Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Evolution of Home Sewing: 1958 and Today

Did you know that the Time Magazine online archives go back to 1923? I sure didn't, so I was amazed and delighted to find this very informative article called "Sew & Reap" about home sewing from the November 10, 1958 issue.

According to this article, home sewing was a billion dollar industry at the time. This is in 50's money! I would be very interested to compare that to the profits of today's home sewing industry, wouldn't you?

The article really outlines the ways in which home sewing in 1958 was so influenced by Paris fashion:
Every calculated change in Paris means more money spent [on patterns]. So fashion-bent have sewing women become that patternmakers have all but junked the simple housedress designs that used to be their bread and butter. What more and more women want is the kind of high-fashion Vogue patterns long sold by Conde Nast. The originals would cost perhaps $600, but almost any woman can copy them for the cost of a $3 pattern and $50 worth of fine fabric (Vogue patterns even supply a Paris label).
That's interesting to compare to today's Vogue designer lines. I've enjoyed some of their Anna Sui offerings, but the others (Michael Kors, Donna Karan, etc.) have been a little staid for my taste - certainly not the trend-driven machine that it seems to have been in 1958.

What really blew my mind, though, was the fact that 20% of all women's garments in 1958 were made at home. Can you imagine?

And then there was the age of the women who sewed their own clothes:
One return prize for the industry is more and more younger sewers: the average home sewer's age has dropped from 45 in 1928 to 27 now, and by 1960 millions of teenagers will be sewing. A common but fashionable wedding present for suburban brides: a sewing machine.
These 27-year-old women of 1958 would be 78 today. Are they still sewing, do you think?

I tried in vain to find the average age of the home sewer today to compare to the stats of 1958. Though there has been an indisputable rise in young women sewing today, I would guess that the average person purchasing sewing supplies is of the boomer generation (the teenagers that the article predicted would be sewing in the 60's, I suppose!).

But there was such an incredible drop in average age from 1928 to 1958 - do you think it's possible we could see the same thing happen in the coming years?

One parallel I can see between the young women sewing in 1958 and young women sewing today is that is was viewed not as necessity, but as a creative outlet:
Millions of women now rank sewing as their No. 1—and often only—hobby. "There's a whole new climate," says Simplicity's [director] Shapiro. "They do it as an art form."
Anyway, I would love to hear your thoughts on all this. From your age perspective (whatever it may be) how do you see the future of the home sewing industry?


  1. I love sewing... especially when I have a project planned in my mind.

    I even like altering clothes... although I still use a tailor so that I don't ruin certain items.

  2. Let's see, my mom would have been in her 20s in 1958 and was definitely sewing at least 20 percent of her clothing, if not more like 50 percent. Had she not had a stroke in recent years, she most definitely would still be sewing. I was a boomer, a preteen who learned to sew in the 60s. Still sewing, but not so much clothing these days. I do view it more as an art form now, not necessity, a hobby. My young adult daughter has little interest in sewing, unfortunately, but she likes seeing what I can make--maybe some day!

  3. I'm not sure what a boomer is, but my mum grew up in a little village in the north of Sweden in the 60's and she had to sew her own clothes if she wanted something cool. There just wasn't any retail to speak of in that part of the country back then. Not for fashionable teenagers anyways. When I grew up in the 80’s and 90’s, my mum sewed for me, too. I was never interested in learning for myself. Until a couple of years ago when a friend taught me how to sew. Now it's a hobby I share with my mum. :-)

  4. Just a note on the prices quoted in the article.

    I ran the numbers through an inflation calculator, the first one a google search turns up, converting from 1958 dollars to 2008 dollars, cited in round numbers cause I already closed that browser page.

    The Vogue pattern: 1958, $3; 2008, $22

    The fabric: 1958, $50; 2008, $350+

    The designer comparison price: 1958, $600; 2008, $4000+

    The pattern price is in line with the printed price for Vogue patterns today, though I can't imagine anyone paying full price for a Vogue pattern.

    What I find interesting about this little exercise is that a reason I usually hear cited for the decline in home sewing is the cost of fabric. But even the women I see who buy expensive fabric don't spend this much, as far as I can see.

    Let's say the average fancy dress requires five yard of fabric for a full skirt and a yard of fabric for a bodice. That's 6 yards of fashion fabric. Double it for lining to get twelve yards. That would be nearly $30 a yard, on average, for that fabric.

    While I have seen sewing bloggers who do spend that kind of money per yard, my sense is that is limited to clothing that requires much less total yardage to constuct.

    How many yards of fabric did your red sheath dress take, Gertie? Five total, with lining?. If you spent $30 a yard average on that fabric it would have cost you $150.

    I don't know about most of you, but I would find material that cost me half of that or less.

    I'm currently making a Victorian ball gown that I will wear at least four times a year for a few years. I will have spent just over $75 when I'm finished. That's for more than 10 yards of fabric.

    No, I don't think women quit sewing due to the oft-cited notion that fabric got expensive.

  5. I'm 25 and have been sewing for about 3 years. I have several friends who do so as well, but the "hobby" really came out of a desire to make cute things for our baby girls.

    I am however the only one I know of that is pursuing sewing as a professional career. I am a dressmaker's apprentice currently with some of my own work (which seems to be quickly building). It seems a not so lost art anymore though.

  6. Just wanted to throw in a comment on the "fabric got expensive" argument aurelia.donka mentioned...

    Fabric may not be any more expensive than in the 50s, but clothes can be bought REALLY cheap these days. Fast fashion is the thing now, and women are used to inexpensive, almost disposable clothing. You could probably buy multiple dresses from H&M for the cost of making a nice one yourself. I doubt that was true in 1958, no?

  7. Thanks for the link and the inspiration! I have given you a blog award!

  8. My great grandmother and grandmother used to sew and knit. They used to make all their own clothes and the clothes for their husbands and kids. My mother was not interested in sewing. She was more interested in pottery and painting. So my great grandmother and grandmother passed the craft on to me. For the longest time I wanted to become a fashion designer. Due to family pressure, that flew out the window and in turn I stopped sewing.

    I started sewing again 5 years ago and I kick myself for ever stopping. I had forgotten how much fun it is.

  9. Being of the boomer age group (and still in my 50's) I might be able to offer some insight. I have recently gotten back into sewing quite a bit. I never didn't sew, but sometimes it was only two or three things a year.

    However in my teen years (late 60's/early 70's), I was the only one of my group of friends who did sew. And still am, except for those friends I've specifically met through sewing.

    I learned from my aunt (hence my blog: Sally Sews - Aunt Emily's Legacy) who sewed virtually everything for herself and many others (b. 1910). My mum (b. 1927) did not sew, although her mother did (b. 1907).

    As to those of the next generation, I haven't met any who sew. I work with a variety of 20s/30s year olds, and they can't even imagine doing this. My nieces and daughter-in-law express interest very occassionally, but have not taken action.

    I think sewing is a great creative outlet. I'm not sure anyone is sewing from economic necessity these days - so you are sewing because:

    - you don't fit into the norm as to size (height, weight, etc.)
    - your taste is different than the garments the racks in the store hold;
    - you are looking to sewing as a creative outlet (OR SOME COMBO of all three).

    There may be more reasons.

  10. Thanks for the link Gertie!

    to aurelia.donka and the fabric at $30/yard. I think that while that number is a little high, to buy the quality of fabric that could be found in the 50s you will definitely spend more (maybe not $30/yard but I've seen good quality everyday wools and silks for close to that) than they did in the 50s per yard. At least it seems that when I get vintage fabric from my Gran, the similar ones today are outrageous prices.

  11. This is a very interesting point, Gertie (beware, long, clumsy English discourse to follow...).

    I have no clue wether the situation has been the same in France at the time, because at this very moment, the clothing industry was very different in USA and in France (which took the ready-to-wear turn much later than USA, where big stores bought licences from Paris designers). No idea if it helps on the price question.

    For what I see now, there are much more young women sewing in USA than there are in France, but I really think US is faaaar more crafty than France. I (a student) personnally began to sew two years ago, my grans learned to sew at school (one didn't sew anything but cushions and curtains since, the two others don't sew at all), but my mother, who began school in 1968, did not.
    If it's sometimes an economical option, I learned to sew because I considered it the best way to get clothes the way I liked (no relation to the vintage question, since I heard of vintage patterns less than a year ago and also sew neon madras minikilts), and also because I liked the feeling of a slightly more ethical, durable wardrobe.

    So to me you're right: it has a lot more to do with creativity, but I'm also wondering if it is not, as Sarai pointed it, an reaction to consumerism; I'm far from a sewing expert but I hope I'll improve enough to move to slow fashion.

    As for the future of home sewing, I sincerely think it has to do with how people will react to fast fashion and related issues such as ecology and human rights but maybe that will go with a renewal of custom-made and the raise of quality second-hand or micro-enterprise, or the pleasure you may have to buy something from someone you 'know'(Colette patterns as an example are not absolutely my style, but since I read Sarai's blog, I'd love to purchase one of the next seasons); I really think it has to be seen within a larger perspective, it's not home sewing alone.

    (and by the way, you're stunning in the red duchesse dress)

  12. Home Economics. Required girl course in junior high. I loved it, but I can imagine other people resented it.
    And of course we should include a discussion of minimum wage. And the near death of fabric-for-clothes stores once quilting took over. (I live in the far reaches, and the only fabric stores within 50 miles are Big Box and quilt stores. And no, I won't spend my not-enough money on something I can't touch first.)

  13. My Mum is 78, loved sewing , made all her clothes and those for my sister and me, not because she had to but because she loved it, my auntie was the same. Mum has done little sewing since the late 1970s when her daughters left home and she started working and had more fun buying clothes, she has continued to knit though,that is her other passion.
    My auntie, however, is in her early 80s and has continued sewing and I don't think she will stop until she becomes incapable or dies.

  14. I enjoy reading your interesting blog very much. The sheath dress looks very similar to one my mom wore in a photo dated 1960. She received a Singer sewing machine as a wedding gift from my father in 1959.

    I have many wonderful memories associated with that sewing machine and of my mom sewing in the 1960s when she was in her 20s and a homemaker. She quit sewing when she went to work.

    I am born in 1961 and have been sewing since a kid. I sew both crafts and garments. Some homedec. I sew less when I was younger because of time and money. Now that I have more of both, I sew more. I view sewing as a luxury hobby. I think it is less expensive to buy clothes than to sew them especially if you take time and effort into consideration.

    I have 2 teen daughters who took some sewing classes at JoAnn. The youngest show interest in elementary school but she is now "too busy" to sew. The eldest dislike sewing but love fashion design. They both love that I can shorten hems, mend tears and fix zippers for their favorite ready to wear which seems to fall apart easily.

    I think for teens it is more practical to buy than to sew since their size and fashion tastes change pretty fast. With the exception of special occasion eg prom gowns. No matter how much you pay for a dress, you always risk showing up at the event and finding someone in the same ready to wear dress which happened to both my daughters before.

    Fashion-conscious career women who wants more quality and better fit and whose clothing can be worn longer may have more reason to sew. Also people with time and money to spare eg. retirees and empty nesters in their late 40s and older which make up most of my classmates at sewing classes.

    I think the internet and shows like Project Runway have help alot in bringing excitement to sewing and to connect people who sews. Personally I think home sewing is here to stay, maybe not for necessity but for fun.

  15. I hope that people continue to learn to sew and pick it up like I have, but I don't know how it will synthesize with the culture of today, with people who rely on their microwave and Hamburger Helper for a 'meal'.

    I think the majority of people of my generation are obsessed with moving and doing things fast, so I don't know how sewing for pleasure could flourish.

    As Sarai mentioned - clothing can be bought so cheaply. It's crap quality, but is cheap, and it means that people can buy 'new' things more often even if they aren't getting a deal. Taking the time to make something themselves, or PAYING someone else to do it, would probably not be seen as an option. And poor poor seamstresses, people so undervalue their work and the effort it takes to make something.

  16. I think a LOT of people today probably don't sew because (as previously mentioned) clothing is so cheap. But, most cheap clothing (here in the UK, obviously I can't speak for elsewhere) is so poorly made, that I find it can actually work out cheaper to make yourself something, even if the fabric 'seems' pricey. The garment you make is likely to be twice as durable and probably better constructed.
    I'm a 70s baby so obviously can't comment with any degree of accuracy about 60s sewing trends but, I know my Mum (and her sister) did make their own clothes, both sewn and crocheted or knitted. My Nan sewed for a living, making men's trousers in a small factory but she still made most of her own clothes right up til she passed away. I always got the impression from my Mum that sewing amongst her generation was popular, if you wanted something nice, you made it.
    I do think, that it's no coincidence that a lot of the sewing community appears to be fairly eco-conscious. I myself, find it quite distateful that shops can sell a skirt for as little as £5, the economics just don't add up.

  17. Yet another engaging and thought-provoking post from you Gertie. Thank you!

    Like you, I would be interested in knowing what the statistics are for our time: what's the average age of sewists, what percentage are women (I would guess 99.99%, but I've been wrong before), how many sew as an art form (again, probably 99.99%, but...), etc.

    My mom, one of those teenagers in the 60s, has sewed since she was 8. She entered doll clothes she sewed into the local state fair, and won a prize and the age of ten. Art form for sure. But when she was older, mother of five children on a Navy income, she sewed clothes for herself, the kids, even my father. That was more out of necessity. Now she sews as a way to unwind, keep herself busy, help other people (she often donates the things she makes), and so on. I suppose that for some people their reason for sewing changes depending on their stage in life.

  18. When I was in middle school, then 'junior high' we still had Home Ec. I sort of learned to sew. We made a very unbecoming skirt that we had to wear to school. it scarred me and I didn't start sewing until a few years later when I was about 16. I am not only still sewing but making more and better clothing than ever before. I am now 59. I am thrilled to see so many young women sewing and using it as a creative outlet. Now young women can buy fashionable clothing at any price point so their reason for sewing is not going to be necessity, but enjoyment. Sewing is a deep pleasure for me as I am sure it is for most of the women sewing today.

  19. I think the critical issue is that young women from my generation on (I was born in 1959) were encouraged to liberate themselves from the domestic arts. I went to a school that taught typing, cooking and sewing and not a lot else. By contrast my own daughters attend a school where they were not taught cooking and had on semester of sewing - taught by a woman who couldn't sew properly herself. Sewing has moved from domestic necessity (my family didn't have much money and the only store bought clothes were my father's business suits and shirts) to creative outlet. I really believe in the transmission of skills from generation to generation - and the blog is now making it cool to sew again.

  20. I believe that the decline in home fashion sewing is due to the fact that sewing is not taught in school anymore. I learned to sew in school even though I had a mother and two sisters who could sew. My junior high school threw me in a sewing class(kicking and screaming by the way). I can remember Mccalls and Simiplicity patterns costing 25 - 50 cents and having a heart attach over the cost of Vogue patterns - 1.00 to 1.50. Of course it was Vogue you wanted. I remember this from the mid 60's. And of course it was always cheaper to sew then to buy ready to wear.

  21. In 1958 my mother was 5, and she knitter her first jumper when she was 7 (Her mother knitted all the decreases around the shoulders and stuff) but she sewed most of her clothes as a teenager. She told me this horrible story of embroidering a wonderful hippy patch on the back or some store bought jeans that had worn a little thin. Her coal mining father got so angry at the thought of HIS daughter wearing a PATCH on her clothes that he threw the jeans into the fire. He associated patches on clothes as being really poor.

    Also as a 23 year old I try to sew and knit as many of my clothes as possible.

  22. In Serbia, clothing is really, really expensive. It is cheaper to buy the material and pattern and pay someone to make you a custom made piece, since the cost of labor here is negligible.

    I would guess that while it's true that sewing in the US is becoming more "cool," the hobby will never come close to approaching the popularity levels of the '50s and '60s. Factors that limit its growth include: high cost of materials; lack of access to quality materials; decline in sewing literacy; lack of patience in a culture driven by instant gratification; needlessly large wardrobes (back in the day when a girl only hoped to have 5 dresses, taking the time to make one right made more sense); opportunity cost of labor (women's time in general is "worth more" than 50 years ago, when one considers that today's woman is (in economic terms) overqualified for traditional homemaking tasks; the prevalence of cheap, high quality ready made clothing (you might gripe about quality control issues, but in other parts of the world the quality of ready made is much, much lower); the growing sentiment among women over 30 that ill-fitting ready made clothing is normal and acceptable; and last but not least, the myriad socially-acceptable (and less demanding) creative outlets for women that were not available 50 years ago.

  23. I'm one of those "boomer" girls - the one that learned to sew in the 60's and at age 50 - I'm still sewing! However, there is a difference now. I remember that I could purchase fabric and patterns anywhere...Woolworths, Macys, Kmarts as well as the local fabric store which there was one in every town.

    I also remember that I could take a sewing class from 6th grade on. That every home had a sewing machine and some sewing supplies. That is not the case today.

    I have two thoughts on that as we became a more consumer driven society, more women who sewed only because it was "cheaper" to do so became purchasers of cheap goods from discount chains. And two as more women gained access to more "professional" jobs some of the more "womenly" pursuits fell by the wayside. Seriously, how many women do you know that sew, cook well, garden, and/or can their food? These were all normal pursuits of the 50s woman!

    And sewing has become an artform - because the people left pursuing it have turned it into a love, a craft, a way of expressing themselves the same way that a painter or a sculptor does.

    As with all things, sewing has evolved...very few things in our society are the same as they were in the 50s!

  24. My grandmother (born in 1920) used to sew everything when she was a young woman. Back then it was a necessity, since she didn't have the money to buy clothing for her large family. Right now she is 89 and hasn't sewn in a long time.

    My mother (born in 1949) used to sew a lot when we were little. For herself, for us, for my father. But she doesn't anymore. She found a job when we were getting a little older and says she doesn't have the patience anymore to sew difficult garments. She does knit a bit sometimes for my daughter's dolls, or my little ones, but that is rare.

    I am 33 years old now. I learned how to sew when I was little, then forgot about it for years and picked it up again when I was pregnant of my first born. I love it and can't imagine that I'll ever stop loving being creative. But ofcourse, you never know.

    I don't sew because I have to, like my grandmother. I don't sew, because it's cheaper than buying, like my mother. I sew, because I want to. Because I like the sewing itself, because of how I feel when I sew, or knit for that matter, because it relaxes me and makes me feel grounded. And because I am starting to feel more and more that I want to surround myself with things that mean something. That were made with love, instead of in factories, without a thought.

    And because of that last factor I think sewing could become more popular in the future. I hear more and more people around me getting tired of all the materialism. I hear them grow tired of all the 'stuff', the 'clutter' that surrounds them. I hear people say that they, like myself, want to go back to a more 'basic' lifestyle. A slower lifestyle, a simpler lifestyle. And making your own clothing, baking your own bread, it all seems to fit in the trend I think I see.

    Ofcourse trends go by and are followed by other trends. And I can imagine that I come in contact mostly with people who think like I think. So maybe my idea can't be projected on a large scale. But still... I wouldn't be surprised when sewing would win in popularity the following years. I certainly do hope it will..

  25. My goodness, I enjoyed each comment! It is like a breath of fresh air to read about people who know how to sew and love it. I was born in 1947 to parents who grew up during the depression, and who learned that saving money was a necessity. They passed it on, and I sewed a lot in high school, then majored in clothing and textiles at Texas Tech during the '60s. I learned how to sew at Tech--tailoring, flat pattern design, draping (still have the dress form from the draping class), and I wouldn't take for what I learned. I still teach some Family and Consumer Science classes at high school, and believe me I teach how to cook and sew. I believe that kids have an inner desire to create something with their own hands, and if they never pick up a needle or sauce pan again, at least they will know how. Besides, who know which kid will become a designer or interior decorator, and they will need to have the skill of sewing. I really liked what Sarai said about the "disposable wardrobe." Clothing is so cheap, and women are so busy there is no need to sew, but we all have a need to relax, and create. Pass on the skill girls, and have fun doing it.

  26. I just spent a few days in North Dakota helping my mom go through her storage room. I was horrified and amused that, while wedding dresses and a couple wool suits and amazing formals my grandma (b. 1911) sewed for my mom (b. 1945) had survived, nothing that my grandma sewed for herself had been saved! Only the scraps of some tantalizing, to-die-for fabrics had been preserved in some quilts. I thought we'd hit pay dirt when we found a zipper hanging bag that was Grandma's. Inside, lovingly preserved, alongside her treasured mink stole, were three scratchy polyester gowns. Not my taste but I figured still interesting to see her construction- but no! Turned out all three were store bought! I turned to my mom aghast, she laughed and said that I didn't understand how rare and exciting store-bought clothes were to them in "those days". Grandma didn't find any reason to save the things she made for herself, but was so proud of these dresses from a store!

    As others have said, a lot of their sewing was more out of need and budget than preference, although my grandmother did enjoy the creative side of it. But my mom particularly was too tall for off-the-rack, especially where they lived, an 8 hour drive from the nearest big department store.

    As for the next generation, my half-sister, who grew up without any sewing in the home at all, asked that my mom and I teach her kids as much as they'd sit still for, so they could at least have a little of that demystifying exposure at a young (preteen) age. We ran out of time this trip, but we'll see how it goes at Thanksgiving. I like that my sister had the idea, though. I'm more of a sporadically-enthusiastic than an accomplished sewer, but I've always known I can go back to it and have the confidence that I can learn because of the constant exposure when I was growing up-- it's just something I take for granted that I can do, even if never to the level my grandmother did. But it's just the reverse for my sister; she's always been kind of off-put and intimidated by sewing because of her lack of exposure or instruction. It feels more like a club she's excluded from. Of course she could learn if she wanted to and I'd love to teach her, but to her it feels like too big an undertaking, more like belatedly taking up a new language from scratch. But she wants her kids to have that initiation, so they know they can do it later if they ever want to.

    Talking to my sister made me think about how it really does make all the difference to pass on by example through generations-- pass on that initiation. I don't know about others' Home Ec clases, but the uninspiring duffel bag I made in mine would never have made me want to touch a sewing machine ever again! Also, as many things as I've learned from books, the web, and trial & error, nothing beats taking home a frustrating project to my mom and getting that hands-on help. She gets a kick out of my renewed interest in something she pretty much packed in for lack of need anymore in the 80s.

    OK long post but it's so much fun to write about these things!


Thanks for your comments; I read each and every one! xo Gertie

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