in the Examination Room and turn its heel, knit its foot and 'take it off' at the toe.

Finally, the real test - The Great Trial - The Shirt ... In the actual Practical, one could be asked to make a shirt full-size, half-size or quarter-size ... The shirt was, naturally, an ideal shirt for the perfectly-proportioned man. If you could learn the ideal neck size, sleeve size, cuff size, yoke size, length and breadth, you could, if pushed, divide by two or by four. Thus, if your memory held out, you would at least get your shirt the right size. Secretly, Mary at last determined on a sin. It was so important to her, this examination. It meant her whole life. If she failed in her Shirt, she had no future. All of this was no excuse. She determined to write the ideal man's proportions under her blouse cuff. (And she did!).

Having by knavery got the shirt the correct size, she reasoned she would be all right with the seams, sleeves, yoke and cuffs. She would remember Miss Allen's delicate instruction, 'Don't forget, dear, to make the back longer than the front. We must remember - ahem! - there's more space to cover.'

Florence Mary McDowell, Roses to Rainbows, Belfast, 1972, p. 221.

Mary's Domestic Economy book had been written by Miss E. Rice, late Mistress of Method and Lecturer on Domestic Economy at Cheltenham Training College for Mistresses in England and her word was law:

Hysteria is said to live and grow on superabundant sympathy. Patients will soon recover if removed from kind friends. It often owes its origin to physical disorders but weakness of willpower has a great deal to do with it. The manifestation of feeling called the 'hysterical fit' of either laughing or crying, must never be encouraged. A sponge full of cold water applied to the head and back of the neck will cut short an attack. With children a decided manner tends to prevent a seizure ...To lose one's temper is unmanly or unwomanly and is also seriously detrimental to the digestive organs.

Florence Mary McDowell, Roses to rainbows, Belfast, 1972, p. 219.

Apart from this advice, Mary had,

... to plough on through Nitrogenous and Carbonaceous Foods, the Effect of Clothing on Health, Drainage, Mortgages, Epilepsy and Erysipelas, Leguminous Plants, Impure Air, Washing Flannels, Scrubbing Wood, Making Bread - always Yeast, never, never Soda Bread or Tatie Farls or anything one might actually use; how to clean the grate, Economical Puddings. Mary learnt her book off by heart even though she would never expect to treat poisoned wounds cause by the bites of snakes or poisoned arrows any more than she expected 'to take care not to speak of our savings to strangers as there are always designing people about to pounce upon the unwary.'

Florence Mary McDowell, Roses to rainbows, Belfast, 1972, p. 220.


  1. Suggest reasons why detailed needlework exercises are no longer required from female trainee teachers.
  2. What treatment did Mary E. Rice recommend for 'hysteria'?


  1. Research old books on cookery, needlework, hygiene, etc.
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