There is no doubt that the art of sewing has been experiencing a renaissance in the past few years after spending more than a generation of being almost completely discarded by modern American women. There were grandmothers and religious communities who kept the art alive, while my mother’s generation tossed the hobby on the same fire pit as their burning bras. Starting in the 70’s sewing became a symbol of female oppression. My mother would tell me about how girls were “forced” to take home economics as girls because girls were ‘only expected’ to become wives and mothers. If they wanted to learn work skills they could always take typing and become secretaries. Or they could take nursing classes. So it’s not surprising that her generation of women coming of age in the sixties and seventies would turn their backs on their mother’s hobby and embrace their new freedom and desire to be on even ground with men. And that did not include being hunched over a sewing machine. Sewing, like cooking, cleaning and staying home with children became a symbol of female drudgery to this first wave of feminists, not something most liberated young women wanted to pursue. So it’s not surprising that I never learned to sew as a child but it was required to learn when I went to design school at twenty. I wanted to design, not sew! Wouldn’t there be seamstresses who would sew for me, the designer, when I graduated and started to work in the industry? No, I was told, I had to learn to sew the basics so I could truly understand how clothing was made. That was back in the nineties and I suppose I could have pursued sewing after choosing to become a stay at home mom, but commercial sewing patterns were sooo lame back then, and my sewing skills were never that great to begin with. Plus, we didn’t have any cool sewing blogs to discover. Just some ladies on public TV making old fashioned quilts and and doll clothes….. Let’s just say there was huge gap between fashion and the sewing industry in the nineties. And while I’m not putting Martha Pullen above down, I really appreciate her skills, when I was in my twenties it just wasn’t something I could relate to.
Suddenly in the early 2,000’s the domestic arts became cool again. We have Martha Stewart to thank for bringing a new interest back to domestic arts, and Bust magazine which brought a new generation of feminists back to the crafting table, making them rediscover the hobbies that their mothers had discarded. The green movement also had a huge impact on the domestic arts becoming popular again. Things like canning, homeschooling, sewing, raising chickens, and organic gardening became fashionable hobbies . We bought our own little farm to do just those things ourselves! I’m a cliche , ha!
It wasn’t until five years ago when I discovered the sewing blog scene, that I really began to appreciate the skill and art of sewing. Luckily, my own daughters don’t have to deal with any of those old attitudes about the subservience of sewing. They can choose to learn it or not, because it’s something they want to do. And strangely, although feminism almost ended sewing, we have feminism to thank for changing our attitudes about sewing. But the sad thing is, now that most schools don’t teach sewing anymore, and many people have never learned, it’s hard for those kids who want to learn who don’t have a family member to teach them how.
For the past few years I’ve been collecting vintage sewing supplies. They are a glimpse into the past of not only the hobby of sewing, but the world of women and girls for me. There’s no doubt that sewing was a hobby only marketed to girls. I often wonder about boys who wanted to sew in those days. For instance, I remember hearing how Isaac Mizrahi sewed barbie outfits as a boy. He must have put up with a lot of teasing as a child. As you can see from my vintage sewing toy machine literature, sewing was a girls hobby or at least according to these manuals it was.