Saturday, 27 July 2013

Sewing Through the Decades through the lens of Popular Culture

Rhonda over at Rhonda's Creative Life reflected this week on her past sewing life with "Cracking the Shell" after reading Sew Sister's piece "Sewing in the 70's". You have to go over and read Rhonda's inspiring and personal story and the post that got her thinking about it. Go on, my post will be here when you come back.

Rhonda's and Sew Sister's posts had me thinking about how sewing and how the perceptions surrounding it has changed over the decades. I'm also reading Patricia Volk's Shocked:  My Mother, Schiaparelli, and Me which has me thinking after reading a wonderfully descriptive section about sewing.

Sister Sew asked, "Do you consider the 70s vintage?"

I didn't give much thought to that until the two posts written about this by-gone era and looking at the new Vogue fall patterns.

There is a perfect definition of vintage over at Americana,
Time is not the only criteria used to define vintage, but rather other elements such as enduring style, perceived quality and accrued value.
That had me thinking if we define clothing as vintage based on various factors, what about sewing?  Would you consider the act of sewing vintage?

I started sewing in the 1970s and even took Home Economic classes when I was in high school. It was not the cool thing to do. I wasn't trying to be cool (that was a lost cause), I just liked to sew.

It was the beginning of the second wave feminism that lasted into the 1980s. During the 1970s strong feminist women were portrayed on television. Maude, Rhoda, and Mary replaced the older generation of TV woman Lucy, Harriet and Margaret, who embraced domestic life. Maude, Rhoda and Mary were too busy making a name for themselves to be stuck at home doing... domestic stuff.

During this time, it was the beginning of the end of Home Economics classes. And television shows were moving women away from the sewing machine and towards being the mover and shakers in the world. Televised domestic work at this time was reassigned to Alice, an older woman happy to take care of the modern family. The 80's with the shoulder pads and power suits came the backlash comedy (I use that term loosely) of Andrew Dice Clay, and American comedian who was quite vulgar and vocal about his opposition to women's rights back in the day. It was another nail in the lid of the sewing machine moved into attics as the fight for equal rights was on.

Was popular culture playing a role in the decline of sewing and the negative attitudes towards those who sew their own clothes? I don't believe it helped. During this period I don't recall positive representations of sewing, rather it was presented as a relic from the past that we should run screaming from. CabinQuilter's: Sewing Machines in Movies highlights television shows where sewing machines appeared. Most sewing machine appearances are as reliacs of the the past.

1900 House PBS (2000): Singer treadle
American Family, PBS (2002):"The Sewing Machine" Singer Treadle
Blue Valley Songbird (1999)
Dogs and More Dogs, Nova, PBS (2003): Singer, 5-drawer treadle
Dr. Seuss's "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" (1966) He and his dog sew the Grinch's santa suit on a black treadle with gold decals
Extreme Home Makeover (ABC 2004): Several Featherweights
Geico Commercial (2006): Peter graves is sitting in the homeowner's sewing room. In the background is what looks to be a mid-arm machine. See a video clip HERE
Gilligan's Island (believe it or not!): "The Matchmaker" episode; combination bamboo exercise bike/sewing machine
Gilmore GirlsSinger Model 12 treadle
Hometime (PBS): Closed Singer Treadle cabinet
I Dream of JeannieSinger treadle, on the beach
Jeff's Collie (Original Lassie series): 5 drawer coffin top treadle
Jericho: Treadle table against the wall between the kitchen & living room at the Richmond ranch.
Laverne & ShirleyTreadle stand in the bedroom
Lion, Witch & the Wardrobe, The (BBC 1988): Mrs. Beaver is sewing on what looks to be a Frister & Rossman handcrank
Mad About YouFlashback to his dad's tailor shop, with an industrial machine in the background
Manor House, PBS (2003): Jones handcrank and a treadle
Martha Inc.:The Story of Martha Stewart (2003): Black Singer in an old, treadle-type base
Monk: Mr. Monk Goes to the Ballgame (2003): Treadle base only (!) used as a foyer table.
Papa's Angels (2000): 7-drawer treadle
Pimp My Ride (MTV 2004): Industrial used to sew custom, green suede/black leather auto upholstery
Reba (2002): Reba McIntyre sews a bridesmaid's dress on a Featherweight
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (1978):
Seinfeld: Episode #149 "The Pothole" (2/20/97) Kramer 'adopts' a mile of the freeway. A Singer 99 sewing machine falls off a dump truck and is shown bursting into flames caused by igniting paint thinner.
Six Feet Under (HBO 2001) The daughter found her grandmother's sewing machine in the attic. While high on drugs with a girlfriend she makes her mother very colorful slacks. The machine was dark green, full size, Singer 500.
Texas Ranch House (PBS 2006): Wilcox & Gibbs handcrank
Tommyknockers, The (1993): The boy who makes his brother disappear powers his machine with a treadle
The Brady Bunch (Peter the Magician/Cindy's fear of the dark):
The Real McCoysTreadle
Who's the Boss?Possibly a Stylist, sitting backwards on a shelf in the garage (of course!)
Willing to Kill: Texas Cheerleader Story (1992): Featherweight
I made clothes in those high school years. Come to think about it, I used to sneak downstairs to the basement and sew on my mom's Singer treadle. We didn't have an attic. My makes weren't anything to write home about but it was the creative process that I enjoyed. In the 1980s, I dreamed of a career that would incorporate the skills that I was learning, instead it remained a hobby as I retreated from sewing jobs that did not pay. The act of the creative process had been belittled to the point that people did not see the worth of sewing.  And yet, they didn't want to take their garments to a tailor or seamstress.

Evidence of this appeared in the 1990s. On one occasion after sewing a hooded blouse, McCall's 5640, for my brother's friend. She (yes, a she!) refused to pay for the work that I had done stating, "I already spent $30 on the materials. I wouldn't pay more than that at a store for a shirt". I was devastated and felt used. I let the issue go because she was "my brother's friend." People were becoming accustomed to cheap fashion and addicted to the convenience of ready-to-wear.

On another occasion I was verbally scolded by a co-worker after asking for payment of couch cushions I had sewn.

"Why, you can't wait two weeks for your money?" she yelled in a public place achieving her goal of embarrassing me into leaving without payment. All because she wanted to go on a cross-border trip and thought that I should wait to be paid. People back then did not appreciate the workmanship, expense, or time that went into sewing.

From past experiences, I equate bullying and feeling used with sewing for others. And as a result, I refuse to take on sewing projects or alterations for others.  

Thankfully, times and attitudes change, Sewing With Nancy appeared on television in the 1980s but the show appealed to a niche market. It did not capture the attention of popular culture immediately but thirty years later she is celebrated for showcasing fabric artists and sewing techniques on her show.   

Despite the appearance of Nancy, the decline of sewing as a necessary and honourable skill continued in the 1990s. It was also a time of the third wave of feminism. From Women, Politics and Public Policy:  The Political Struggles of Canadian Women,
The third wave of Canadian feminism ... is closely tied to notions of anti-racism, anti-colonialsm, and anti-capitalism. The notion of a sisterhood among women prevalent in the second wave, is critiqued by third-wave feminists, who have perceived this seeming universalism to be dismissive of women's diverse experiences, and the ways that women can discriminate against and dominate one another.  

It wasn't until the 2000s when reality television turned a curious eye on fashion designers with Project Runway. Project Runway first appeared on the airways in 2004 and as the show gained popularity so did the interest in home sewing. Throw in the internet with tutorials and on-line courses and
sewing reinvents itself as a means of self-expression, creativity and camaraderie with like-minded souls.  And journalists have been turning a critical eye to the high cost of cheap fashion as many of our ready-to-wear items come with cheap prices and quality from an exploited workforce.     

Sewing has certainly changed over the decades. it is a mix bag of emotions that accompany my sewing journey and it makes me wonder, what's next?

Hopefully, a continued revival and changing attitudes.

Happy Sewing!


  1. Great post- many familiar moments!

  2. Wonderful post and sad as well hearing about your experiences. I was never that talented a sewist back then so didn't have the same ones but did drop sewing when clothes became cheap and easy to find in my price range. Now it's not about price or need, as you noted, but for me fit and creativity.


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