Saturday, February 6, 2010

Men Who Sew: More Thoughts and Theories

Readers, I work in a female-dominated field. (I'm a children's book editor. I don't know if I've ever actually mentioned that here.) Well, let me amend that statement. I work in a field where all the lower and mid-level employees are predominantly female and the majority of the head honchos are men. Interesting, eh? It's similar to the sewing world in many ways - home sewists are women and highly-paid couturiers are men. What I've noticed is that there seems to be a certain amount of delight when men cross over into the lower trenches with the women. I love to fawn over these men, I admit it (as does everyone else). A male editorial assistant! A dude who sews for pleasure! Good god!

So it's been with a lot of delight that many of us are taking notice of the funny and fabulous Peter, who recently started a blog on his garment-sewing adventures called Male Pattern Boldness. (If you don't already read it, become a follower now, please!) Peter wrote an excellent post this week called "Why Johnny Can't Sew."

Peter outlines the ways in which sewing has historically been marketed and targeted toward women. This will come as no surprise to us. But the thought that popped into my head as I was reading it was: This is why all men should be feminists. I don't think it's common for men to recognize the damage that a misogynistic culture does to BOTH genders. In no uncertain terms: it alienates half the population from skills and trades that might be useful and pleasurable to all of us.

Peter also mentions the lack of men's patterns, that we discussed here back in November. When Jeff asked me to make him his Urban Outfitters-inspired jacket I had to radically adapt a men's shirt pattern to make it happen. Peter is pretty adventurous with patterns - 70s caftans, flower-print trousers - so it will be interesting to see how he deals with this lack of patterns as he progresses in his sewing.

But I thought Peter really hit the nail on the head when he asked: "Finally, when we wonder why men don't sew, aren't we really talking about why straight men don't sew?" Bingo! Just take, oh, EVERY season of Project Runway ever televised. There's always that one straight dude who just has to assert his heterosexuality into every conversation. There is a rampant gay panic in our culture that keeps men from sewing, no doubt.

In any case, thanks to Peter for continuing this topic from a dude's point of view. Now I can't resist adding two of my favorite photos of garments he's made.

A corduroy coat for his dog Willy. Could this BE any cuter?

And an LBD for his glamorous "identical cousin" Cathy. She's a woman of mystery!

Check out more of Peter, Willy, and Cathy's adventures at Male Pattern Boldness.


  1. my brother ( a marine, and former cop) sews, he makes dresses for his wife and kids, and lingerie , I think we both started sewing out of necessity/ desire for things we couldn't afford. I wish he had time to blog but 2 jobs keeps him from his hobbies.

  2. I just discovered Peter recently and, have to say, he's amazing!

    1. It's later that same decade, and not only is Peter all that, and more - his adventure continues in deliciously unexpected ways. That said, it is through Peter's blog that I learned of many other creative forces of nature, of which you, K.Line, are one.

  3. I also just recently discovered Peter through The Selfish Seamstress. And amazing he is.

  4. I just discovered Peter through a comment he left here on your blog, and I love his "Movie Fashion Show" posts. He's a lot of fun to read. :)

  5. i have tried on cathy's LBD and it is amazing. i wanted it.

  6. I discovered Peter when he left a comment on a dress I posted to Pattern Review - he called my look 'mildly subversive' - I'd never been more pleased with a description of my look!! I think he's fantastic!

  7. My husband has always been interested whenever I break out the sewing machine, so finally I showed him how to make a pair of shorts out of pants. (He used to take them to a tailor to have it done.) He was so proud of himself and tells everyone that he "made" those shorts every time he wears them. Sadly, that was his last foray into sewing. I think that if I can become a better sewer and find some awesome shirt patterns (or learn to copy his threadbare '40's shirts) then I could teach him to sew. But, most likely I will hear, as always, "Can you make/fix this for me?" As I always ask "Can you change my oil for me?" Is it wrong? I don't know-I just know that I don't want to change my own oil!

  8. My husband sews... not that well, but he does and he enjoys fabrics and clothes.
    Also a husband of a couple in a costume guild here makes all of his and his wives costumes, and he's pretty darn good! It's just not that popular I guess...
    Maybe because a lot of guys simply aren't *that* interested in clothes.
    Historically, and even now, tailoring is a predominately male occupation, but with suits not being the standard for guys these days it is becoming a lost art, unfortunately.

  9. I had a similar conversation with my partner just the other day, when he brought up the subject of female electrical apprentices at his work. 'Why would they WANT to do it?' he said. The culture is unaccepting, he said, and he couldn't see why they would want to even try because of that alone. The implication was that rather than the culture changing to accomodate women, the women should just realise that it's not going to work and give up.

    The sewing community is, particularly in the lack of decent patterns for men, pretty similar. In order to encourage men to participate, the culture needs to open up, and make more of an effort to appeal to men. And by 'the culture' I mostly mean the pattern and fabric companies, and stores.

  10. I taught sewing to 12 year old boys. They have to take a 10 week course. Many of them are very good at it, enjoy it, and are proud of what they make. They just don't ever take a class by choice later on, probably because of the fear of being different, also possibly because most of the patterns out there aren't even stylish for adults, let alone teenagers.
    My brother knits, and I taught a college roommate to knit socks for his girlfriend, but I don't think my husband would try sewing or knitting.

  11. My husband likes to quilt a little. After I piece it, baste it, mark the lines, select thread, set up the walking foot, and do a few rows of stitching. Then he likes to quilt. He has also expressed interest in the serger.

    I think men tend to dominate because... well.. they're men. The same thing happens with chefing. Top chefs are men, but mostly the people bringing meals to the dinner table every night are women. I think it is false to look at this as some sort of slight against women or glass ceiling or whatever, rather I think men can't help themselves. They're hard wired to push the envelope, to build bridges and erect towers and generally over-do everything. As far as I can tell, they do it to impress us. ;)

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  13. Hi there.
    I sew and knit since I was a little girl. Last winter when my flatmate showed me mitts he liked and asked me, if knitting was difficult and if I could teach him, I was surprised.
    Since then there is always something on his needles. And he is just a bit embarrassed when his sister is telling everyone that her brother made her hoodie ;)
    Also when I am knitting in public it's mainly men who are fascinated and ask if it was difficult... perhaps there is something changing there. At least there are more men cooking day-to-day by now, too. And after all sewing and knitting is diy.

  14. I think the problem for men is not just a dearth of interesting garment patterns, but a dearth of interesting garment choices. Peter is very fortunate to have Cathy to sew for- I crave all her clothes- but don't you find that watching fashion shows of menswear is always either soporific or hilarious? Men's fashion really needs a revolution.

  15. You know, I actually have yet to meet, in person, a guy who sews. Even at the sewing conventions I've been to, it's always overwhelmingly female when geared towards the home sewist. I think with the industry geared to appeal to female home sewers, it just doesn't occur to many men to even try. Peter is really the exception, I've found! (Kudos to him for giving sewing a go!) I think unless a specific need comes up that can't be fulfilled in the shops or is too expensive, guys by default just don't think of it. I personally would love to see more guys start sewing as I think everyone would benefit not only from the other perspective and ideas, but also from the resources that would appear to cater to that. Maybe it's just a pie-in-the-sky dream, but who knows? ;)

  16. Peter said (somewhere on his blog) that he and Brian were the only men he knew on Pattern Review. It struck me how lonely that must be. Maybe that’s implied in our culture’s lack of acceptance of male sewists, female electrical engineers, and such…but it seems to be a more subtle aspect of trying to break down a barrier. Maybe you are prepared for, or at least aware that there are going to be, insults, incredulity, homophobia, and just plain meanness, but I think maybe the loneliness sneaks up on you.

    A non-sewing male friend recently remarked that he thought fabric stores were clique-y, and that “the funny little women who work there don’t really want to help a clueless-looking man.” Of course not every fabric store or person is like that, but I have seen the almost exclusively female staff of my local Jo-Ann’s warily eye any male who is unescorted by a lady. Of course, part of me feels it is the Victorian tables turning—instead of being shunned if I were unescorted by a gentleman in certain establishments, it’s the other way around. But mostly I wondered why they alienated a customer instead of cultivating one, and if I had to face that attitude, I don’t know how long I’d persevere in pursuing sewing.

    I do have one male friend who sews. We just took a field trip to Denver Fabrics and I did notice that the staff pretty much let me rifle the bargain cuts without supervision, but kept their eyes on him a bit more. I don’t think he looks like a shoplifter, and, anyway, if anyone could shoplift an entire bolt of silk charmeuse, I would be in awe of their skills. Once they realized he knew what he wanted, they seemed to be less…vigilant. Maybe they are wary of men because they think their (presumed) inexperience will take up more of their time with inane questions? Maybe that has to do, in part, with how high-end the shop is. Now that I think about it, we’ve been to Allyn’s Bridal Fabrics (Denver) a couple of times, and they’ve always treated him exactly the same as they’ve treated me. Perhaps it’s more of a customer service issue, at least in stores.

    Also, as has been noted, menswear is really not that exciting. I just saw a book titled “One Hundred Years of Menswear” at the bookstore and asked, “How much difference could there be from the first year of that to the last?” Not much, as it turns out. How is that motivating?

    Perhaps the answer is to start a revolution in menswear, although short of introducing skirts on men, I’m not sure what that would look like.

  17. I love Peter too. The things that man can do with a bedsheet.

    Gertie said: "This is why all men should be feminists. I don't think it's common for men to recognize the damage that a misogynistic culture does to BOTH genders. In no uncertain terms: it alienates half the population from skills and trades that might be useful and pleasurable to all of us."

    A gal at work confessed to me that her husband sews, but he has sworn her to secrecy because he is so embarrassed. Embarrassed!! Because apparently the ability to build something out of fabric instead of wood or metal is emasculating. Lovely. She's not allowed to tell any of their friends. Man, that bothered me. I don't know her very well so I didn't feel I could pry too far into how her husband came to develop a skill where whatever pride he may feel is apparently tempered with such self-loathing.

  18. OK, OK, the guy can sew -- whatever.

    Don't you think this Peter guy has gotten just a little too much mileage out of that orange-and-yellow-flowered, award winning (like he'll ever let us forget it) sheet shirt?

    Frankly, I'd like to see him change clothes already. My eyes hurt.

  19. Gertie,

    The money quote: There's always that one straight dude who just has to assert his heterosexuality into every conversation. There is a rampant gay panic in our culture that keeps men from sewing, no doubt.

    Uh, yep! In my middle school years, the girls took sewing and cooking and the boys took shop. My younger siblings, no matter what gender, all took shop. So, social practices changed but cooking and sewing were off the agenda. Today, children are offered cooking lessons as a part of life. The gender assignment of this role and job has dropped (or dropping).

    I totally agree about the fear of a gay planet aspect of our culture. And, gender roles and assignment are part of the package. In fact, it's interesting that now that cooking can reap great salaries and celebrity, most of the chefs are male. It's now an activity that can reap great financial benefits and it does have to do with the number of males in the profession. And, the gay panic around culinary industry has dropped. But, in the home, cooking remains a major province of women.

    Now, I'm not advocating for more male sewists so that men can attain dominance in an industry. I am advocating for us to take a close and hard look at gender roles and assignments. It's not a totally pretty picture.

  20. I really don't buy that we have "gender role assignments" in our society. For the love, a woman with a beard has been touted as the first man to give birth. (I know that's a can of worms in itself...) Those sort of barriers do not exist anymore. Sure, lots more women sew than men. Lots more men are electrical engineers than women. Maybe that's just a simple expression of interest, nothing more?

    Maybe, just maybe, men and women are completely different on almost every level imaginable. Biologically, neurologically, psychologically. This does not mean that women are better than men or vice versa. Different and equal. Equality does not mean sameness. Also, I think men need space to be men and women need space to be women. This is often expressed through hobbies and interests.

    By the same token, when a man comes into our shop he's usually well-taken care of and teased gently, like most other customers. I think a lot of perceived prejudices are actually the projection of an individual's insecurities onto another person.

  21. Where I went to school, in the seventh grade all the boys and girls learned to sew, and all the boys and girls learned to saw wood. Most boys just didn't like sewing. And as much as I can remember, very few female eyes lit up at the sight of the saw collection.

  22. Well, if gender roles were innate, they would be the same in every culture, and that clearly is not so, so I think that argument goes down the can. Hence even the different words "sex" and "gender", one to denote the physical aspect and one to denote the cultural aspect. It is clear that men and women are different, but the ways of marking that difference are quite variable.

    I agree with Peter that Peter has got so much attention that I think we are fetishizing this "man who sews" and it's getting on my nerves a bit. I'm happy he can sew. So can lots of other people. Move on already. Just cause he's a guy doesn't mean I want him to be a celebrity.

    Regarding other guys who sew, my brother once made himself a suit jacket as a teenager but doesn't sew any more as far as I know. His then girlfriend taught him. I think that for men the dangers of seeming "emasculated" are a lot more than the dangers for women of taking on male roles, like electrical work or woodshop (I do both, but no one has called me "unfeminine" as yet). For gay men those dangers have perhaps already been faced. You would think the presence of dangerous machinery and sharp objects would help with this problem, requiring strong and noble men with large chins, but apparently not so.

    If you look through Western history, clothing the family has nearly ALWAYS been women's work and spinning and weaving have taken huge chunks of women's lives; sewing is a somewhat distant third in the fabric stakes. I believe firmly that most women also direct the buying of clothes for everyone in the household. Our methods have changed, but not our roles.

  23. Goodness! Can't I get to wallow in my celebrity a bit before the blowback begins?

    It's only been two days!

  24. When I watch Project Runway I always laugh at the one straight male designer, who constantly mentions how not gay he is. I think fear of "the gay" keeps a lot of men from trying different things. I'm a private piano and voice teacher by profession, and there is always a huge difference in the number of female vs male students I have. It always makes me sad to see a talented boy give up piano at puberty because he's being made fun of. Of course, it's no different for women who have traditionally "manly" hobbies. I'm the handy one in our family, and have done most of the work fixing up our old house. I am not treated with respect at hardware stores. I come from a knitting background, and there are quite a few men who knit, but not so many straight ones, again I think because of gender roles and fear of "the gay."

  25. Wallow, Peter, wallow! I love your blog, your creations, your dogs, your cousin, your machines, and especially your groovy vintage sheets. :-)

  26. Ah, but one comment is hardly blowback, surely. Enjoy your wallow, Peter.

  27. This is a great discussion! I guess I've never really thought much about it - when I was in design school there was a pretty 50/50 balance between men and women in my classes, and of course all the men could sew. Then again - it was fashion school - so yes, about 90% of the men in my classes were gay. But honestly, I've always known a few men who sew as "home sewers" for themselves or others. It's just another practical skill (very practical) that I think too many men are missing out on due to societal pressure to be "manly". So dumb! Then again - if you take a look at industrial stitchers, there are quite a few men who sew in factories to support their families... again, coming from an industry standpoint there isn't really a dearth of male stitchers. On the local homefront - check out my friend Jerry Lee - he makes custom western wear and is constantly exploring sewing equipment and processes. His girlfriend does not sew, from what I understand, and he makes her a lot of clothing. His blog is a bit bare, but check out his Etsy shop :)

  28. Love Peter's blog. While I love all of my fellow female sewists, it is nice to have that male perspective out there.

  29. My father-in-law (a retired RAF radar engineer and college lecturer) used to sew my MILs gowns for Mess Dinners and other black tie events. He had never sewn a stitch in his life before he whipped up her first satin boned confection.
    She was the envy of all the other wives and always won the "best dressed" competition.
    It's good to see Peter keeping up the good work with his glamorous outfits, both for himself and 'Cathy'!

  30. I've just discovered your blog and love this post. I'm sharing it with my boyfriend who has been begging me to learn to sew with him for the longest time. I think I might finally give in to lessons.

  31. Sewing machines are power tools, aren't they? ;-)

    I read somewhere that Tom Silva, one of the contractors on "This Old House," used to sew clothing for his daughter before he got so busy being on PBS. He said that following a sewing pattern is really just like following building plans, anyway.

  32. I have a six-year-old, and it's my intention that he be able to cook AND sew before he grows up and leaves home. He's got quite an interest in costuming and cosplay (which admittedly is the majority of my sewing too), so we've got a good start there. Everyone should be able to do such basic things, and then follow through or not depending on interest - not gender.

  33. I'm a 6'7", 235 lb. broad shouldered, deep voiced, straight guy, and I have absolutely no problem admitting that I sew.

    When you point out that a sewing machine really is just a power tool, and that using it to make something out of fabric really is no different than using power tools to make something out of metal or wood, quite often I see a dawning realization come over other guys. You end up with something very useful in the end. There is just a profound satisfaction in creating something yourself, whether it's a piece of furniture or a garment.

    You will find a lot of men who sew in the backpacking world. Tents, tarps, sleeping bags, hammocks, backpacks, rain gear, etc.

    I know former British Royal Marine Commandos, German anti-terrorist cops, US Army Special Forces, Airborne riggers, Marine Scout Snipers, etc. that sew pouches, belts, armoured plate carriers, chest webbing, holsters, backpacks, ghillie suits, etc. I don't think anyone would mistake them as "effeminate."

    I'm currently trying to learn more about sewing clothes (a whole other ball of wax), and I really wish there were more patterns out there for mens clothing. There is a profound lack of them. I need to learn more about patterns for the pants that I want to make, and all the books I have found deal with womens clothing. I will learn as much as I can from them, but it would be easier if there was more out there for men.

    Oh and I have a T-shirt from with the slogan "Chicks Dig Guys That Sew" on the back. Well, that's what I like to tell myuself anyway. :-)

  34. I think sewing has a marketing problem. I am learning to sew, but I often refer to my new hobby as "textile hacking" when conversing with my technology-obsessed friends. I do it not because I am embarrassed or homophobic, but really just to generate interest. Guys are more likely to respond to that which involves technology, tools and innovation, and will typically yawn at all things "domestic" or "practical". I myself only became interested when rearranging some furniture opened up a 1950 15-91 Singer and discovered what an amazing machine it is.

  35. As an historical re-enactor and "costumist", I not only sew but tailor, and, yes, I am thoroughly hetrosexual.

    I, too, decry, a lack of good sewing patterns (I make most of my own) for gentlemen, especially in the areas of dress trousers and coats. Sadly, most of what comes up on the market are horrible 1970s funky clothes or beach togs...useless!

    I'll follow these associated blogs to learn more about my "peers" in the home rag trades.

  36. While I don't know any men who do sew, I have to say I have a couple of male muses. One is my husband who is an accomplished artist and writer. The other is another older gentleman who spent his life as a florist but who's family was active in the garment industry while he was growing up. He often has incredibly helpful suggestions. So thank you, Walt (husband) and thank you, Bert (friend).

  37. Well I'm a guy and I sew. I got into it to make my son a SpongeBob costume because all of the ones out there looked cheap to me. I've hemmed pants for my wife. I am working on his costume right now for this year. I've never really tried to sew anything for myself. It may be fun, but as of now I'm 100% on costume making. I enjoy it and everyone at work can't believe I made something like that when I'm done. Yup the chicks dig I ended up having to buy (at least that's the excuse I'm using) an embroidery machine to assist with this years costume. I'm really enjoying using the software for it to do pretty much anything I can think up. Besides I can make money with doing embroidery on the side to offset the costs. It's amazing how much these costumes end up costing for a 3 y/o when you buy new toys for every costume. lol One of these days I might try making a shirt or something. Who knows, your only held back ny your imagination.

  38. I have always sewn. when i was small my mother helped me sew sample patches on her Necchi BU. In junior high i altered my own trousers. the night before i was married i helped my with hemm her wedding dress. My mother inn law was blown away. raising a family i never had time but at sixty im planning my return. first a dress shirt and then?
    I need my own sewing machine It bugs my wife when i start tearing hers apart because i dont like the way it is running. i really like the old cast iron machines but i'm not locked in. im considering a new one with a lexan frame. as far as changing oil my wife never does it but my daughters no how

  39. I wouldn't consider it homophobic for a straight man who sews to make a regular point of indicating his sexual orientation. By being outspoken like this it serves as an encouragement to other straight males that they are not as much the minority as they might think.

    Conservative and professional sewing patterns for men would be a very exciting find. I'm starting in on my first sewing project, and it seems unless it's for historical reenactment there are just no quality patterns out there for a man to wear in public. Again, this might be due to me being completely new to sewing, but this article suggests I'm not too far off the mark.

  40. My uncle Phil is now a retired police oficer. about twenty five years ago he married a woman with an eight year old daughter who was a competitive figure skater. Phil began taking sewing classes and designing ice skating outfits for Jamie. His S.W.A.T. team buddies were not only supportive, they held fund raisers for her skating club. Jamie is an adult now with children of her own, and Phil teaches traffic school and sews curtains and and custom sofa covers when he isn't at the range shooting things.

  41. Hi Everyone! I know this is an old post but I'm a television producer working on a new sewing competition series. We are looking for amateur sewers who would like to be on the show. We are specifically looking for men! If you know anyone who might be interested please feel free to get in touch at: Thanks so much!


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

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