Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Why do you sew?

Sewing has not been a money saving activity for generations. Ready-to-wear clothing and home furnishings is much more financially accessible to our convenience and disposable mind-set.

Why would anyone sew something when such items can typically be picked up for a song compared to what it costs to sew at home?

Now you might think that this is a new trend, something that has occurred in recent generations. Not necessarily so. Nearly a century ago an organization of  fabric wholesalers met to discuss the disturbing trend they were seeing, a decline in sales.

Yes, during that New York meeting in 1926 fabric wholesalers tried to come up with ideas of how to convince women to return to their sewing machines.

What happened to cause such a stir?

Well, after the First World War more and more women were spending more time working  or participating in other activities as ready-to-wear clothing were becoming readily available.  With these factors at play, fewer women required or desired to spend their time sewing (Gordon 120).

Up until the 1920s fabric sales kept pace with ready-to-wear clothing, it was at this point that there was a significant decline in fabric sales.

Post-war marketers had to do something and they chose to commodify the virtues of traditional women's roles.

The sewing industry approached the startling decline in fabric sales with a strategy of commodifying the virtues of traditional women's roles. The message had to be sent out that a woman who sews is a woman who would make a good, attractive, smart, nurturing mother and wife.

The tactic of promoting traditional women roles proved to be a powerful attack on the cultural shift that was occurring. The promotion of long-established gender roles was a way for industry to try to regain their decline profits.

Motherhood was attached to the notion of sewing. Even if the adults in the family are caught up in the cultural shift of wearing more and more ready-to-wear garments, good mothers sew for their children.

Sewing machines were promoted as a necessity for every home. It was promoted as a solid investment that could do miracles from increasing the value of one's home to stretching the household budget.

Check out this vintage Singer sewing machine ad.

The premise of sewing to clothe oneself (or their family) for less is a myth. Unfortunately, too many people are oblivious to this notion. Have they bought into the vintage notion that sewing at home is economical?

There are still lots of people that want sewing done but they have no concept of the work involved or the financial cost for supplies. They calculate custom work by comparing their objects of desire to what it could be picked up at the mall.

And sewists are doing themselves no favours when they do not calculate the true cost of sewing. How many of us consider the cost of thread when pricing out a sew at home garment? There are many "hidden" costs that are often ignored because it is not glamourous to consider.

And those that are requesting custom work never want to learn how to make it themselves. "I have no time" or "You're so talented, I could never do that" followed by "I'll pay you" later on in the conversation. We live in a culture of convenience and the DIY ethic took it's last breathe with the punk movement.

Economically, sewing doesn't make sense. So why do people sew? Is it a sense of nostalgia?

Or are we buying into the I-can-do-that! fantasy of fashion reality programs like Project Catwalk (UK), Project Runway (US and Canada)?

Kathleen Spike an Oregon-based professional dressmaker concludes that "we sew to express our creativity and to increase the quality of our families' clothing" (Spike 118).

Or perhaps, we sew to reduce stress as Michelle Phiefer and Sally Fields do?

So why do you sew?

Campbell, Cathleen.  "Sewing to Reduce Stress."  Nov/Dec 2000 <>

Gordon, Sarah A.  "Make it Yourself":  Home Sewing, Gender, and Culture, 1890-1930.  Gutenberg e- Home:  Columbia University Press, 2007.   

Spike, Kathleen.  Sew to Success! How to Make Money in a Home-Based Sewing Business:  An Autobiography of Kathleen Spike, Professional Dressmaker.  Portland:  Palmer/Pletsch Inc., 1990.  


  1. Hmm, tough one. I only recently returned to sewing after a break of 20 odd years. But, the main reason is that I was completely and utterly fed up with having badly fitted clothes! Being tall and wide, I simply don't 'conform' to the 'average' sizes that the manufacturers produce. Oh, and nothing ever met in the middle ;)

  2. Being a seamstress, I can relate to the mall mentality. There is no competing with China so i do not. However, I think there is some money to be saved and it is in the not very glamorous task of mending. My son could wreck a pair of pants in one day and I could fix them just as fast. This applies to expensive outdoor gear as well. The question of value that applies to sewing can apply to many things such as gardening,auto mechanics or cooking. What was once a necessary skill is now a hobby that we can choose to do...or not.

  3. I love this post! I know that I sew as a creative outlet. I don't like to be limited to what is available in the store. The way I dress is a form of expression for me. Also, you can save money sewing when you think about it. I can't afford a $300 designer dress but I can make a similar one for much less if you shop the right fabric stores.

  4. Lucha Lovely, I agree that you can save $ if you shop at the right fabric stores and catch the right sale. I often pick up something when it comes on sale and put it away for a later date. It is hard where since there has been many fabric stores/departments closing across the city or switching over to cater to the quilting crowd. I sign of the times I guess.

    I have said in the past that I sew because it was a way for me to relax, but that hasn't been the case lately. I do like the creative process and agree with Tina that sewing your own gives you the fit that is hard to find in the retail outlets most times.


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