MISS WANDLESS & JULIA CHILD — or Accuracy Meets Fluidity

by Susan G Holland

At Nether Providence School, Junior High Home-Ec was comprised of two general things:

  1. The first half of the year was for sewing, and
  2. the second half was for cooking.

Miss Wandless had long been a standard fixture at the 9th to 12th grade levels back in the fifties.

Even my mother’s younger sister had had Miss Wandless, she told me, smiling at the memory. That would have been back before WWII.

By 1950, I already was wearing 3-yard skirts I had whipped up on my mother’s sewing machine, so I was surprised to find out that I had been doing it all wrong. I busily kept up with my own “need” for those fashionable voluminous cotton dirndls , with a crinoline or two underneath and the requisite Capezio slippers. So it seemed really silly that I should spend time “learning to make a skirt.”

Miss Wandless was nearly the same size as us girls or even shorter.. She certainly was not five feet tall; she had a distinctly pronounced hunchback. Maybe she would have been snickered at in some schools today, but not ours. No messing around with Miss Wandless. She ran a tight ship.

You have to pre-wash the goods, and then square the material before you pin the pattern to it, I found out. Huh? What is squaring the fabric? (You pull one thread and use the line to square the piece up to the cutting table.)

I had never heard of such a thing. It took a long time to do all that. She had not even allowed us near the sewing machines by week 3!

Then, finally, we got to learn how to thread the machines (they were all different makes) and wind the bobbins.

First you basted and then you sewed.

The seams must be perfectly straight.

Well, mine were straight enough, right? No. Rip it out and start over. Groan. The second pass was done with a great deal more care. Ripping out was a miserable job.

Hemming was very complicated, with an “easing” stitch made first to gently make the folded over part lie down flat. It took a lot of fussing around to get it right.

And the next project was button holes: hand sewn button holes. Then a lined jacket! (I was glad for the jacket lesson when it came time to sew my daughter’s formal dresses years later.)

Miss Wandless

Cooking class was very much like that, with the leveling of a teaspoon of flour being a major operation.. not to knock the flour or it would settle and give you an inaccurate measurement.

Measuring was terribly crucial. First perfect measuring and then we will talk about what an egg is made up of inside its shell. There will be a test.

Later we will learn about the stove. — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —


I come from an arty sort of family of avid seam-sewers, prolific knitters and unfettered cooks. They knock together a dress or a baby sweater in a day, and make full scale meals each evening while chattering around cocktails. At least that’s how I remember it.

Why did Miss Wandless make it so difficult???

Ten years later, when I was a young homemaker with husband and babies, my younger cousin and his bride spent a year house-sitting for Julia Child’s New York apartment! (Hushed Aside: Julia was on tour…but It may have been at the time she was busy being a spy for the USA.)

So of course Julia Child became a cheerfully familiar household word — we felt famously connected even though the rest of us never got to meet Julia Child. On TV, Julia was so comfortable in the kitchen on her shows…at least so it seemed to me. She measured, I am sure, well enough to win her Le Cordon Bleu’s accreditation. But on camera it seemed as if she just threw this and that into the bowl with her fingers and peered lovingly at the contents of the bowl while stirring or whipping. She was so easy with the process. I loved her. Julia Child actually famously said, “Always remember: If you’re alone in the kitchen and you drop the lamb, you can always just pick it up! Who’s going to know?” Now,that’s the kind of teacher we artistic types find inspiring.

Julia Child, so casual in the kitchen
Miss Wandless very precise and scientific.

Miss Wandless had been such a fussy woman!

Now, today, some seventy years later, I got to thinking that there is something in an artist that actually NEEDS a Miss Wandless sometime in her life.. at least THIS artist did. Unless I wanted to make sloppy seams all my life.

I got thinking about this while gridding a small drawing in preparation for making a larger drawing onto a larger piece of watercolor paper.

I learned to grid from my father, I am pretty sure, or it might have even been my grandfather or uncle. You measure the original off into squares, make lines across it and then, using the same ratios, you mark light lines on the large paper, in the same format. Then you can draw the shapes from each square to the corresponding square on your large work.

If you are doing a blueprint or engineering project (like my Dad did) it was crucial to get the ratio right. You do it with a ruler. And a square.

Like Miss Wandless would.

Instead, though I found myself tonight folding the original into more or less even squares, and then roughly sketching larger squares on a large piece of paper. Then I loosely drew shapes for each square that resembled the shapes in the grid on the original. It was casual, breezy, and inaccurate. And it was graceful. It was poetic. Who would know how inaccurate, I thought, if they didn’t see me doing this carefree rendition?

Thank you, Julia Child!

In the kitchen, I make the best ribs in the world for my grandkids, and don’t even feign measuring ingredients. You get to just “know” what to do, and you take a bunch of chili or herbs or garlic and throw them into the mix with every expectation that this will turn out better than delicious… and they will always say how they love this dish more than any of the other versions they’ve had.

This is what happens to the rules Miss Wandless instilled! They get bent and broken in time and made into something better.. The ribs have their own rules now, THEY ARE ART! (and very rarely get dropped on the floor. Even so, we would eat them anyway… Not to waste. )

©SGHolland Revised from a story previously posted as Fellow Traveler in Cowbird.

NOTE: Julia Child would have been 105 this year. (2017). For all we know, she may be meeting up with some stern old professeurs from Le Cordon Bleu and having to own up to being a free spirit once she got “out on her own.”
Delaware County Daily Times — Thursday, June 13, 1963, Chester, Pennsylvania
Nether Providence — The school board accepted the resignation of Myrtle Wandless, a teacher for 35 years. Miss Wandless headed the home economics department at the senior high school.

Read a biography of Miss Myrtle Wandless here: http://www.tehistory.org/hqda/html/v15/v15n1p008.html
http://www.tehistory.org/hqda/html/v44/v44n4p121.html also shows her activities as the President of the TREDYFFRIN EASTTOWN HISTORICAL SOCIETY

Story originally published at cowbird.com.
Header Art by SGHolland ©2017