Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Sewing and Feminism 101

We've talked quite a bit around these parts about vintage sensibilities and feminism, but it occurred to me yesterday that we've never really gotten into the relationship between sewing itself and feminism. In other words, the basics. Women's feelings toward domestic arts have undergone such radical changes in the past sixty or so years, and it's interesting to examine how sewing fits into this puzzle. Now, mind you, I'm not a women's studies professor - I'm just someone with approximately a third of a PhD in theatre history, which I feel beholden to tell you is the same as no PhD at all. But here's how I understand it.

Let's start with the painfully obvious. Sewing is a domestic activity, and as such, has generally been in the domain of women's responsibilities. Prior to the advent of feminism, home sewing was wrapped up in all the other messy notions that prompted the need for women's liberation: the erasure of women into undervalued roles and social conditions that didn't allow for sustainable life choices choices outside of marriage and motherhood. (Just for the record: I am not bashing homemaking. I am merely glossing over several decades of women's history! I'm not sure which should offend you more.) With the publication of The Feminine Mystique and the evolution of first wave feminism, women began to detach themselves from domestic work and hence, home sewing became a less popular - perhaps even ridiculed - activity. We have the second wave of feminism to thank for many legal rights that women now have. But sadly, this era also saw the further decline of home crafts. For some, sewing might even have been considered an anti-feminist activity.

This idea has, thankfully, largely been criticized by third wave feminists, who, for the most part, rejected the idea that to gain power women must inject themselves into traditionally male activities and give up any aspirations of domestic bliss. As these feminists saw it, disowning any activity that was traditionally feminine further compounded the cultural notion that women's work is meaningless - that to do work of importance, we must take on traditionally male roles.

Feminism took a pronounced turn for the crafty with the publication of Stitch 'n Bitch, the book single-handedly responsible for making knitting cool again. Authored by Debbie Stoller, founder of the feminist magazine Bust, the book is both a how-to and a decidedly feminist call to action. The beautifully written chapter "Take Back the Knit" speaks volumes about the relationship between feminism and crafting. It's a gem of a chapter all around, but my favorite passage is this:
"Betty Friedan and other like-minded feminists had overlooked an important part of knitting when they viewed it simply as part of women's societal obligation to serve everyone around them--they had forgotten that knitting served the knitter as well."
In other words, crafts like sewing and knitting are nourishing to the soul, not just the home. Reflecting this idea, women today are far more likely to sew for themselves - because it feeds their creativity and sense of beauty - rather than a sense of gendered obligation. We live in a very exciting time in which feminism, punk DIY aesthetics, and eco-consciouness have converged to create a new crafting movement. And instead of feeling oppressed by sewing and other domestic arts, feminists now often use them as a means of connection to each other and to our creative selves.

But here's my question: why hasn't sewing become an emblem of crafty third-wave feminism in the way that knitting has? For whatever reason, sewing hasn't become a craft of choice for hip feminists, despite publishers' attempts to find the Stitch 'n Bitch of sewing. Sewing (or at least couture and vintage sewing) does seem to have less of a punk aesthetic than knitting - a bigger push towards refined methods rather than a scrappy DIY aesthetic. But I think we seamstresses need to start holding our own as crafty feminists!

What do you think? Do you see your sewing as feminist?

101 comments:

  1. I learned to sew when I was 15, around 1989-1990 and it was definitely very uncool. I think there were still remnants of 80's feminism going on - which struck me as an attempt to be as much like a man in the business world as possible.

    My mom also never liked sewing, so it was very much presented as something she had to learn how to do when she was in school ...

    I remember the shift very clearly. When I was 15, I couldn't admit that I sewed something that I was wearing. When I was 17-18, everyone was very impressed, but not enough to do it themselves. It was still a fringe activity, but at least I wasn't mocked.

    And even though crafting of all types is very popular right now, there are still few people who sew. I get much more respect for my work now, but I'm still the youngest person I know who sews.

    I don't think of my sewing as feminist or not ... it's a hobby that I enjoy, and I've done it whether anyone else liked it our not. But I see the trends ...

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  2. I'm 52 and grew up in an old fashioned family, where a woman was first a housewife. I learnt knitting, sewing, embroidery, etc and use them to make myselfs and my kids clothes.
    As a divorced adult with two kids, my priority became my work outside. In a company full of engineers who would twist their noses when they heard words such as knitting or sewing. I carefully avoided to mention I liked those crafts. If I did, I was at once categorized as an old spinster. At the same time, I did not teach my daughters how to sew nor knit, because of that, and because it was considered as alienating, in the women lib's sense. I preferred that they devoted themselves to their studies.
    Now, I've rediscovered the joy of sewing for myself a few months ago. One of my daughters likes to sew with me whenever she can, and both enjoy garnments sewed by me for them. In short, sewing is no longer a chore, but a pleasure, and as such, it is rewarding.
    Looks like I followed the schema you describe, uh?!

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  3. Gertie, To me there is an important parallel debate about class: gender-class distinctions, economic-class distinctions etc. Women in the middle/upper classes of first-world countries do indeed have the freedom to choose to craft (sew, knit, quilt, fashion, letterpress, etc.) But there is a huge majority of people in the world who work in factories or sweatshops. Just as generations ago, women had to sew clothing for their families whether or not they had talent or inclination. While feminists in America are free to decide if they want to buy a 3-pack of tshirts, an American Apparel shirt, or to make one themselves from a pattern and fabric, most people do not have this choice. So, the kind of sewing that you, and that most other bloggers, do is indeed feminist/humanist because it is your CHOICE to do so, but most people who sew still do so to survive. Unfortunately, I believe these recreational activities are seen by many, but not all, still as women's work. As to the word craft, perhaps that is another discussion...

    Secondly, regarding the distinction you made between different crafts, I believe sewing (and altering or repairing) is employed by people with a far greater range of abilities than knitting. Either you can knit and it is something you want to dedicate time to, or you don't. But almost everyone has a spare needle and thread at home for basic mending. Building the skills you yourself have is a long process, but many people sew/alter/diy their clothing without consciously making a statement about it. Those are baby steps of sewing awareness.

    Perhaps this doesn´t directly address any of your questions, but these are some of the other issues your post brought up to me.

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  4. Just a historical note: there was a lot of feminism before Betty Friedan. I know that's not your point, but it is too easy to forget.

    I think to look at sewing, home sewing, you also need to look at the history of clothing manufacture. It simply wasn't affordable to purchase the majority of your family's clothing before the mid-century, probably before the 1960s. So sewing was *necessary.* In the way that cooking is, if you can't pay for a restaurant meal every day (and of course this too is changing). Or laundry, if you can't pay to have everything dry-cleaned. I think women stopped learning to sew because they finally *could*. Imagine the drudgery of making everything from underwear and socks to coats for every single member of your family. Women's lives were pretty tough back then.

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  5. I think the big difference now is the freedom to choose. The various feminist movements got us to this point - there are still those around who think its a womans duty to be domesticated in whatever way - there are also those around who think a woman is letting the side down if she is domesticated in any way. But surely the fight was about getting that freedom to choose.
    I think the reason knitting has been taken up more easily than sewing is the portability of it - you can knit on the bus, in your lunch hour etc. You also need much less of an investment in equipment. added to that is the fact that you can always unpick a mistake. Makes it much less daunting I think. Whilst there are sewing groups it is more difficult to sit and gossip over sewing machines than knitting needles. I enjoy knitting but the thing about sewing is you get your finished item sooo much quicker. You can also make just about everything once you have the skill whereas knitting has its limitations (knitted trousers eeek!).

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  6. This is such a rich topic.

    Along with feminism came a dramatic change in the labor market that isn't always acknowledged. Many women started working in the 60s and 70s -- and here I'm talking about middle class women who hadn't been working; poor women have always worked -- because they now HAD to: one wage earner was no longer sufficient to support a household. Unions got weaker, inflation weakened the value of the dollar, the cost of living rose faster than wages, etc.

    My hunch is that many women stopped sewing because they no longer had the TIME, not because they were ashamed of being seen as anti- or pre-feminist. Maybe they didn't pass their skills on to their daughters in a way they might have in the past...who knows?

    But the TIME issue still holds true today; I hear it constantly: women (and men) don't have the TIME to sew; most people don't.

    (Also: Clothing is cheaper than it was 30=40 years ago. More people used to sew clothes for economy's sake; this is rarely the case today.)

    Knitting is portable: you can knit on the subway, you can knit in the park during your lunch hour. No one's going to haul a Bernina with them to work.

    I also the think there's a steeper learning curve with sewing: there's so much to know and so much to purchase. With knitting, you just need needles and some yarn. That may also discourage potential sewers.

    But like anything that's perceived as passe, eventually the pendulum of "cool" swings back! And it seems to be happening now. But it is unlikely to become as widespread as in the past. Clothing is just too cheap and free time is in too short supply.

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  7. I was going to note something along the lines of what Julie pointed out, but from an historical perspective. The class issues she mentioned were true in the 19th century, as the first wave of feminism was dawning. Upper class ladies would have done embroidery and so forth as part of their genteel ladylike past-times, but one of the key issues in this time was that poor working class seamstresses were having to toil in unsafe, unhealthy conditions to make the opulent gowns worn by the leisured rich.

    Some other interesting tidbits from this period in history (sorry, I have a Ph D in Victorian studies so I could just yammer on for days): I remember a George Du Maurier illustration in which a so called "New Woman" in bloomers was going out to ride her bicycle (then a novel invention and symbol of modernity and women's emancipation) while her friend was going to operate her sewing machine. The joke was that both were new types of technologies
    modern women had to learn to operate, I suppose. I imagine that around the time the sewing machine became mass marketed to middle class women there was actually a need to feminize and domesticate this newer technology which some saw as somehow linked to early feminism? In fact, Annie Peck, a very open supporter of women's suffrage and a high altitude mountain climber who dressed in breeches and even wore a moustachiod "complexion mask" while mountain climbing eventually struck a deal with Singer to have little post cards of her and her mountain endeavours sent with every sewing machine sold. Interesting yoking together of women's emancipation and the sewing machine. I wish I could post links to all these visual sources...

    Last Thing: I personally grew up with a grandmother who was a seamstress. She taught herself out of necessity, being the daughter of a poor dustbowl family in the Midwestern US and then Canada. Sewing was her livelihood. Of course, she taught these skills to my mother and to me, but my mother had to learn these as appropriate wifely and motherly skills (for the sake of helping her household be economical by darning socks, for example, rather than buying new ones). My mom pretty much rebelled against these notions as an adult, but I really enjoyed them as hobby skills. Now, as an adult, I notice very few women of my generation (I was born in the 70s) have a clue how to hem a skirt, etc. I HAVE noticed the subcultures you mentioned, devoted to learning these skills. Wow, I'd better stop yackin'. As always, FASCINATING subject.

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  8. My favourite subject! I think both instincts have been right, in their time; the rejection of domestic slavery, and to now embrace these skills again as our birthright as they are being sold back to us at twice the price. I can't look at crafting and feminism without considering the rise of the female consumer. We've got jobs and money, but now we have to look at the life we've been sold and think, are we being had? I do think that sewing is part of the current wave of feminism, and there is no better illustration of this than the smart women of the online sewing community!

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  9. maybe you've pigeon holed the crafts too much? I don't think there's anything punk or scrappy about me knitting a cashmere sweater for myself. I still need skills to get a sweater to fit my body properly; just as sewists have fba's knitters have short row shaping for example.

    also, when I think of "punk" sewing I think of those softies sold at most craft fairs. think plush tampons, doughnuts, owls, etc. or perhaps the "movement" is happening in the quilting end of things.

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  10. Yay feminist theory of crafts!
    So after that last thread, I started reading Ruth Schwartz Cowan's More Work for Mother as recommended in thread, and I highly recommend it to people are interested in the history of female household labor in the States. One of the points that she makes that I love is that the pattern that women's work takes in the US is in response to specific historical forces - there's no, like, cosmic reason why cooking and childcare should be low-status unpaid work and metalwork and data entry should be professions that happen outside of the home.

    One of the mistakes I feel like I see pragmatic feminists (people who are mostly concerned with how women can survive economically and have options in the here-and-now) make is overidentifying the particular things our economy rewards and values (like professional, white-collar work outside the home)with broader feminist goals. The fact is that traditional women's work is stuff that has to get done by someone (seriously, tax accountancy is optional in human history. Cooking and childcare are not.) Wouldn't it be nice if that someone was valued for their contribution, whether they're a homemaker or a worker in Frozen Pizza Plant Number Six or someone who assembles t-shirts in Tegucigalpa? And wouldn't it be nice if we could all take economic security for granted enough that doing unpaid labor out of fascination or love didn't inspire fear that our good natures are being taken advantage of?

    Also, I wish sewing would get as punk-rock as knitting. I think it might be the barrier to entry - a machine is more expensive then knitting needles - and the lack of portability. I do feel like I see a general crafting spillover from knitting to Etsy to all the home arts. And at least we've got Burdastyle, though I have yet to sew any of their patterns.

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  11. Interesting thoughts, Gertie! I am fascinated lately by how different the newer generations of post-women's lib gals are pushing more for choice: in the sense (as you pointed out) that we don't have to abandon traditionally "domestic arts" (at least in the West) in order to be "modern women". I love how you put this idea: "...crafts like sewing and knitting are nourishing to the soul, not just the home". Amen! ;)

    I think Jenny Wren hit on the notion as to why sewing is perhaps not quite as wildly popular as knitting, despite the uptick in interest thanks to the DIY movement. Plus, it's not the sort of activity that is easily communal; because the machinery is often big, bulky and noisy, it's not something I can haul into the living room in the evenings to spend time with my husband. Although I've had days when sewing friends come over and spend the day sewing, it's a very different vibe from the knitting groups I've participated in! Perhaps the biggest "flaw" in sewing is just this: it is not intrinsically a "social" activity like knitting.

    ♥ Casey
    blog | elegantmusings.com

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  12. (I'm tyring to be brief, so)

    1) My grandmother had the ability to sew clothes and until the early 70's frequently did sew her own clothes because a) she was very small and store-bought clothes didn't fit her well and b) it was much much cheaper to do so. When RTW clothing got cheaper and provided more choices, she stopped sewing because she HATED it.

    2) I think knitting is more popular (and before "Stitch and Bitch", which I see as a response to the growing interest rather than a generator of it) simply because it takes less time to achieve visible competance, requires fewer accessories to accomplish and is highly portable. None of which, unfortunately, I can say about my sewing.

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  13. PS "trying to be brief" wasn't a comment on the very interesting (and long) posts ahead of me, it's more of a personal attempt to not ramble as much as I normally do. Just saying.

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  14. I was born in the early 60's. My Mom taught me to sew and I took a home ec class. My Mom was raised on a farm and so knew all things domestic. My Mother also had a career and had other interests she was very involved in. I think it was always presented to me as a way of being independent ,self suffiicent and one can never have too many skills.BOth of my parents grew up on farms so both Grandmothers sewed. My MOm also gave me some of the best advice ever as far as making sure I grew up to be an independent woman. I like to think this is a large part of what feminism can be.
    In the biggest town near me which also is very liberal and a college town, sewing is somewhat popular with young people ,I think with more of the social aware set, the green ,eco set. I am not trying to be stereo typical here but anyways....some things like gardening and canning are also popular again and I think it is more of a green thing as well as realizing perhaps straying away from these activities and relying on corporations to provide them isn't such a good idea for our health.
    I think Project Runway has been very key in making sewing accessible to teens, I have a teen daughter so know that with some that is a very popular show and may will break down some of the barriers associated with it being a girl thing. There have been boys that have taken our High school sewing class and in fact my nephew took it and he is an all state track athlete and would likely defy all stereotypes of a guy that would sew. Something I tend to see with some of the teens I know is that they don't pay as much attention to certain activities as being gender specific as maybe people of my generation did. And this is a good thing.
    So what is my point? do I have one?! I guess while I am aware of the historical perspective of women making clothing and working in sweat shops. I tend to view it as more of a way to express my self sufficiency, independence, and creativity.

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  15. Peter hit it out of the park with his answer. Also, globalization means that you can buy clothing for almost less than the fabric would cost. This raises the issue of sweatshops and outsourced manufacturing, but that's another story.

    Another factor: Home ec in our middle school now is learning to sew a simple drawstring bag. I was in junior high in the early '70s and we made clothes, although they didn't teach us a thing about pattern fitting. I do sewing work on the side, and am always amazed at how many people don't know how to do simple repairs or sew on patches or buttons. (I call these people "customers." lol)

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  16. I actually don't see an entire rejection of crafts in the feminist movement of the 60's and 70's - perhaps it was more a reflection of the hippie movement, but I know my mom and her sisters all enjoyed sewing their own clothes as well as embroidery, all as an alternative to buying clothes which their family certainly could afford. It may also have reflected on their mother, who was definitely a 'liberated' and 'modern' woman (a professor of European history who also traveled widely on her own her whole life and never liked sewing). I do think that the needlework that continued at this time is reflected in the (many!) publications of the 60's and 70's in a strange way - mainly marketed to the homemaker but sometimes with a weird feminist twist.

    Knitting does have a more 'alternative' and 'hip' image than sewing right now, I agree - but I do want to point out that sewing is an integral part of many American subcultures, often practiced by women but there are tons of men, too! Think steampunk, Gothic Lolita, cosplay (dressing as anime characters), and historic reenactors. So I think both are hanging on the fringes of feminism, in some ways - by reclaiming a craft as a hobby, by allowing you to dress in a certain way that may not follow society's standards for 'normal', etc.

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  17. As far as why knitting is off the charts but not sewing...

    I think that could be because of the ease of which knitting can be learned, carried around and done in groups. I think sewing requires more equipment and has a steeper learning curve. There are more little bitty knit shops stuck here and there where you can pop in get a lesson, buy supplies and find a little group that meets regularly.
    That said, I am a sewist not a knitter. But even for my college age daughters who have a mom who sews, if they were trying to choose between the two, knitting would be the easier and cheaper thing to begin. Imagine for someone who doesn't have a mom to teach them.

    There is an example, however, of sewing falling into the 3rd wave crafty resurgence. The TV show Gossip Girl has had a strong plot line where a main character sews and then pursues fashion as a career choice. I think features like that will help put it on people's radar.

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  18. I think Mary makes an excellent point about "never having too many skills." Sewing IS a skill, and a useful one. I can see the historical context of rejecting it, but I think it is also a disservice to do so.

    In a recent discussion (among feminists) of what we would barter if we ever returned to a barter economy, I was able to say I could sew, mend, crochet, and bake.

    No one else had any skills that could easily be bartered, and I'm thinking it's because they rejected these "feminine" skills in favor of political correctness.

    Which is certainly their right, and it seems unlikely that we'll soon be forced to barter our sewing skills in order to survive, but it makes me think that we have greatly diminished our ability to be self-sufficient by rejecting out of hand any skill that seems anti-feminist.

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  19. This is interesting.

    My mother learnt to sew at school but she never took it up in her spare time. She regards it as a vaguely useful but largely irrelevant skill. Possibly because for her it has no meaning beyond being part of the domestic work women were historically expected to do.

    I was not brought up thinking sewing was anti-feminist though. For me, and most of my friends, it's always been kind of neutral, tied more to an interest in fashion than domesticity or feminism.

    If I were to interpret my sewing (and vintage or thrifted clothes!) as part of a political viewpoint, it would more likely be a critique of neoliberalism than feminism.

    Also, knitting seems to lend itself to 'craftivism' better than garment sewing.

    ps. Hi Jen, I sew and I'm 22, nice to meet you. :)

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  20. We can get into a feminist discussion on the why's and wherefores of feminism and sewing, but I think Peter has it in many ways. It's easy to learn to knit, at least on a basic level, and it doesn't involve much of a monetary commitment. It's an easy communal activity, but except for classes, sewing is a much more solitary activity. It involves a much bigger learning curve and a larger monetary commitment to something you may not be sure you will love and want to continue.
    I have been sewing for more than 45 years and I've always considered myself a feminist and no where or when have I found a lot of women who sew garments. Quilting yes, but that is historically a group activity.
    People are fascinated and impressed by the fact that I sew for myself but they don't see themselves as being able to do it too.

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  21. Wow, such a debate! As a sixties child, I witnessed my mum sewing my clothes and occasionally her own. This was a financial necessity - my clothes were frequently made from her old dresses. I started sewing my own clothes in my late teens because I both enjoyed it, and I wanted something different to what was available. I was alone in this at school, even those who took needlework as a subject didn't sew clothes, but it was never looked down upon in the same way that knitting was. I don't think this was a stand against domestic servitude, most people simply viewed it as highly skillful and beyond their capabilities. Personally I don't view my sewing as a domestic or feminist act, I see it as creative just as I would one of my paintings.

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  22. I will not claim to be a feminist. I dearly treasure my job as a SAHM, which is not to say that I've been aspirationless in my life thus far or that I see myself as unequal in any way because these are also untrue of me.

    With all of that out of the way, I do sew as a form of protest. I'm tired of buying clothes that don't fit made in countries where the women are forced to crank out said ill-fitting clothes for a pittance. Those women have families just like me, and it pains me to think that they are suffering because we've been told in this country that things need to be cheap all the time.

    Before I had my son and was teaching, my main hobby was cooking. My cookbook library is unrivaled, and little makes me happier than being alone in the kitchen chopping veg for long periods of time. But now that I am staying at home, I see my cooking as more of a have-to-do sort of thing instead of the creative outlet it has been for me in the past. I would go crazy without sewing. And this is probably where the we of my generation are probably different than our Moms and Grandmas. Sewing CAN be solely a creative activity--not something expected of us or something that MUST be done. I appreciate being able to create beauty and to see the beauty that others create through their sewing.

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  23. BaronessVonVintage, that stuff about sewing machines/technology/suffrage is FASCINATING! If you know of any good scholarly work on it, please drop me a line... I'd love to use it in some of my feminist history of technology classes. And Sapote, I'm glad you like Scwartz Cohen. This corner of the interwebs has collected such interesting (and work relevant, for me) discussions!

    I'll never forget the day that I brought home my first sewing machine in college and my roommate commented that I had "domesticated myself". I was thinking of my sewing machine as more of a DIY/punk tool to hack up old band t shirts with, and I was kind of horrified by his comment. I'm glad I stuck with it, though! In those days when I was making stuff with a more explicitly punk aesthetic I was mostly hanging around Craftster on the interwebs. Now that I'm making more work-oriented stuff I'm hanging around BurdaStyle.

    I've always been pretty crap at knitting, so I can't comment on the popularity of knitting vs sewing -- my knitted stuff always turned out frustratingly too big. I do wish I could join the knitting night at my local gay bar, though. Sometimes I bring around my hand sewing to do there, but it's not ideal because it usually still requires a lot of my focus and doesn't leave time to chat.

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  24. I am with the previous commenter as another SAHM of 4 and with a husband on a widely variable income (commissions). Sewing is creative and a means of keeping these kids in clothes. Mending alone is a help not to have to find someone to do it. For some of us a barter economy is a part of our life. We barter for babysitting, car repair, other things. I barter making cakes for others or sewing. I also sell these services. Feminism or not, I love sewing and other crafts, but sewing is the more detailed and more expensive of the crafts. I would rather do that than wash dishes, mop floors, etc, but of course, they need to be done. They're calling my name now...

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  25. Oh and I, too, am so tired of the substandard quality of the clothes in the stores. Not to mention the sweatshops...

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  26. Sewing for ourselves is empowering. My favorite observation on that point is a line delivered by Jennifer Lopez in the movie Monster In Law. When JLo's MIL-to-be criticizes her for eating, by saying "You'll never fit into your wedding gown if you keep eating like that." JLo, a seamstress herself, responds "I am making my wedding gown to fit my body, not the other way around."

    That's empowerment. Rejecting someone else's idea of what her body should be. She simply implies "This is it, accept it."

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  27. i mean this totally seriously when i say, don't underestimate what "project runway" has done for the idea of knowing how to make your own clothes and how cool, stylish and liberating it can be both for men and women. when i tell people that i am learning how to sew and create garments, their response has never been, "but why, that is so 50s oppressed housewife?" but, "that is amazing, i would love to do that!"

    i grew up in the 80s and 90s when home economics was an elective, not a required class, and the section we did in junior high on sewing was hand-sewing for the guys and the girls. we made stuffed animals.

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  28. I have a BA in Women's Studies...

    And I'm a very happy housewife who sews, bakes, cooks from scratch and makes her husband a sack lunch every day.

    Sewing, for me, is an activity that encourages independance from the fashion of the moment. As a home-seamstress, I can create clothing that looks good on my post-child body, clothing that makes me happy, clothing that rescues my daughter from the Hannah Montana racks of clothing at the store... and all of that clothing wears better than what I'd buy TOO. What's not to love?

    Certainly home sewing takes TIME - I don't know that I'd be able to have children and sew if I wasn't a SAHM.

    I think folks just got those matchy-matchy Mom and Daughter dresses into their heads and never got them removed. :)

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  29. Hmm, true knitting can be carried around and the basics are learned easily (if you were good with your hands, that is). And the possibility to talk while knitting a basic stockinette sweater is another reason for making it so popular.

    But there must be more to it because NO: knitting is not cheaper and there are not less skills required compared to sewing (Take gorgeous Rowan yarn, 10 balls for one sweater and off they have gone, your hundred quid ;-) And making a sweater fit perfectly ... well, some never got to it. My sewing is by far not as perfect as my knitting already is but after only one year I learned and accomplished more than after knitting one year.

    I think the main attraction is that you can really make a garment - not "only" using fabric and cutting and stitching it but taking a simple yarn and make the fabric. It is a form of emancipation. A lot of hardcore Knitters are spinners as well - you alone decide the colour, the thickness, the shape, the design.

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  30. I think the reason sewing hasn't been taken up as much is the initial expense in terms of money and space. Buying a sewing machine and having space to set up it (and cut fabric/patterns) are big hurdles for many people.

    In college, I sewed occasionally for costuming and a re-enactment group I was in. But we had to set up basically sewing dates where we reserved a common room with long tables, and convinced people to loan us machines for the day.

    Post college, sewing meant convincing my three other roommates that I needed to take everything off the kitchen table and basically commandeer the kitchen for several hours (and then pack everything up at the end of my sewing time). Cutting was either squished into a hallway, or I would move aside everything in the living room to try to smoosh a pattern in.

    Oh and despite living in a big city (Boston), access to commercial patterns is limited. Strangely I can relatively easily get to cheap fabric.

    Sewing was this HUGE hassle. Knitting on the other hand, I could corral my needles and yarn into an underbed box, or a tote. The amount of money to start a simple project is quite low, and I could do it anywhere. I knitted on my bus, on the subway, etc.

    I didn't sew for maybe 6 years because I didn't have a machine, and I couldn't really afford to plunk down several hundred dollars for a new one (or gambling that a used one would work, and hauling it home on a city bus).

    About two years ago my roommate bought a sewing machine because she wanted to make some skirts. I started up sewing again as well. We had more space to work, which was great.

    In my current apartment, I'm able to leave my machine set up at the dining room table for days while I work on projects, and the floors are good for cutting fabric on.

    Right now, sewing is part of my fat acceptance politics. I am insanely frustrated by limited, expensive and often unattractive plus size clothing. I'm even more frustrated that companies which create and sell vintage style clothing don't make them in my size (the biggest they run is a 14/16 and I wear a 20).

    Of course now I'm dealing with the incredible frustration of the limited amount of plus size patterns (including the big 4s repro vintage patterns). I'm exploring indie pattern companies, and noticing how many of them don't carry plus sizes (Built by Wendy, I'm glaring at you so hard).

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  31. Hi Gertie! I didn't get to read everyone's comments, but as for me, I would love to do more sewing and take classes. What stands in the way is mostly the time and expense. Knitting is simple and inexpensive, and I can take it with me on my many errands. I can knit outside while my kids play.
    I cannot afford a sewing machine or the proper tools for good measuring, cutting, and sewing. I live in university family housing, and I can check out a sewing machine for a week every now and then. (I've often kept it much longer. Neighbors were being sent to me to borrow it for a day or two, and they returned it to me!) If I could afford the space for a machine (I do a lot of work on the floor) and books, patterns, fabric,... well. I would be the best dressed woman for miles. :)

    Thanks for the post!

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  32. Recently someone told me she looked at me as a role model because she wanted to learn to be "more domestic." I was revolted that she thought of me that way, just because I sew and knit. To me, these are creative acts that are sensual, intellectually challenging, therapeutic and fun. I don't think of myself as a domestic-type person at all.

    Activities like sewing and knitting can be just useful skills we can use to clothe our families and to make repairs for economy's sake, which is how I think this person though of them. But we can also take them to the next level and use them as self-expression, and a way to engage both sides of our brains. That is far removed from the drudgery and "have to" aspects that I associate with domestic chores. It seems to me that feminism is all about breaking out of the "have to" trap.

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  33. Great discussion. Great points all over the place. I think Peter’s comment about the ‘learning curve’ might be the closest because it also hits on why people who used to sew, don’t sew any longer, and why they did not really pass on the skills. My memory of learning to sew in school was strictly technique: how to use a machine; how to pin the pattern on the fabric, cut it out, sew it up. The concept of fitting a pattern was not taught at all in my school. They just made the assumption that you’d buy the proper size of pattern and that it would automatically fit you. No problems with ‘front bust adjustment’, ‘large arms’ or anything else. As people have aged, changed shape, etc., people who used to be able to just pick up a pattern and sew it up have had disappointing results and have given up sewing for themselves or moved onto quilting or home dec or just sewing for grandchildren. I think we are in a sort of interim period where there is a lot of interest and information on the Internet as well as a growing availability of classes for people. Lots of sharing going on also. But it will take a while simply to get the information and skills out there and get more people at the fabric/sewing machine retail end of things to make things more accessible – because it will be that group who actually do it (though I have heard of several places in the US – there is one in Paris also – where it is strictly a lab situation where you rent time on the machine; there are people available to help and so on). Schools are doing less and less actual teaching of skilled sewing (or cooking for that matter) and more things like balancing check books.

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  34. Very interesting post Gertie! Two things are sticking out for me - first;

    I think the reason sewing hasn't been seeing the same popularity as knitting is largely because of how portable knitting is. It's just not as easy to bring your sewing machine to a Stitch'n'sew!

    Another thing I thought about, is the history of tailoring as a profession. Historically, fine tailoring (such as on Saville Road), the craftsmen were exactly that - men.

    The difference between what goes on in the home, and on Saville Road, could make for an interesting comparison.

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  35. I'm a new sewist (though I rather prefer the historic seamstress aesthetically, and I would point out that seamstress was an important professional source of independence for the single woman, historically), but one of the things I have noticed, checking out sewing blogs in the last few months, is how many of them are written by black women. At a rough guess, I'd say 25-33% of the links I have followed from this blog and other blogs?

    Similarly, I live in a white town in a white state (Oregon), but I've gone to my weekly class/studio night about 6-8 times since February, and I've never been the only woman of color there.

    I don't read "mommyblogs" or knitting blogs on a regular basis, but my sense is that they struggle with the same accusation that plagues mainstream feminism: being the province of upper-middle class white women and assuming that's a universal experience.

    So I don't know whether these things speak for or against sewing being "feminist", but I find it interesting.

    Just as a sewing vs. yarn data point: my three-months-after-learning results for various crafts consist of: a half-crocheted afghan and a crocheted scarf; a knit dishcloth and a half-knit hat; and for sewing, five wearable skirts, 6 pillowcases, 9 drawstring bags, and two scarves with beaded trim (and to be fair, a lot of money & time out the window).

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  36. I agree with many previous posters: knitting is low-investment, visible and social; sewing is high-investment, hidden from public view and somewhat isolating.

    I am certain that I would not have pursued teaching myself to sew if I did not have access to a large, supportive, informative sewing community on the interwebz. Now that I have some experience I am willing to seek out other sewing enthusiasts in real life. I recently joined my local chapter of the American Sewing Guild for that reason. I am by far the least "domesticated" and youngest woman in a room of quilters, machine embroiderers and grandmothers that sew for their grandchildren, but they are just as supportive and welcoming as the sewing community on the web.

    I'm starting to think people who sew are just all-around fantastic people! :-)

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  37. Yeah, there is definitely an association between hipness and knitting that just isn't there for sewing, at least in large urban areas. If I say, "you know, she's a girl who knits" I think most people in my cohort instantly picture a particular type of hipster (a little on the crunchy side, rides a bike, probably vegan). I can't think of any stereotype that I associate with young women who sew.

    However, I agree with everyone who said that sewing isn't as hip/popular as knitting for practical reasons. It a.) requires a greater commitment and initial investment b.) isn't portable c.) isn't easily incorporated into social activities. Unless something happens to change any of these factors, they will probably always get in the way of its popularity.

    I'm not sure if I can make a great argument about feminism, but I do think there is something quietly radical about home sewing, maybe more so than knitting. If you get to the point where you are making a lot of your own clothes, that's a pretty big lifestyle change and one that rejects consumerism, at least in the form of cheap and easily disposable apparel. Even if, in the long run, I only end up being a "mender" like my mom, that's a lot of clothes I won't be throwing or giving away as soon as a seam rips or a hem needs to be let out.

    I love these discussion, and it would also be interesting to bring race and class into them. For example, I often see young Muslim women shopping at my local fabric store. Since it's probably not very easy to find attractive but modest clothing in Western stores, maybe a lot more young women sew in their community? (This blog post that's been working its way around the internet, had me thinking about the relationship between dress and race/culture.)

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  38. Hi Gertie! this is an awesome topic and i think the discussions of feminism on your blog are always really interesting.
    many people have made far more articulate comments that i could probably make, but i do want to add a few things:
    i'm 21, and i know a lot of younger women who are interested in sewing, embroidery, and other needlecrafts that are less portable than knitting. in fact, i wish i knew more older people who had experience with these crafts that i could ask for help when i'm stumped!
    i've always seen sewing as a form of protest, and a form of self expression, a way to make your voice heard and take back essential skills that is so empowering. to be able to clothe oneself is such an important thing, and i think so many people depend on disposable clothing (i once knew a girl who tried gluing a button back on!) people in my generation grew up in the age of convenience, not needing to know how to cook their own food, build their own shelter, or provide themselves with warm clothing. i view sewing (and baking, knitting, spinning, and gardening) as ways to take back essential skills and empower yourself, regardless of gender obligations/ stereotypes.
    thanks for initiating such great discussions!

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  39. Being able to sew is a HUGE part of being an independent woman for me. It's not a "domestic skill" so much as it's an essential. As a plus-sized girl with an emaciated budget, sewing not only frees me from the constraints and body stereotyping of mainstream fashion, it helps me to stretch my wardrobe further financially. The last time a pair of my jeans became to small and frayed at the hem, I slashed them off at the knee and crafted a skirt out of them. I cut up my clothes and put them back together to make them fit better and to make them into something new when I get tired of the old. The t-shirts I accumulate in fall and winter become tanks, tubes, halters, and skirts when spring hits.

    Of course, I don't do vintage sewing, but I do sew. I can't knit for beans. Knitting and I are antithetical concepts. However, I never thought to view sewing as a domestic activity that is gendered in any way. Rather, it's a skill that makes me more independent and self-sufficient, frees me from societal expectations and constraints, and saves me money. It's like cooking. Everyone should at least know the very basics to survive.

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  40. I like the comment that pointed out how small a part of the world can even ask that question... The majority has no choice. That said, I think the appreciation for crafts comes from being intrinsically motivated (by a craft well learned, a job well done) versus extrinsically motivated (by money, class status). A person motivated from within will appreciate my craft and understand. A person motivated by outward sources likely won't, because sewing isn't associated with money, class, status like other, often male-oriented activities/things are. Why? Why are we willing to pay tens of thousans of dollars/euros for a car that we sit in a couple of hours a day, yet barely ten bucks for a shirt we wear twelve hours straight? Why does one have to have status, and one has to be as cheap a s possible? I've no idea. One question that always comes to mind when feminist issues are discussed is how "the other half" lives. I think men who like to craft or sew still have a much harder time coming public about it and getting positive feedback (in the "real world", not the crafting or fashion community).

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  41. I haven't read the comments yet, so I may come back and revise some of my thoughts afterwards, but I feel a need to respond to some of the things I feel a bit at odds with.

    "Sewing is a domestic activity, and as such, has generally been in the domain of women's responsibilities."

    I have to disagee with this, Gertie, and I know you have mentioned the other side of this before. While women have been sewing for a very long time and it is traditional in many cultures, I think that the idea of sewing as a domestic activity associated exclusively with women is a rather recent one. Tailors have traditionally been mainly men. I think the real distinction happens when you add the word "home". "Home sewing" is conceived as done by women, but "professional sewing" is done by men, no? This is at the crux of feminism, I believe. When you add the word "home" or "domestic" to a thing, it both associates it with women, and generally devalues the thing you are talking about. The main problem is that "home" does not garner as much respect as "professional", despite the fact that a home made garment for example may be of better quality than one bought in the store. This is where we also get into the different meanings of "home made" and "hand made", and the different value associated with the two. Somehow, adding the word home as a modifier has become a demeaning term. It has been placed in opposition to professional instead of along side of it. It is this idea that the woman is must be domestic and that being domestic means not being professional, and that therefor the things she does are not of as high a quality or value -- this is the idea that we protest against as femminists.

    As a knitter, I don't think Stitch 'n' Bitch was solely responsible for the resurgence of knitting as a popular activity. For example, years before it was published, my punk friends started a knitting group at my highschool I do think that people latched onto the term and some of the aesthetic to break away from some of the knitting stereotypes they saw as pejorative. They wanted "fun" and "funky", and they got it in pattern books and novelty yarns. Interestingly, I am seeing the most popular patterns and yarns move away from that punk or hipster aesthetic as theses same knitters become bored of novelty yarn scarves and want their pieces to look more "professional".

    I do think that sewing has its equivalent in things like Threadbanger and Craft Magazine. I think the indy craft movement definitely includes sewing garments as a strong component. I think that as far as sewing goes, those same crafters are focusing refashioning and on using fun prints often intended for quilting. Most of them aren't as concerned with things like finishing techniques that they know little to nothing about. I imagine that will change over time.

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  42. Yep, I think my sewing is feminist! I started off as a quilter in the early 90's, when quilting was making a big comeback, and only moved into clothing about 4 years ago. In the past, I've heard feminist women make disparaging comments about quilting, but I have to argue back about that (and I think it's starting to change).

    To me, sewing and quilting link me back to women who may not have had time or money to write or paint, but they made beauty with what they had--even if that wasn't much. Quilts, clothing, sewn items--those are art. Really, they're just as legitimate art as the traditionally high-status (and largely male) pursuits of painting and sculpture, but because they have been largely domestic and female--with the exception of couture clothing--they have been undervalued.

    Modern sewists support women's businesses. Women design a lot of fabric and patterns, which are then sold in shops owned and run mainly by women. That strikes me as feminist.


    If you're interested in the history of women, domestic work, and textiles, then I highly recommend one of my all-time favorite books, Women's Work: the First 20,000 Years by Elizabeth Wayland Barber.

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  43. lots of great comments....I'm old enough (almost 55) to remember covering the Am. Medical Women's Assn. meetings as a reporter--and oh, the debates that would break out when members were spotted knitting during meetings! the horror!!

    each generation finds its own way, I guess.

    Out here in Oregon, there's a group of "radical housewives" (so they call themselves) in their 20s and 30s who have embraced all things DIY, from raising chickens to canning to you name it. Sewing is seen as one more skill to master, one more eco-friendly way to step off the grid. There are also a lot of artists; for them, fiber is one more medium to work with. Combine the two movements and you have a thriving sewing scene.

    For me, sewing was an early love. I came to knitting very late (I was almost 50 when I learned) and find that it bores me. Making clothes, however, has enough complexity to keep me going. I love learning new things.

    I've heard others complain about space and cost issues with sewing, but I see them spend their time and money on things I would never consider, so...each to their own, yes?

    My goal is to make most/all of my own clothes from here on out. I find the issue of sweatshops complex and troubling; I despise the garbage that is in most stores; I'm not interested in spending my valuable time at the mall. If I'm going to spend my time and energy (and money) shopping, I'd rather it be spent on things that provide me with an intellectual and creative return.

    Cheers!

    And

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  44. First, I'm a big feminist and even started out pursuing a degree in Women's Studies before switching to art and anthropology. So I love this topic!

    Second, I agree with everything Peter said--about why women don't sew as much anymore, and about what sewing means for most people around the world.

    But to add a few thoughts of my own: maybe I'm an outlier, but my mother was also a big feminist and an artist (photography), and an activist in the 1970s, and has always worked full-time as a teacher... and she ALWAYS sewed and quilted and knitted and crocheted and made most of her clothes and my brother and my clothes growing up. It never even occurred to me that this could be seen as contradictory in any way! And I don't think she ever mentioned being looked down on for doing it by other feminists--I think there was also a DIY element to 1970s activism.

    All the women in her family--her mother, grandmothers, great-grandmothers--were serious sewers, knitters and quilters. When she was young and her family was quite poor, she learned to sew from necessity, but she has kept doing it throughout her life just because she's creative and an artist and loves to do it.

    My parents have always been hardcore DIY before it was punk rock--they build furniture (not just bookcases), do upholstery, do their own roofing and flooring, put in skylights... paint... quilt... do plumbing... grow their own vegetables... whatever!

    OK, this has just turned into my random thoughts on how much I love my awesome family, but there you have it. Sewing for me is tied up with so many things--family history and tradition, art and creativity, DIY, etc.

    Which is not to put it outside the realm of needed feminist analysis, but I guess I just feel lucky that I didn't have to start from scratch without family members to teach and encourage me! And I can always talk sewing with my mom, if not with my knitting group.

    P.S. I also agree with everything everyone else mentioned about why knitting is so much more popular than sewing--I think the only reason I switched my obsession back to sewing recently was when I was forced to due to carpal tunnel... but I still work on occasional projects and go to my weekly knitting group because it's such a nurturing social activity.

    And not that knitting can't be a highly skilled activity (fancy colorwork and lacework!) but it does have a low barrier to entry. I started with a pair of cheap plastic needles and 99 cent Red Heart yarn, sitting on the subway.

    Let it never be said that I am a concise or organized commenter...

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  45. Oh wow. I see you're getting a lot of great comments here and I wish I had time to read all of them. I've wondered about this too -- and I think that there are a few big differences between knitting and sewing:

    1. The capital costs of being a hobby seamstress (seamster?) are higher. You can buy needles for less than $10 but even a used sewing machine will run you more $$. If you're like me, you'd also need patterns and some kind of instruction book to get started...

    2. Knitting is a little more forgiving than sewing. You can buy a ball of yarn, knit it into a hat and then frog it and make it into a mitten. Once you cut a piece of fabric, that's it. You better know what you're doing. Fitting a knitted piece is also easier to do -- you can try as you go and if it turns out too small it will stretch to fit. This isn't necessarily true of sewing with a woven piece of cloth.

    3. Knitting is an easily managed hobby. By this, i mean you can put it in your purse (and take it with you to knit with friends!) You can easily stash it in a basket. But with a sewing machine, you need some sewing real estate in your home to set up -- if you're young and have roommates, this is a luxury that you probably don't have. Add to that the stash of patterns and fabrics, you need a lot more space to accommodate it than knitting.

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  46. I think an anonymous poster hit the nail on the head when they said that sewing is "quietly radical". It may not be as mainstream or trendy as knitting (which honestly I have not seen in person, I don't know any young knitters or anyone interested) but that's not to say it doesn't have a strong foothold in many homes (or studios or classrooms). I definitely see my personal sewing as subversive because of the reasons I do it. I may not be actively thinking about politics or ethics when I sew, but my feelings are in every garment.

    Also - people may see you knitting in public, but I bet they also ask about your clothing and are shocked/pleased to hear you say "oh, this? I made it!" which might even leave more of an impression.

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  47. of course. i get clothing that fits and flatters me whatever my body is doing. i get exactly what i want in my own terms. that's pretty cool. no more making my body fit anything at all, you know? no more buying into marketing.

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  48. @daiyami

    I definitely agree on the issue white middle class women assuming their concerns are universal or universalizing. Not acknowledging or dealing with that incredibly obvious issue is very frustrating.

    I feel like somehow feminism, in general, has forgotten all the work women of color feminists (and womanists) have put in. "This Bridge Called by Back" and "Sister Outside" are still so relevant to me, because I feel like when I read feminist texts, I'm still encountering the problem of "OK, but where are women of color? Where are poor women? Where are queer women? Where are trans women? Whose experience are you speaking to?"

    I think sewing as a feminist act, which I do think it can be, also presumes you don't need to sew in order to clothe yourself. Which is an assumption which should be acknowledged, if not unpacked.

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  49. I was taught to sew by my mother because she believed it would be the only affordable way to keep me clothed and she gave me a sewing machine for my 18th birthday. I was less than thrilled - I saw sewing as a real chore.

    My sewing machine languished in dark cupboards and basements, only making brief appearances over the years to run up some curtains or mend a pair of jeans. I worked full-time and didn't see the need to use it - buying clothes wasn't that expensive.

    After its 20-year 'rest', my sewing machine is now a treasured possession. I am not working at the moment and decided to make all my Christmas presents last year - it gave me real pleasure to do this, so the sewing has continued. I've also dusted off the knitting needles and started to knit again (something I always enjoyed as a teenager, but it really wasn't very hip at the time). I'm having a blast and I think a lot of this comes down to not needing to do it to live and having the time to sew recreationally.

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  50. I haven't read the other comments yet, so sorry if I'm redundant. I think the distinction between knitting and sewing is that for many decades sewing was a chore women had to do (except for rich women, of course) in order to keep their family dressed, while knitting might have been more of a hobby/pastime. So, like cooking hadn't become a cool, feminist thing to do (for women; men are another story) because for a lot of women it's a task they must accomplish daily, so has sewing not become yet the coolest hobby on the block. I think maybe sewing is in need of a so-called "cooling-off period" until it doesn't remind people of a chore but of a fun, empowering thing to do. Hope this rant made sense :)

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  51. I have never really even seen myself as a feminist, not because I have anything against women's rights, but because I was afraid that being feminist meant I was anti-men and anti-domestic arts. Obviously those two things don't have to be in conflict with one another.

    But I think now that being feminist has to include, at some level, being feminine. Knitting and sewing and cooking and quilting and all those little domestic arts are one way of connecting myself to what women have always done and taken pride in. It connects me to my mother and grandmother. And, as you said, it feeds the soul.

    So why the resurgence in knitting but not in sewing? On a very practical level, knitting is immensely portable. With the exception of the afghan, pretty much any knitted project can be tucked into your bag, and you can work on it at the dentist. While couture sewing does involve handwork, you generally don't want to bring a large and/or really expensive item around while running errands.

    Also, knitting can be seen as a fringe activity, in that it generally provides accessories and frill items, while sewing is (often) for practical, everyday wear. (Of course we love to sew up impractical ball gowns and lacy baby clothes and all manner of random items, but we also sew shirts and pants.) I think this distinction between "for fun" and "for necessity" is a problem for some people. It's like the difference between baking bread and baking cake. One is necessary and one is fun. When you make a cake, you can imagine that you're doing it solely for the love of it, while someone might assume that you make bread because you can't buy it. I don't know, maybe this is over the top. But look at how much everyone is IN LOVE with the cupcake. Really, you can't go anywhere without seeing a cupcake shop. But how many people are really really wanting to run a bakery that specializes in sandwich loaves? Sure, some people. But there's more romance in a cupcake than a loaf of bread. And there's more (perceived) glamour in a fluffy scarf than a t-shirt.

    Meh. People do what they do because they like it, because they get something out of it, because it projects a certain image that they appreciate. The nice thing about smaller numbers of home seamstresses is that those of us who love to sew still have people to give gifts to! These days, you can't go to a baby shower without there being at least eight hand-knitted blankets. But baby clothes? Everyone else bought those at Target :)

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  52. really thoughtful and insightful comments. i really agree with Peter about the class/economic issues involved in this topic.

    i'm 48, took a couple of sewing classes in high school and have been self taught ever since (bar one class). here in the SF Bay Area, most of the 80's, 90's and 00's interest in sewing was largely of the Threads and Sewing Workshop variety - intensely interested in impeccable craft and very time and money expensive.

    check out the class offering here:

    http://www.thesewingworkshop.com/classes.php

    yep, that's five classes and $375 to make a Teen Summer Dress. i wrote Gertie an e-mail re:this (and another potholder dress sighting) today - $375 is easily half my clothes budget most years.

    the past few years have seen a resurgence of 'practical' sewing and i'm very glad. we all need clothes. i sew for the creative and style aspects but also to not support sweatshop labor, use fewer resources (thrifting and recycling), and get clothes that fit, flatter, and don't fall apart for the amount of money i have. what's the savings (to me or the planet) to buy a $10 shirt that doesn't fit, makes me itch, and falls apart at the seams the first time it's washed? people these days throw away clothes because they can't sew on a button, it's nuts.

    i also love being around objects that are (to varying degrees) removed from the capitalist money grinder - that haven't been marketed, bought with unrelated labor, sold.......i heard a fascinating historian (can't remember who!!aarrgh!) speaking about how the forces of capital have been invading the home, taking services and items that used to be provided or produce in the home into 'the market', so people can make money off of it. clothes, soap, lots of food (grown and prepared), clothes cleaning and pressing, clothes production, on and on used to be in-home products and services. she wasn't necessarily putting a value on it one way or another, but it was really interesting to see the tradeoffs that happen in the process.

    i've really enjoyed reading everyone's thoughts on this, thank you all!!!! steph

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  53. Gertie, there is a book in this subject and YOU SHOULD WRITE IT !!

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  54. I am a feminist and a lifelong sewer, but I don't see sewing as an inherently "feminist" or "non-feminist" activity. It is pretty clear that women in the US and across the world sew for a wide variety of reasons, by choice and of necessity, that in some cases reflect a feminist attitude and in probably the majority of cases have nothing to do with it.

    I think it's difficult for me to appreciate things like sewing or knitting as rebellious or punk or feminist in nature because they seem (to me at least) to be pretty insignificant compared to struggles women still face with socioeconomic equality, disproportionate representation of women in the three branches of government, sexual harassment, etc.

    I appreciate the Stitch N Bitch mentality of "taking back" a traditional woman's activity, but I don't think that it is somehow different or more of a statement to knit something with skulls on it, or to be a tattooed knitter; those are matters of aesthetics, not principle. The most nontraditional and political use of knitting I have ever heard of is fictional and 150 years old: in A Tale of Two Cities, when Madame Defarge knits a hit list.

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  55. Even though your post mentions the marketing of the sewing machine into households that lack one, tt is very interesting that the only person I have seen mention hand sewing is emadethis. People talk about the investment to get into sewing and the lack of portability because they all assume that sewing must be done with a machine! People don't hand sew because it takes so much more time, yet the machine that makes sewing faster seems to be preventing people from sewing at all! It is really interesting how people are willing to spend a lot of time on knitting a garment, but not on sewing one. Is it because it's supposed to take so much less time. Certainly, there is such a thing as a knitting machine, yet people don't expect it to be used except in mass production. Everyone I know who has a knitting machine hates to use it because it's loud, not soothing, has some limited capabilities, etc. Something about this whole contrast makes me think that knitting is more of a leisure activity and sewing is more of a production activity. I do think that the main reason that I sew far less than I knit is that with sewing I must sit down and block out time, whereas I knit on the train and on my lunch hour. Also, I feel less confident in my sewing abilities. This is for two reasons: 1) sewing classes near me are hard to find and require a large time and monetary commitment, especially compared to basic knitting classes; 2) I am uncertain as to what techniques I need lo learn to achieve the next level of competence and when to apply different finishing techniques, etc., with knitting, it's much more obvious.

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  56. I used to joke that I was brought up to be the perfect housewife, but would never have a chance to make good use of the skills. Really though I was brought up to do things for myself. Whether this was sewing clothes, or boning a chicken, cleaning my house, doing laundry or fixing/replacing the toilet. My gardening, home repair and clothes sewing are skills that are seen as unusual because so many people I know can't imagine doing things for themselves.
    I don't know if sewing is so much feminist as radical self reliance. however, I guess that is what the core of feminism is. Being able to take care and provide for yourself and your family without undue dependence on men.
    I don't have a lot of time to sew because I do work full time and have a lot of other things that demand my time. Although there is some danger in trying to do it all, I just need to plan my projects in spurts.

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  57. It has always seemed to me that the point of feminism should be to give women the choice to do what they want, and that women should not be made to feel like freaks for doing something that is outside the norm, whatever that norm is. So, like several other commenters, my sewing is somewhat political in that I'm doing it because what is offered to me by fashion magazines, television, and most clothing stores is distasteful to me in one way or another.

    I did come from a family of working and middle class people in which all of the women worked out of necessity, but still found time to be crafty. My great-grandmother made some incredible dresses for going out in, and my mom (a nurse and 70s-era feminist) made a lot of her own maternity clothes and her own scrubs, has always knitted and cooked. I'm not sure that feminism means a woman can have everything, but it certainly means she can have quite a lot.

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  58. "I appreciate the Stitch N Bitch mentality of "taking back" a traditional woman's activity, but I don't think that it is somehow different or more of a statement to knit something with skulls on it, or to be a tattooed knitter; those are matters of aesthetics, not principle."

    I could not agree more. As someone who is a proud feminist, I think that feminism is more about having choice, and not about dropping 'traditionally feminine' activities--are we all to aspire to a masculine ideal? I don't think so.

    Making knitting 'punk rock' is kind of silly because what IS 'punk rock'? It's just semantics, I call knitting and sewing a practical hobby, if others have to make it into a political activity to enjoy doing it, then that's fine, but some times I think that making activities like knitting 'political' overlooks the fact that a lot of people have no interest in actual politics.

    Enjoy knitting and sewing, but don't let it be the only way you're politically involved. If it leads the way into a lot of younger women, like myself, becoming more politically involved then I'd be the first to celebrate it, but in my experience, that's not the case. The number of people I've encountered who willingly label themselves feminists or have more than a passing interest in politics is very small. I'm not sure the reason for this, suggestions?

    Also, one historical point that's been overlooked is the fact that sewing was a way for women to earn money and be somewhat self-sufficient fairly early on. That men are called tailors and women seamstresses is again, just politically charged semantics and that's where the real fight is.

    My partner is male and he enjoys cross-stitching and so do several of his male friends. I know quite a few men who knit as well and some who sew. The real way to expand the acceptance of craft is to expand its appeal. I think crafting is for everyone.

    Myself, I don't care whether sewing is trendy, I've always done it because I'm more of a quality over quantity type when it comes to clothing--I mean, have you seen how poorly made a lot of clothing is?

    The fact that I can sew something that fits me well, is well-made, and more to my own style is fantastic, and that, I think, is the heart of feminism. It gives me choice in the aesthetics department and in the end it's choice that matters the most, at least to me.

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  59. I agree that sewing is now a way to express creativity rather than a necessity. Thank goodness! I think a roadblock to making it as popular as knitting is that it takes more know how. Knitting is just mastering a basick knit-purl...similarly in crochet, if you can master that one stitch it's not much of a leap to learn the others. But getting a garment to properly fit and flatter involves so many more steps and a lot more know-how that it probably intimidates more crafters than a skill like knitting does. My great-gram would be proud of my sewing. My gram would puke. My mom doesn't get it. Me - I love the looke of shock and awe and the "You MADE that???"

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  60. I see my sewing as being creative, and having a necessary skill. I can't tell you how many of my friends can't sew on a simple patch on their kids boy scout uniforms or mend a button, hem, etc. etc. These things are not hard!

    I work full time, have two small children and still find time to make most of their wardrobes and some of mine. I do it because I don't want to support sweatshops and I enjoy dressing them up in unique, mama-made outfits.

    I do get called "martha stewart" at times from my friends (in a loving way) because I sew, knit, cook, draw, garden and love interior design. I don't think of it as being domestic, but rather being creative.

    I do think there are more younger people getting into sewing now, though. It really is great to see them embrace what was becoming a lost art. The Project Runway type shows has shown them that it is about being creative and doing your own thing rather than it being work. Which it can be at times. ;)

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  61. Peter has summed up exactly what I think. I've never related sewing trends to feminism. I learnt to sew from an early age (actually on that very model Elna! I did a recent blog post - it has a darning foot to darn your silk stockings!) I learnt because I wanted to create clothes first for my dolls, later for myself, and later for my business. I see the decline in home sewing purely as a result of lack of time because more women are working, and they have the disposable income to spend on clothes, which are often very cheap now.
    I think those that do sew nowadays are interested in creating something that isn't readily available - vintage designs, their own designs, a 'chanel' jacket, or just enjoying the process and learning.
    Sewing wasn't just a woman's domain either - men were heavily involved in the tradition of tailoring. I believe there has been a similar decline there.

    Oh I've just read Mikaela's post, and totally agree with her comment on family - sewing takes me back to my roots/childhood/family traditions. It is part of what I am.

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  62. It's a funny thing...

    I've come to admire what I consider an odd hybrid brand of Feminism. In Your Face femininity, if you will.

    In being a strong woman, why would we want to give up those things that make us alluring? Why throw the mysterious "feminine arts" out of out kit bag?

    Sewing does largely seem to be inherently feminine... but I believe the best feminists allow themselves to feel comfortable in their own womanliness.

    Embarrassingly, I must admit I sometimes catch myself being sexist when seeing the occasional man walking around looking at fabrics. Gosh, did I just assume he shouldn't know about fabric because he's not a woman?? He clearly is not one of those "lost" types wandering around clutching an errand list, mouth agog.

    I thought that sewing was rather a dying art until I noticed a resurgence of interest from things like Project Runway (which I've actually never seen).

    I've seen "couture" sewing catch fire lately. I think it must just be a short time before we start seeing more cutting edge stitching.

    One last point: I get positive comments from men when I reveal my cooking & sewing abilities, for example: "Whoa! You're a REAL woman." And it's voiced with awe and approval, not mocking.

    As a single-again Mom, I delight in having tools and knowing I can build, install, and fix things myself. (Being without extra money does that to a person!) Yet, I like doing these man-type things.

    Yet, sewing is one of my greatest pleasures and most creative outlets. I mean, don't feminists still like to wear pretty clothes?

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  63. Huh. Renee, I would be pretty disturbed if someone told me I was a REAL woman because I could cook and sew. What does that make you if you don't like to do either of those things? A sham of a woman? I mean, it's great that there's admiration for those skills, but calling them the territory of real women is tricky.

    Interesting comments all around, everyone! Thanks so much for weighing in. :)

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  64. Phenomenal post, G. I bring feminism to my every activity - it's who I am. For me, sewing is about realizing my creativity - and my skills at engineering. I think there's nothing you can't do once you master turning the 2 dimensional into the 3 dimensional. It's an act of empowerment. My 10 year old daughter finally convinced me that I needed to try it. (I reckon she's just about 4th wave feminist!)

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  65. I think the absence of sewing's Stitch and Bitch is more logistical than ideological. To start knitting, all you need is Stitch and Bitch and $10 for needles and cheap yarn. To start sewing (unless you have enormous patience) you need a machine (expensive), a pattern (daunting - so many to choose from!), and an instruction book (again, daunting). I think the ideal beginner sewing book would come with 5+ fun, easy, fully-printed patterns, but I don't know of any that do. Maybe it's too expensive?

    It's a shame, too - to my mind, entry-level sewing is easier, faster, and more useful than entry-level knitting. I'd much rather show someone how to make a drawstring skirt in an hour than shoe them how to garter stitch and have to say "ok, keep going for 5+ hours, and you'll have a scarf."

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  66. To sew for yourself makes you even more self sufficient, and as my boyfriend has observed, "all you home-sewing people love tea, cats and feminism", which is of course a generalisation.... but I believe still holds some validity. Sewing has become the mark of a creative, innovative and intelligent person (who often happens to be female). In the past, it represented opression in some cases, but I feel that today sewing and knitting and likewise is almost liberating

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  67. Yes, Gertie - you are right there. I didn't think about it that way. There are many typical things that women often like but, yeah - not doing those things does not make us bogus women.

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  68. A very rich topic, and I like how you're handling it Gertie. I love your body acceptance and feminist stuff.

    My mom sewed as a kid; she and I also worked as engineers (she civil, myself chemical). Now I stay home with kids and cook and clean and sew (and write and watch B-movies and bike and bellydance and other stuff). Having been able to succeed in a variety of "masculine" and "feminine" endeavors, I don't find it stifling to engage in any of them. I'm glad they are open to me and I'm super-glad my mom taught me a love of sewing (something she and I continue to bond on, although I have long surpassed her in skill and frequency of sewing).

    It's irritating to see traditionally feminine work put down - sometimes by feminists, boo - but the fault of that is the historical devaluing at the hands of the patriarchy, not the (mostly) well-meaning feminists who sometimes make assy comments. Or so I try to remind myself.

    A desperate and semi-pathetic confession: I am just lonely to SOBS that I can't find other peeps in my peer group (young(ish) mother with young kids, punk/retro-ish, thirtysomething, white middle class) who sew. LONELY. I've taught sewing classes for free and cheap, not just to help people sew if they want to (because I do love to teach, and craftivism FTW!) but because I desparately wish I had more local sewing friends. Sad times.

    I do knit but not as much. I find I can only bring myself to knit during cold weather. It also seems a bit sedentary to me and I am rather antsy, so I'm a slow knitter.

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  69. I started to sew my own clothes because I couldn't find anything I liked. I am very particular about what I want and decided to do it myself. I still buy clothes but I love the clothes I made more even though it took way more effort.

    My point being - sometimes people sew just because they want to, feminist or not. But then again, I'm not working right now and have the TIME (as everyone else mentioned) that is so precious.

    Lots of unemployed people my age aren't sewing a thing. I think the idea of sewing clothes is so daunting to most women now that they would never try. That or they don't have the creativity to start (which I hear often now - "oh my! I could never think that up!"). I see my sewing as a creative outlet and a useful creative outlet it is as it lets me wear great clothes!

    I am glad I have the CHOICE to sew. We are all lucky in many aspects in 2010. We can be doctors, lawyers, stay at home mommies or CEOs if we want to. Viva the modern woman!

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  70. PS - Kelly Hogaboom, lord knows I would love if you lived in my area. I have been bemoaning the fact that there are none of you around :) So rock on, you will find friends eventually if you keep doing what you love! And if some chatty brunette wont shut up at your local fabric store, chances are its me!

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  71. @sara -
    What local fabric store? *LOLsob!*

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  72. "Stitch 'n Bitch, the book single-handedly responsible for making knitting cool again"

    I cannot disagree more! Yes, it helped, but single handedly? I don't think so.

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  73. Sewing hasn't become the movement that knitting has simply because of the start up cost involved. Unless you lucky enough to be given or to find a cheap sewing machine you are not likely to get into it. Knitting can be done really cheap if you buy the goods second hand, heck you don't even need proper needles you could use chop sticks. However, sewing an entire dress by hand is daunting and some would suggest a little stupid(can we say callus city!).

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  74. Gaidig - I don't think when referring to the difference between "home made" and "hand made" she meant that one is sewn entirely without the aid of machine. Merely that one sounds impressive (which the skills behind sewing are) compared to "home made" which is usually used to sound kind of insulting, like "snicker snicker, her skirt is so tacky it looks homemade."

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  75. Knittingand, "single-handedly" was perhaps a tad dramatic, but I also think you can't underestimate the impact Stitch 'n Bitch had. It was a publishing phenomena. It spent *months* on the NYT bestseller list, and her subsequent needlecraft books made the list as well. At the time, this was unheard of for a craft book - unless it was Martha Stewart. Check out this interesting Publishers Weekly article which calls Stoller the "Founding Mother of Hip Knitting."

    http://www.publishersweekly.com/article/408749-The_End_of_the_Yarn_.php

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  76. I don't see sewing as either feminist or anti. I see sewing as a way to get cute clothes that fit my plus size body better, cheaper, and cuter than what I can find in the stores. Plus it keeps me busy during my time off work so I don't veg in front of the TV.

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  77. Such a great post! and I'm loving these comments. My thoughts, after the jump:

    Commenter Julie reduces sewing to an apolitical, 3rd-wave-feminism-means-you-get-to-be-"girly"-again, choice, but I think it has enormous potential to be an explicitly political choice, e.g. "sewing this garment is a refusal to participate in the violence of globalization that forces women to work in sweatshop conditions. p.s. I'm going to look glamorous."

    Jan and Peter talk about globalization and cheap sweatshop produced clothing like it's "another story" or they explain how it informs the move away from sewing. I think this should be "the" story, or at least a major tenant of any feminist sewing movement. There are a multitude of communities that are at least aware of the violence of globalization and neoliberalism; when confronted with a (sexy) alternative to being complicit in that machine that isn't simply shopping at thrift stores, I'm sure it will catch on.

    Maya makes the distinction between sewing being a political critique of neoliberalism rather than an endorsement of feminism. I think this is a reductive understanding of economics, and is an easy "out" for leftists dudes to avoid reflections on gender. The feminization of poverty indicates that neoliberalism disproportionately affects women negatively, so a reclamation of something so intimate as what we wear seems intertwined with both a rejection of neoliberalism, and an endorsement of explicitly feminist political action.

    I guess I'm basically just echoing what Steph says. But if everyone is commenting, I want to participate, too!

    Ryan discusses the relationship of feminism to "radical self reliance". Summarizing the "core of feminism" to "being able to take care and provide for yourself and your family without undue dependence on men". While I can't imagine what "due" dependence on "men" as a static identity category would look like, this seems to be a line of argument a lot of commenters are accessing, but that I'm not sure takes account of the patently gendered nature of the activity. I think it's necessary to at least acknowledge that "sewing is for girls" is the dominant understanding of home sewing, and that maybe that doesn't make any inherent sense at all. The only reason that's the assumption is because of a lengthy history of misogyny, which I think informs Renee's comment that men approvingly comment that she's a "real" woman because she sews. That isn't subtle or nuanced, it's pretty blatant.

    I just think everything about this post is beautiful and interesting and I want to talk about it always.

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  78. More history on home sewing - prior to the development of sweatshops in the last part of the 19th century (which employed women) the majority of paid sewing was done by men, and women would instead sew for their families. Women would sew things like children's clothes, men's shirts, women's chemises/smocks, aprons and other simple underclothes and accessories, and probably things like petticoats which were often just a rectangle sewn into a cylinder and gathered or pleated onto a waist-band.
    Peasants through to noblewomen would make smocks and shirts for the family (although I imagine the rich would supplement this with purchased ones).
    Men sewed and sold men's clothes (other than shirts) and women's dresses and more complicated women's clothing.

    Sometimes women did make and sell items, but they were the same kind of items they made at home - eg. the English rural peasant smock was generally made at home (therefore by women) but sometimes women would make and sell this item.
    Men also did most of the complex and rich embroidery in Europe.
    The main reason for this is that the guilds protected the information, so women didn't have the patterns and methods. Obviously a woman could copy a bought piece of embroidery, but the pattern books and education for doing high-class embroideries were closely guarded, and in any case she wouldn't have the time as rather than working at embroidery every day, she was looking after a household or home.

    So - basically if it could be done at home, with little education and no resources like patterns and books, and no one got paid, women did it. In terms of equality in sewing, I guess the increasing amount of information available to women over the centuries meant that women could use their skills to make more and more complex items, and so this has enabled women to move into the traditionally male areas of sewing.
    However, the split of men being paid for a task and women not being paid for the same task still continues to some degree, eg. the following generalisations: women cook at home, men are chefs; women make clothes for their kids and selves, men are tailors and fashion designers.

    Actually, that's interesting - women STILL predominantly make clothes for themselves and for children and crafts for the house, but they generally don't sew for men, which is the way it's been for hundreds of years. Why is this? I mean, men's clothes are often boring or hard to make nowadays, and this is why I do not make them, but it is interesting that the split has continued.

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  79. Ellen ' "all you home-sewing people love tea, cats and feminism"

    I nearly fell off my chair laughing. This basically describes me to a T :D

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  80. I've finally read all the comments, and this has been such an interesting and lively discussion. I think that the class issue is a really important one, and sort of informs the way that a lot of this 'resurgence of hip crafts' stuff has received attention in the past few years. It's undeniable that SnB and related books have contributed to the popularity of knitting, as well as the practical issues mentioned by others, not forgetting blogs and the phenomenon of Ravelry. However, the 'hip knitter' stereotype is a pretty middle class thing; we just don't know about lower-income women and men who knit, because in large part, they just aren't as visible. In addition, I don't think there are many knitted items these days that are 'essentials' in the way that sewn clothing is (socks are very cheap to buy!), possibly baby clothing might be considered in that category as something that is cheaper to make/unravel/remake than buy. Maybe the fact is that knitting as an essential skill is just dying out, and more and more people are taking it up purely as a hobby, purely to make nice, non-essential clothing. When you start getting into knitting clothing for yourself, it's VERY hard to view it as a 'cheap' hobby.
    Sewing seems very different to my mind. Many people (myself included) do it for reasons of fashion rather than necessity (by 'fashion' I meant being able to clothe ourselves in unique garments that fit, rather than that sewing itself is fashionable), or for political reasons (I think that getting off the sweatshop treadmill feeds the soul immensely! It's also good to remember that knitting or sewing as activism doesn't stop at the making, but that we also need to consider the origins of the materials we use). However, sewing as an essential activity, especially for low-income families, has never really gone away. In this world of cheap disposable fashion, it is usually still cheaper to make a pair of trousers than to buy one, if you have the required skills, and enough time.

    I appear to have rambled off topic immensely, but thanks Gertie for this post! I think you are spot on with your comments about the devaluation of women's work and the patriarchal assumptions about men and women that are behind it, as is so often the case. I should also point out, that the idea that 'sewing clothes is cheaper than buying them' (as I myself stated above!) really only holds up when you ignore the cost of labour. It's actually really interesting that in itself this speaks to the erasure of the value of 'work done at home'.

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  81. I'm sure Gertie's readers will correct me if I'm wrong, but all these discussions about domesticity/ homemaking vs. feminism strike me as a very American concern. Both my English and French grandmothers had sewing machines (the Elna on this post is the one my French grandmother still uses to this day), and it wasn't because they were attempting to conform to some adman's notion of the perfect housewife, but because it allowed them to dress when things were unavailable in the shops or too expensive to afford. There was a necessity involved which had nothing to do with female oppression. Taking the example of both my grandparents' households in two different countries, there was a sense of shared responsibility about the house even if it followed the gender rule - both my grandfathers would carry out the 'manly' tasks like electrics, plumbing, roofing, DIY - and my grandmothers would do those tasks more commonly assigned to women - cooking, sewing, knitting, etc. Gardening was something everyone did. One of my grandmothers worked, the other didn't. Nobody felt oppressed, because they all had to work hard and I don't think anyone envied the other's tasks. My mother got married in the 60s and had never been taught to cook or sew; she picked it up as she went along. Although they fell into the same pattern of sharing household tasks that they had grown up, these weren't perceived as invisible shackles - everyone just got on with it. In my household, my husband does the cooking, irons and washes his own shirts, and helps about the house despite being the main bread-winner. I sew without feeling there's any stigma attached, and it's only when I come here that I discover to what extent there is/ has been for some!

    Yes, some women found themselves forced into household tasks they didn't like, like some men had to do jobs all their lives that they loathed. Yes, sexism exists to this day, everywhere, but I can't help wonder how much of the feminist ideals you discuss here are borne of 50s American opulence, where that sense of necessity wasn't as prevalent as elsewhere, and where women could be persuaded back to the household and stripped of their identity by being sold ideas of a dream that didn't exist...

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  82. Not to be an un-feminist, but I find it interesting that once it was women in sweatshops. Now most of the upholstery stores I know of (auto and home), the work (sewing included) is done by men. So maybe this IS feminist, but why do men now get paid for sewing (and handsomely by the cost of my redone chair) and women do it for craft at home? Just a thought to ponder.

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  83. I see "D.I.Y." or creating what you need for yourself just as empowering as any equal rights movement.

    Mostly due to the feminist movement, many women left the home to work, leaving no time for teaching their children how to do many things more than sewing.

    Our society has become one in which its people are so far removed from how the products they use everyday are produced. We rely on so many manufacturers to create what we need for us. That to me isn't very empowering.

    Of course feminism is about choice. So yes, as long as you love to sew, and aren't forced to do so, then I see it as a very feminist option.

    But one can't ignore the positive qualities of days gone by. Set aside the misogyny of the past for a moment. Because we knew how to create for ourselves, we weren't very reliant on corporations, and other countries to produce what we needed. The talent was right here in our own country.

    Knowledge is power, and having that knowledge to create what you need for yourself (and passing it on) is just as empowering as any female c.e.o.

    I don't think of myself as anything other than a feminist, and I love to sew.

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  84. Maybe sewing hasn't taken off as much as knitting as a trendy/young/punk/feminist activity because most people don't have a sewing machine? It's a lot easier to pick up a pair of knitting needles than to get to grips with a machine.

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  85. @Kelly- In Berkeley,CA, so I don't think we shall ever meet by chance :( But I will find a "you" eventually, I have faith! The people I encounter are not friendly nor do appreciate my chatty comments regarding Dior's New Look or Sailor Jerry.

    Oh and whoever made that comment about tea, cats and feminism? I do not like cats so much. I am sorry. I love looking at pictures of people's cats and I don't mind petting them for a bit. But when it comes to owning one, I stick to dogs!

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  86. I feel like sewing my own clothes is more of a statement against consumerism than anything. I certainly love shopping and clothes, fashion and frivolity, but I can't believe that there are many people out there who can actually afford that lifestyle. In general, people can do much more than they think, they're just used to throwing money at something to make it go away/get fixed/be replaced.

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  87. Lovely lovely post and great comments. One quick point on why I reckon sewing hasn't taken off recently in the same way knitting has, which I don't think has come up yet (and I'm a long-time sewer, 2-year old knitter): Yes, knitting is more portable and (arguably) less expensive to get started with. But its very portability lends itself to the next-wave feminist movement we now seem to be in the midst of.

    When I first started getting confident enough to knit outside my own living room, I must admit I really liked the little thrill I got from doing something different in public. I liked the curious looks, I liked the occasional comment, I liked the surprise of my co-workers. Being a 20-something woman, knitting in a busy city park or on public transport was out of the norm and felt like an act of rebellion in itself. I felt part of something. Like I was contributing to this next wave of feminism one publicly-made stitch at a time.

    Sewing just can't be done in public in the same way and therefore doesn't produce that same little rebellious thrill. Did/does anyone else feel this?

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  88. Mind you, sewing is portable, too, when you sew by hand - which I often do. I often sew on the subway / metro / underground / whatever-you-want-to-call-it, and in trains. My mom thinks I rather stick out like a stick in the eye. So I do, and what? I do what I like, and instead of being crammed and bored and narrowed down to just one of many people in a crowd of commuters, I do something creative and effective during the time I spend in public transport. I don't know if it's feminist, but it's surely a way of making me feel good and confident.

    Besides, being a seamstress might have actually been a liberating thing in history sometimes. I have in mind one story by Czech 19th century writer Božena Němcová, who was probably quite feminist for her time - her stories usually feature heroines who, like those of Jane Austen's, although differently, want to make their own choices. So in this story I have in mind, the heroines work as homeservants (in Vienna), and one of them wants to be liberated from that - from having to serve others - and to be her own mistress. And she starts working as a seamstress instead.

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  89. @reilly on the handmade/homemade tip, I remember an occasion when I was about seventeen where I tried to compliment a girl I knew on her top by asking if she made it herself. I did mean it as a major compliment because it looked so unique and it fitted her so well, but I think she was massively offended (thinking I meant that it looked 'homemade'). Ah, culture clash....

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  90. Gertie, I'm thrilled to have found your blog today! My grandmother learned to sew in the "old country" and she supported her family financially her entire life. It was empowering for her, and my mom, who could dress like a glamor girl during the Depression. I learned from Grandma Rae when I was 12, pursuing design studies in college, for one main reason. As explained on a now defunct sign next to a fabric store in Walkertown, NC, simply: "The girl who sews has pretty clothes."

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  91. Eek, I meant to comment on this before. Sorry I didn't have a chance to read all the wonderful comments yet but I think that the DIY movement (which definitely precedes the Stitch N Bitch book, and was much grassroots than that, plus that BUST woman is hardly an icon) is not just feminist, but also anti-corporate and critical of capitalism. I don't know if I would categorized "third wave" feminism. Third Wave is probably more closely related to women of color, and queer struggles that sought to investigate and deconstruct gender as category, while Second Wave took white middle class woman as the "universal woman" category. What you're describing is closer to the old European social democratic model of Feminism, which seeks to create value to the traditionally feminine (i.e. The Swedish welfare state that gives pension benefits to homemakers, etc.). I am not a women's studies professor, but my PHD committee included all feminists social scientists (plus a few cool dudes of color) who would be horrified if I didn't make say these things!
    I don't think that we can "blame" second wave feminism alone for the devaluing of crafting, but also our economy, which was big on cheap and mass produced manufactured goods as a replacement for handcrafting. And this preceded Feminine Mystique. For example, it's pretty well documented that frozen and convenience foods, and wide scale ready to wear clothes, were a remnant of War Time overproduction.
    OK, sorry for the overly academic rant! Love your blog and all the mental activity it creates! Cheers.

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  92. Sewing is a feminist act when you choose to do it, not when you have to do it.

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  93. absolutely. I sew mostly for fashion purposes and I think that for me, sewing in particular represents the ability to walk away from the obsessive consumption of the fashion industry, the power to not participate in a market of goods produced largely in inhumane sweatshop conditions. It's also about individuality - I think creating one's own clothing requires far more individual agency and choice in the manufacture of one's outward appearance/image than purchasing a mass-produced garment. (Note: this is not to say that I sew my entire wardrobe; but it's my aspiration to get much, much closer...in all my free time, ahem.)

    and may I add that I am halfway through a theatre history Ph.D. myself and very curious what you might be specializing in? Do you do the ASTR conferences?

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  94. Oh, and one other thing - food for thought - as the move for national independence ramped up in the American colonies, Martha Washington was one of the ladies leading the way to produce home-sewn clothes from homespun cloth. Sewing and weaving, rather than purchasing imported European goods, became an expression of a national cultural identity.

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  95. Sadly I don't have time to read through the 93 other comments at this time, but I thought I'd throw this out there in case no one else has -

    About 10 years ago I was in grad school with a smattering of sewing, knitting, and crochet in my history and looking to pick something up again. Since then I've been primarily a knitter with some sewing tendencies. Why? Because there's 100,000,000 awesome and inspiring knitting patterns on the interweb, I got better at it quicker because it was portable and commutes became productive time, and once I found out the trick of unraveling second hand sweaters, it became much cheaper than sewing.

    I belong to both knitting and sewing online communities, and the sewing one I find needs more imagination to get the information and/or inspiration across - it's so much more intricate, you know? Once you are sewing for a while, the 10 picture spread of close ups of a welt pocket insertion are neat, but not necessarily something that's going to make a newbie go "wow, I want to learn to do that!" like a shrug out of intensely coloured Sea Mountain silk yarn. I don't think it has much to do with feminism and perception (I don't feel any difference between reactions to "you knit that?" and "you sewed that?" from people who don't craft at all), just the critical mass generated by the medium of the 2000's ;).

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  96. someone may already have made this point, but as a sewer and a knitter I think knitting has got more of an anti-feminist vibe recently due to its portability and therefore sociableness. It is easier to go and knit with others and leave the 'stay at home housewife' associations behind than it is to lug your sewing machine to the pub.

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  97. I am happy to see such passionate dialog...
    I am a feminist who is coming to terms with my homemakers role, and attitudes about it and how they continue to evolve. I have had a career in high fashion retail and cosmetics merchandising, activities that were occasionally rather repellent to my greater sensibilites, in pusuit of th almighty dollar.
    However, I don't think of my rather rabid sewing habit as a feminist one.It is what I now need to challenge my brain with the correct combination of at and physics and Useful Skills.
    I also feel great about making my own clothes as a response to Under valued sweatshop made garments from overseas, and am happy that it provides me with a skill I use to barter for organic farm goods from my happy local farmer, who is learning to quilt from me as well as getting all her mending done.

    and now I wear Heels only when and where I'd like.

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  98. Wow! Love this! I need to read up on my feminist manifestos. I didn't realize about the third wave. So glad I now know. It really validates many things for me as a SAHM (who's own mom was not). I think sewing might be less of a new feminist emblem than knitting simply because of the equipment required. All you need for knitting is needles and yarn! I heart to sew (even just mending, which is what I did today)!

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  99. Sigh. Late to the party, as usual.

    I guess I've never thought about sewing--at least, my sewing--as feminist or not. My mom sewed. Later, she started quilting and had all these quilt books around. I wasn't very familiar with fine home-sewn clothes, but it was pretty clear that quilting, even by women who didn't have a lot of money, wasn't just an obligation. Nobody puts that kind of time, energy, self-discipline, and creativity into drudgery.

    I don't knit much, nor hang out with knitters, but I think part of its popularity might, indeed, be its portability. Furthermore, knitting needles are cheaper and less intimidating than sewing machines, for those who are starting from absolute scratch. I find it easier to sit down in the evening and knit a few rounds after work and chores, than to concentrate on a sewing pattern and try to make progress on it in a spare 20 minutes.

    I have mixed feelings about the "scrappy DIY aesthetic." I don't dwell on it too much, because, obviously, everybody does things their own way, and I've certainly gone through scrappy DIY phases myself. I can't do it with sewing, though. My scrappy DIY clothes are fast wearing out, and I've found now that seams with raw fabric edges make me slightly hysterical. And why settle for "mostly fits" when you could make it really fit if you put in a little more effort? It does require rather significant self-discipline, though, and the expectation of a learning curve.

    I'm not sure that sewing hasn't become an "emblem of third-wave feminism." There are so many educated, successful, women out there, it seems, sewing and blogging about it. Or maybe we're doing it "off the record" and the commercial market hasn't found a way to connect yet?

    I'll try not to make this too long: My feeling has always been that there is no shame in knowing how to do something well. The work that it takes to become a skilled fitter and seamstress should not be looked at askance just because it's traditionally feminine.

    (I don't mind the term "seamstress," either. "Sewer" looks bad in print. I'm a woman and I sew, so you can call me a seamstress.)

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  100. Gertie:

    Better late than never even in commenting?!? I just read your post after Minnie mentioned it in her June post which I just read after seeing her new post on the front page of Blogher. Whew. A longwinded intro, but I want to let you know how much I appreciate your blog though I don't sew! I love the vintage styles you are working with.

    I told Minnie and I will tell you because I wrote a post last summer early in my blogging life titled "Needlepoint and Sorting Out the Sixties," which was essentially my own acknowledgment of how my rebellion against the domestic arts was a product of an earlier wave of feminism (I came of age in the late 60-early 70s). I had finally figured out how to reconcile what the culture had offered me as an either/or.

    I now heartily encourage my own daughter in all of her self-directed interests, which include cooking and sewing. I'm happy to report that I'm learning right along with her.

    Anyway, you are welcome to read the post I mentioned if you want to see what the world looked like then and you remember that it was early in my blogging days. ;)

    http://flatrockcreeknotebook.com/2009/08/29/needlepoint-and-sorting-out-the-sixties/

    Thanks for your insightful post!

    Mary
    Flat Rock Creek Notebook
    http://flatrockcreeknotebook.com/

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  101. Karen from ArcadiaJanuary 11, 2011 at 6:07 PM

    As a child born in the late '60s, I think I remember many of the reasons sewing began to be a fringe activity. A backlash against the hippy movement? Absolutely. A move to cheaper ready-to-wear? No doubt about it. Feminists who were revolting against "women's work?" Unquestionably.

    There were subtler influences, though. Home sewing fabrics began to be made by companies that specialized in fabrics manufactured solely for homemakers, and most of them assumed that Susie Homemaker didn't know (or care) about the quality of what they were buying. Customers responded rationally -- after all, why sew something that might end up looking like a badly made knock-off of something you could buy cheaper at Sears?!?

    I think the biggest issue, then and now, however, has to do with body image. I don't know many women who don't measure their worth on the basis of their physical measurements. We all have a number in our heads, and if the garment in a store happens to match our ideal, there's something irresistible about feeling like we compare favorably with other women.

    The problem is, when you're sewing, a single number isn't enough. I've tried to teach friends to sew, only to see how stubbornly attached they are to a particular size number. I've had to explain that it's not enough to measure their bust, waist and hips -- they need to know if their upper arms are larger than the pattern allows, or if they're shorter-waisted, and, by the way, if they have a flat rear, or a pot-belly, it's better to acknowledge these "flaws" before they spend all the work of sewing something that simply won't fit right.

    By comparison, it's much easier to walk into a store and blame the manufacturer if your "size" is tight or pouchy, or just plain wrong.

    My fascination with sewing, however started before I got attached to a specific body image. I started life with a non-standard body trait I dearly wish I still could claim -- that of being too tall and slender. Mom had no choice but to sew for a girl with the waist measurement of a three-year old who was tall enough to pass as an seven-year old.

    When Mom sewed for me, she taught me to connect sewing to an aspect of feminism I still value: CONTROL. Mom let me pick out my own fabrics and patterns and, unlike my friends, I got to control what went into my closet. That's a serious power trip for a little girl, and it still holds me in thrall today.

    So who cares if I have to acknowledge to myself that I have hips that don't need any padding to achieve a New Look silhouette, thank you very much, or that my right arm is bigger around than my left. Knowing that I am more than a single number has given me decades of control over my life -- and I can't imagine a more positive feminist goal than the ability to look in the mirror and know myself.

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

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