Feminism and sewing

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. 3844797838_7bc8a2551aMy 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.Sweatshop-1890 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. sisterssewing3So 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, il_570xN.441399648_me2fand 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….. marthapullenLet’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. kenmore3 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.singermanual 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. singersewhandy

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  1. says

    When I was learning to sew at school in the 60s, it was most definitely girls only. The boys did basket weaving while we did sewing for 4 years in Primary School. At High School, again sewing was girls only, as was cooking, while the boys did woodwork and metalwork. When I went to Teacher’s College in the 70s, we were all able to do the same subjects and so I chose woodwork, which I then taught to both boys and girls when I started teaching. Sewing was no longer taught by then in Primary School, only High School.

    • Justine says

      I bet those boys got really good at making baskets! Whata random skill to teach?I wonder why they taught that to boys? So interesting!

  2. says

    So interesting how the pendulum continues to swing in all things, sewing included. In my home economics course in high school (graduated 2006), boys and girls did all of it together. I think patience was more the issue than gender. Everything is so fast paced now that those people I know who express an interest in learning to sew will probably a) never get around to it or b) become disinterested once they realize how much of a learning curve there is. Of course, there are still those who possess a natural talent for sewing and related textile arts. I think my daughter might be a natural. She is two next week and has the most incredible fine motor skills and loves to handle pins and guide fabric (with assistance) through the machine. It’s exciting for me to see her interested in sewing, but I absolutely don’t want to push her. I just can’t wait to see where her interests and career will lie. 🙂

    • Justine says

      That’s interesting Tasha. Boys would never have dreamt of joining the home ecomonics class that existed when I was in high school in the late 80’s.i never took it myself and then soon after they dropped those classes here in California. Where did you grow up?

      • says

        I grew up in a small (graduated with 36) country town in Southwest Missouri. It was a required course in high school and covered cooking, finances, sewing, health, etc. In junior high boys and girls took a shop (woodworking) class together. I’m not sure if they still do it that way. It will be interesting to see what types of classes are required once my girl gets older.

  3. says

    Hey Justine,

    It’s interesting to see that feminism and attitudes towards sewing had exactly the same route all over the world! I was raised in a rather traditional family in Turkey, by a mother who was forced to learn how to sew and was quite good at that when she was young. But she never taught me how to sew or encouraged my timid efforts in sewing clothes for my dolls. It seemed quite degrading, I guess, for her to have a carrier on sewing related jobs and instead she supported me to have quite a “fancy” carrier in international relations. But guess what? I ended up learning how to sew by myself (with the help of amazing sewing bloggers of course!) and years later, I’m about to quit my current business life and start to earn my bread through sewing and design :)) And to support other sewing enthusiasts, I started a blog where I teach all sewing techniques that I “discovered” on the way 😀

    • Justine says

      What a great story Irem.It’s sad that such a great endeavor was so disrespected for so long and became a symbol of degradation for many women when sewing is actually so freeing. You aren’t chained to wearing mass produced junk once you can sew.

  4. says

    Home economics in USSR and modern Russia looked like this – sewing and cooking for girls, metal work, wood work etc – for boys. Our boys always visited us when we did cooking – for tasting purposes of course! I am wondering if things are different now.

    • Justine says

      With the new economy in Russia I would be curious to see how things have changed. Like Tasha says, the new culture is so tech based they may have dropped those classes too.

  5. says

    Enjoyed reading your post. I grew up in a feminist household, and I certainly credit the movement with many positive changes for women. However I am also a bit mad at feminists for many different reasons. 🙂 I guess the pendulum always has to swing one way or the other. I do hope it stays in the middle, where a woman is appreciated and can choose to be a stay at home mom or a working mom, craft or not to craft and not be ridiculed for any of the choices.

  6. says

    I am happy that my mom gave me free reign over her sewing tools and that I was encouraged to attend engineering school too. I guess feminism has given me the best of both worlds. All though society is till a long ways to go in this area.

  7. says

    I learned to sew with my grandma. My mom didn’t cook, sew, or any of that! I think it’s weird how sewing is (still today) marketed towards women, but the design industry is dominated by men about everywhere. Not as much as it used to be; but still.

    And I really thought someone else would do my sewing in school too! Once I found out how the industry worked, i realized I’d most likely need to work in a cutting room for a decade before I could design for someone else (if I were so lucky!) I wasn’t committed enough for all that. I couldn’t bear being poor for 20 years lol! But I’m glad I sort of found my way back to sewing; creating is something I NEED in order to function:) sewing blogs (yours!) and Pinterest were what got me back into it. I’m loving this resurgence!

    I try not to push it on Bella. She likes to sew a little, and I encourage. I fear that either her generation or the next will really HAVE to embrace the domestic arts because the economy is going to collapse. I want her to know how things are made, where food comes from. It’s important!

  8. says

    This was very interesting Justine! It’s an interesting thought that since our mother’s generation didn’t sew, our generation seem to be a lot of self-taught (and community taught too through blogging, I guess) sewers. I’m so happy that my daughter, who loves to be crafty in everything, will be able to do what she loves without thinking of it as degrading.

  9. Mie @ Sewing Like Mad says

    I LOVE when you write these types of posts Justine. You should do some more of those 😉 In Denmark in the eighties when I went to school both boys and girls had cooking, sewing/crafts and wood working classes together. Lots of fun. I especially loved the cooking classes and made dinner for my family from time to time when I was around 14 years old.

  10. says

    Interesting post! I think the modern sewing community is still pretty guilty of being more focused on passing on these skills to our daughters. My oldest is a little boy, I’ve promised him I would teach him- and he is SUPER excited about it. Granted he is still pretty little so that may pass. I hope he will always be able to sew on buttons, do small fixes etc. And if he develops and keeps full blown sewing skills all the better!

  11. Judy says

    What a fantastic post..
    I love sewing.. I really think I was born wanting to sew.ha
    I did grow up in the 60’s and 70’s, and we were forced to take home ec, I personally loved
    it, and was so proud , that I got to learn the basics. Boys were not allowed to take it. As others
    said, They took wood working.. So sad, that its not available today.. Like you said, children today,
    won’t ever get the chance to see if they want to or not??
    I love that there are sewing blogs and sewing friends [through blogging].

  12. May Arcenal says

    Hi there! I was born in the 80s and got exposed to a lot of arts and crafts when growing up. When I was around 7 to 8 years old, my mom and aunt brought me to the toy store. it was usual for girls my age during that time to choose dolls or tea sets as toys but I fell in love with a toy sewing machine. I used my pestering powers to beg my mom and aunt to buy me the sewing machine ^_^ but sadly, no one really taught me how to sew. I only ran some fabric on my toy sewing machine pretending that I could piece together something. but looking back, i feel that that was the best toy that i ever owned during my childhood days. i’m actually planning to buy my a sewing machine now that i’m going to be a mom. i used to sew my projects with my hand…and it takes so much time…that’s why i’m going to save up to buy a sewing machine.

    anyway, nice post ^_^

  13. Brenda Kimberlin says

    Great post — we didn’t have home ec classes in my Catholic high school (80’s), so I was always jealous of girls who had the chance to take it in public school! My own mother didn’t sew, but two of her sisters did, so she bought me a beautiful Singer when I was a child and enrolled me in classes — I drifted away from it for many, many years, but after staying home with kids, I’ve returned to it. I’m so thankful that she introduced me to it.

  14. Sue W says

    I’ve just started following sewing blogs, although I’ve followed quilting blogs for several years. Thought I would add a little different perspective to the mix of comments to your postng. When I learned to sew in 4-H when I was ten (back in the sixties), it provided me an opportunity to have a wardrobe that I couldn’t afford otherwise. That remained true all through high school and college. I even made bride maids’ dresses and my own wedding dress. Knits, so popular in the 70s, made it possible for me to sew for my husband, sons, and daughter for years. Until my daughter was in middle school, I made most of her clothes and mine. It was only returning to work full time that put a damper on garment sewing. Now I mostly quilt and sew for grandchildren. I don’t like the quality of most purchased clothes, but find that the cost of home garment sewing is not the bargain that it used to be.

    As for those home ec classes back in the 60s, I only took the one course in junior high that was required. I had learned so much from my family and 4-H that the courses were not a priority. However, sadly, today too many school districts are just eliminating them and young people really need those basic living skills. I just retired from a small rural school district, and I fear that when my friend (the family living instructor) retires, there will be no longer a family and consumer ed department. And they quite teaching sewing classes years ago. I, however, have done sewing projects with all three older granddaughters (now 11,8, and 6) and I am sure I will do the same with the three year old when she is old enough. And my grandson made an adorable stuffed animal in summer school.

    One last note — a dear girl friend was the first girl in our high school to take a drafting class back in 1966. Not long after that, schools in our areas had co-ed phy ed classes and all the industrial arts and home ec classes became coed. You describe teh 90s as sewing void, but if you follow people like Nancy Zieman (a Wisconsin wonder and top business entrepreneur) the 90s were the makings of her empire. That’s a Wisconsin grandma’s perspective. Keep writing and sewing.

  15. says

    I was first exposed to sewing when my mother sewed most of my clothing as a young girl. She did it out of necessity more than anything else. She didn’t work, and money was tight. When my sister and I were older and mom started working the only time she sewed was to make something unique for us. Personally, I didn’t start sewing until my Mom purchased a sewing machine for me 3 years ago this Christmas. This was one of the best gifts I have ever received. I love sewing. And it’s spilled to the younger generation in my family.

    I have 10-year old twin cousins that I take to sewing class once per month. And for their birthday in February – they will be receiving their very own sewing machines. They love to sew. I hope it is something they keep up for years to come!

    Great post!

  16. Holly says

    My 90-year-old mother had to take sewing, cooking, and shop (simple woodworking projects plus home maintenance) when she was in school. The boys had to take cooking, shop, and enough sewing to learn how to sew on buttons and mend clothes. She graduated in the class of 1942 in a class numbering around 40. My father graduated in 1929 from a large Detroit high school and there were more girls (a higher percentage) on the sports teams than there were in my high school, class of 1975. I was one of 2 girls in the drafting class in high school (my father had been a draftsman) and hoped every day that the other girl would not be out. At the University of Michigan, Dearborn, there were quite a few girls in my Calculus I class. But next door, at Henry Ford Community College, I was the only girl in Calculus II, and the teacher pointed it out every day when he greeted the class with “Lady and Gentlemen.” The only other girl in my Fortran class there was just off the plane from Iran. I decided Henry Ford was not the place for me and went back to the university next door to study Computer Science.

    I had to take Sewing and Cooking in Grade 8. I loved sewing class. But I was insulted when I “learned” to make toast and popcorn in cooking class. I wanted to take more sewing classes, but I couldn’t without enduring another semester of cooking.

  17. says

    After reading this article, I have to say my family was never affected by “feminism”. I was raised differently. My great grandfather was a master school teacher in WV and taught all his daughters math, poems, etc. Many of them became teachers when they were single and later stayed home with their kids, sewed and cooked, etc. My grandmother encouraged my mother to attend college in the 1970s….why? Because she knew my mother would be trained for a job and in my grandmothers words it would be her “insurance”. Insurance? You see our attitude was that a women should be educated not just for herself but also for her family. We got college degrees for “insurance” so that if our husbands died, left or were no longer able to work….we could! And we could support our families on more than minimum wage. My grandmother taught my mom to sew, who in turn taught me and I will in turn teach my two girls. We both also had “professional” jobs before we became moms!

    Another thing my family considered was our Christian beliefs. A women is a man’s helpmate that’s why she was created FOR him by God. While God didn’t say…though shalt sew…Proverbs lays out quite a bit of suggestions of a wife. And if we are to help our husbands than it shouldn’t matter to anyone if we stay at home to raise kids and sew, or work in a factory while he goes to war! Right? 😉

    Happy sewing!! Love your blog.