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Adele Margolis

Sewing teacher, Writer, Poet
1909 – 2009

The cover story of the last issue of Re://collections, which the Jewish Women's Archive published from 1999 – 2007, was a reminiscence of Adele Margolis by poet and critic Ellen Steinbaum. When Margolis died in early November 2009, Steinbaum wrote on her blog about her friend's "determination to enrich every aspect of her life with beauty and meaning and creativity."

On a frigid day last February I went to the Weston (Massachusetts) Public Library to hear my friend Adele Margolis. She was reading poems from her collection, Sometimes I Forget That I Am Old, which she published privately last fall. Because it came out at about the time one of her classic books on sewing was reissued, she has been busy with a little flurry of readings, book parties, and interviews. All in all, a satisfying way to spend the months leading up to her 98th birthday.

Adele became my friend about 10 years ago when we each moved to Boston. But I had always known her, or known about her, because she was my aunt Alice's lifelong friend. They met on the first day of high school in Philadelphia when Alice Ostroff was seated, alphabetically, just one desk away from Adele Pollock. They each must have immediately recognized someone of compatibly feisty spirits and strong opinions. Certainly what cemented them as soul mates was their belief that they would find their place in the world through art. Even decades later when age made getting together difficult, they had their telephone visits every day until Alice died in 1998.

More than once in the pages of Re://collections I have seen people quote Mary Catherine Bateson's wise words about "composing a life." Those words strike a resonant chord in my own life, but seem even clearer in the stories of women who, like Adele and Alice, have lived long and creative lives. The men who were their contemporaries have been called "the greatest generation." But my role models were the women who lived through the century's blessing and curse of "interesting times," finding their way and sharing their gifts. If they were loving and fortunate they, like Adele and Alice, had long, deep friendships. If they were adventurous and creative, they composed lives within lives like a set of nested Russian dolls, with the core of themselves at the colorful heart. And if their descendants are lucky like me, they got to know the women and hear the stories. A few pages can hardly capture the whole picture of a long and remarkable life: I offer you snapshots.

Alice Ostroff Amsterdam
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Illustrator and designer Alice Ostroff Amsterdam was a lifelong friend of Adele Margolis.

In a grainy home movie I now have on video tape, Adele is sitting beside my mother at a seder in the 1920s. She was a regular in the home where Alice lived with my mother, their parents, and their two other sisters and three brothers. I know she watched my grandmother, Dora, a gifted sewer who combined dress patterns, invented dazzling designs, and turned out the latest fashions on her treadle Singer. But I picture her and Alice off together huddled over their drawings or hurrying off to class at Philadelphia's Graphic Sketch Club, dreaming of becoming artists.

"Alice's parents were more understanding," Adele recalls. "I knew I was talented, but my parents were worried that you couldn't make a living as an artist."

Alice applied to art school. Adele enrolled in the Philadelphia Normal School for Girls to become a teacher. Together the two girls carried Alice's bulky portfolio to her admissions interview at Moore College of Art and Design, leaning on each other and crying all the way.

If we had a 1930 photo it would be of Adele, headed for a solid career after graduating at the top of her class and getting a job, despite the scarcity of teaching jobs during the Depression. In 1928, at 19, she had married a young teacher, Nathan Margolis, and three years later they had a daughter. After a brief maternity leave, she returned to teaching elementary school, where she would stay until 1945. She still speaks of feeling torn between being home with Linda and yet needing to help support the family and, I'm sure, wanting a life outside her home. Some issues have staying power.

Of Nat, she said, "He was fascinated by me and his adoration was irresistible." When he and Adele were dating she bought him a set of paints. Maybe she sensed his latent talent. Maybe she just wanted to give him more insight into her own interests. Nat picked up that paint brush and never put it down. Later, as their lives centered around his art until his death in 1964, did she feel a twinge—or more—of envy watching Nat have the recognition as an artist that she had dreamed of for herself? Or watching Alice find her life's work in design and illustration? A biographer or historian would certainly have asked her. I choose to rely on the evidence at hand: she doesn't waste time regretting. She moves on. Ultimately she had the life of creativity, if not as she had dreamed about, then in ways she had never dreamed of.

All through their lives Adele and Alice traded secrets and words of clear-eyed advice on romances, first marriages (Alice's bad, Adele's good), and second marriages (Alice's good, Adele's bad and quickly dispensed with).

Telephone Conversation While Cleaning Refrigerator

Listen, Alice.
The hell with him.
Give every part of your house
a breath of fresh air.
There are plenty more where he
came from.
Leave 1/2 cup of Mule Team
Borax in a partially covered
container where needed.
Don't dwell on it.
Change every two to three
Ditto for him.

Another snapshot of Adele—well, actually a whole album—would be devoted to fashion. Her love of fashion combined aesthetic sense with social awareness. She tells me of the 1920s' "heady breath of fresh air," when constraints were tossed aside and women threw off the things that had, literally, bound them. No corsets, no girdles, no hoops, nothing tight or binding. Later the tight shapes would return, with uplift bras, wasp waists, and more constrained choices for women. But, for then, it was loose chemises, rolled stockings, and release. And exciting new women designers—Vionnet and her soigné bias-cut gowns, Schiaparelli with that exhilarating saturated shocking pink.

"The Encyclopedia of Sewing" Front Cover By Adele P. Margolis
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The Encyclopedia of Sewing
by Adele P. Margolis.

During the Depression, Adele remembers going for an entire year without having new clothes. She began sewing. Not only did she have her mother-in-law's old sewing machine in the basement, she also had an example, and talents, handed down from her mother who was a skilled sewer and who had been a milliner. "I discovered I could use my art training in designing what I wanted to wear." One of her first dresses was sewn from a remnant she bought at John Wanamaker's for 79 cents. She recalls it as "a smashing little number that I'm embarrassed to think about now—beige-y, flowery, part of a drippy period in fashion." She continued to use remnants, making a game out of seeing how far she could make the fabric go, teaching herself, copying from fashion magazines.

"From the start I was never daunted by the complexity of anything. If the pattern was too complicated, I simplified it. I invented my own way of doing it. If I wanted something I figured out how to do it." She was talking about sewing, but the words describe her approach to life in general.

One photograph is filled with a complex background dating back to a time when she saw wounded soldiers returning from World World I. After World War II she recognized that lasting peace among nations would not be, as she said, "automatic," but would require the efforts of private citizens. In 1945 she took a break from teaching and started working with volunteer organizations, including the education committee of Russian War Relief.

"Communism didn't mean a thing to me," she said. "I was a teacher. Here was one-sixth of the earth's surface and there was no name on the map. So I made up teaching kits with Russian stories and music and photographs and handiwork—material to teach about this huge country. There was no political content."

You can probably fill in the rest—loyalty oaths, subpoenas before House Un-American Activities Committee hearings, the offer of a teaching job that suddenly evaporated: the whole dark cautionary tale that was the McCarthy era.

Still she considers this a "glorious period" where she met some of the "most wonderful people I'd ever known." That political conscience, along with the creativity, has been handed down to her daughter, three grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.

She continues to dream of, and work for, a world at peace. Before the 2004 election, horrified at America's attack on Iraq, she wrote a long, impassioned letter about the importance of the election, photocopied it, and mailed it to friends who were doubtful their vote would matter.

ho hum

history is
so monotonous same
Prez same
self-righteous crusade same
war dead
ho hum

Now picture Adele in her 40s. She's been through the political firestorm and now she's decided she'd like to teach sewing—not the home economics kind of sewing, but fashion. She happened to meet someone teaching at the Junto, Philadelphia's largest and best-known adult education school, and began teaching a two-hour tailoring class. They paid her $15 per class. Of course, she soon had a full-time position, had developed a whole new department, and was a member of Junto's board. Then some students urged her to write a book.

"The Complete Book of Tailoring" Front Cover by Adele P. Margolis.
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The Complete Book of Tailoring front cover by Adele P. Margolis.

If ever there was a Cinderella publishing story, hers was it. She took her carefully typed manuscript, complete with Nat's drawings, to New York and sat in a publisher's office until someone appeared for her to hand it to. The editor at Doubleday said it was the best first manuscript he had ever seen and that, yes, they would like to publish How to Design Your Own Dress Patterns. It appeared in 1959 and was the first of 10 books for Doubleday, six of which were book club selections. During the 1980s changes in the publishing world closed craft divisions and put her books out of print, but they are still bought and sold regularly on eBay. And last fall Dover Publications reissued that first book, with the original drawings, as Make Your Own Dress Patterns.

Adele was 80 when she started writing poetry. She studied in Philadelphia at a community college near her apartment. During summers when she spent time at Linda's home outside Boston, I persuaded her to come with me to a workshop at the Boston Center for Adult Education. For the past several years she has been in a workshop at the Wayland Public Library. She sometimes writes free verse, sometimes in rhyme, often in a demanding syllabic form called cinquain.

One poem, titled "dear golden thimble" ends:

you evoke the remembrance of a
full life
you defy the imposter who resides
in my mirror
you remind me of the me I was
you assure me there is still place for
the me I now am

That day at the Weston Library, Adele took questions after she finished reading her poems. I asked why she wrote poetry. She ticked off the pleasures: "The sense of joy when I am able to get into words what I am thinking, the discipline, the economy of words to express your feelings in the briefest way within a form, the act of creation."

I have an old photograph, a picture of a surprise party given for Alice. It is during World War II and she is about to move from Philadelphia to Washington where her husband will be stationed in the Navy and she will work in a government office. Adele is there, with all the friends and relatives and everyone is smiling, even the ones whose husbands are already overseas, even my father who has not yet gone to Italy and been wounded.

At the moment of the photograph there is a kind of glamour about them, in their peep-toe platform shoes, drapey print dresses, and upswept hairdos that look deliciously retro now. Certainly no one was wearing anything expensive and probably many of the dresses were mended, but there is an elegance about them. They look unselfconsciously like grown-ups. I can't imagine any of them spending time wondering about the state of some celebrity's marriage or asking, "does this dress make me look fat?" They have dignity. Not in some stuffy artificial way, but they seemed to have a sense of themselves as people with a purpose. People who looked for the best of what a far-from-perfect world was offering them and who tried to make something beautiful, something large of their lives.

Now picture Adele today, frail but beautiful, hard at work on the next book. Frankly Elderly shows how to make patterns or alter clothes to fit a changed older figure. A local bookstore selling Make Your Own Dress Patterns and Sometimes I Forget that I Am Old has called to let her know that people are already asking to order it. She wants to finish it by the end of the year.

Adele Margolis
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Adele Margolis.
© Samantha Sodickson, all rights reserved.
The years surprise me.
The numbers surprise me.
The number of years surprises
That I am here surprises me.
That I am here when so many
of my contemporaries are not
surprises me.
Next year another birthday?
Surprise me!
More on Adele Margolis, 1909 - 2009
Adele Margolis
Full image
Adele Margolis.
© Samantha Sodickson, all rights reserved.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Adele Margolis, 1909 - 2009." (Viewed on January 21, 2017) <>.

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