(Image: A Singer Sewing ad from 1951, Courtesy Singer Sewing Co.)
By Judi Ketteler
In 1992, when I was a senior in high school, I made the cutest pink plaid jumper ever. I picked out the fabric, decided the length of the hem, and modified the neckline. Paired with my black tights, the jumper represented everything I knew about fashion at the time. I was just beginning to understand that sewing was a form of freedom: the power of being able to make something myself and create my own style from scratch. It may have been the 90s, but I wasn’t any different than a girl in the 1950s who completed her lessons at the local Singer Sewing Center near her house.
But the next year in college, as I felt my first stirrings of feminism, I got the sense that sewing – and the domesticity it represented – was Part of the Problem. This was before I had much context of women’s history, before sewing’s most current resurgence, before the Internet got going, before Amy Butler, Anna Maria Horner, “Project Runway,” and the Church of Craft. This was before I understood that the intersection of domesticity and women’s history is full of interesting contradictions you can’t sum up in any sort of black and white way (especially when you are 20).
(Image: Sew Retro, image courtesy of Voyageur Press)
Ultimately, this is why I decided to write my book, Sew Retro: A Stylish History of the Sewing Revolution + 25 Vintage-Inspired Projects for the Modern Girl, (Voyageur Press, 2010). I wanted to tackle the contradictions and tease out some of the complexities I’d been thinking about for more than a decade. And, of course, I wanted to celebrate two centuries of creativity.
(Image: An ad for Domestic Sewing Machines from the 19th century)
Sewing is on the upswing now, but the needle and thread have been around the block a few times, and been rejected and embraced many times over in the last few centuries. The invention of the modern sewing machine by Isaac Singer in the early 1850s represented a major cultural shift. Other inventors had tried, but Singer was the first to put all the pieces together and make it work. Singer was a ladies’ man, father of 24 children with five different women. I’m guessing people locked up their liquor and their daughters when he came to town. Nonetheless, his engineering know-how made women’s lives so much easier, and Singer & Company, now Singer Sewing Co., was formed. Other sewing machine manufacturers began popping up, and the industry thrived. A sewing machine was the perfect gift for a young bride, advertisements promised.
Of course, is it fair that women were stuck doing all the sewing, as well as taking care of the house and the kids, with no real say in the matter? Of course not. Nineteenth-century domesticity – for all its beautiful artifacts – was no picnic.
(Image: Mother and baby embroider, Library of Congress)
But at least a sewing machine meant women didn’t have to make every stitch by hand. Commercial patterns represented another great innovation. Ellen Curtis Demorest is widely credited with making the first ones in the 1850s; tailor Ebenezer Butterick produced the first sized patterns in 1863. By the 1890s, patterns looked similar to how they look today (with directions and pattern pieces inside an envelope).
(Image: 1928 Needlecraft Magazine cover and a Sears catalog ad from the 1930s)
A Century of Highs and Lows
By the late 1920s and into the 1930s, sewing was losing ground to the ready-made garment industry, even as Singer Sewing Centers began opening and Simplicity Pattern Company was formed (both in 1927). Sexually liberated swanky flappers realized that perhaps they didn’t have to sew anymore. Organizations like the Women’s Domestic Institute (led for many years by Mary Brooks Picken) taught women that their sewing skills had great commercial appeal. The Institute taught women to sew (via correspondence course) and helped thousands of women start small sewing-based businesses, like a 1930s version of Etsy.
(Image: Sew for Victory Poster, Library of Congress)
We have this romantic idea that everyone must have started sewing again during The Great Depression, which isn’t exactly true. People actually just made do with less (and mended more). It was World War II that truly rejuvenated sewing. Women sewed for the war effort (coining the phrase “Sew for Victory!”), and they also practiced the art of repurposing old clothes into new things, since fabric was heavily rationed by the War Production Board (WPB). Last year’s fashion needed to stay in fashion to avoid waste, so the WPB told pattern manufacturers that they couldn’t create completely new looks, and could only change designs by five percent. (Wade Laboissonniere’s excellent book, Blueprints of Fashion has more on this.)
(Image: Cynthia stitches, Library of Congress)
By the mid 1940s, sewing was booming again; sales were way up, and Singer Sewing Centers popped up everywhere, wooing thousands of eager teenage girls.
(Image: Cover of a 1950s Simplicity sewing booklet, Courtesy of Simplicity)
With all the retro hype, we like to think the 1950s was the golden age of sewing in America.
(Image: A needlebook cover from the 1950s)
It was definitely an age when couture sewing became popular, as pattern companies started partnering with famous designers to offer high-end style to middle-class women. Love Elizabeth Taylor’s dress in her latest movie? Make it yourself! But in reality, the numbers were dropping. It took until the 1960s for women to really rediscover sewing again. Interestingly, by 1964, the average age of the home sewer was 25 years younger than in 1940. The hippy handcraft fad of the 1970s (think macramé) kept the momentum going.
(Image: Singer Machine, Courtesy Singer Sewing Co.)
But the “me” generation of the 1980s wasn’t that interested. It wasn’t until the late 1990s that young women started digging out their grandmothers’ machines, and bright young designers pushed fabric and pattern design into the 21st century. There were about 30 million home sewers in 1997, and by 2006, the number had jumped again: The last number I was able to find was 35 million American women sewing, as reported by the Home Sewing Association (now reorganized as the Sewing & Craft Alliance).
Sewing has come full circle for women, embraced by both feminists and women who would never call themselves feminists. We now have the choice to sew or not sew – not just because of all the women who kept the thread of the sewing story going, but also because of all the women who refused to sew and refused to be defined entirely by domesticity.
Today, just as in the 1940s, we’re sewing for victory, but our victory is about challenging the consumer conformity of big box retail and cheaply made goods. We get to shape our creative lives and identities however we want now, and that is some powerful stuff to celebrate this month, and always. Happy sewing!
(Note: Singer and Simplicity images are protected by copyright and used with permission and may not be reproduced without written permission.)
About the Author:
Judi Ketteler lives in Cincinnati, where she works as a freelance magazine writer and content strategist. An avid sewer, she is the author of Sew Retro: A Stylish History of the Sewing Revolution + 25 Vintage-Inspired Projects for the Modern Girl (July 2010, Voyageur Press). Find her blog, as well as bonus projects and tutorials at www.sewretrothebook.com.