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Sewing revolution: A story stitched in history

Sewing revolution: A story stitched in history

Ashley Hunter
ECB Publishing, Inc.

Today, when you want a fresh look in your wardrobe, it’s only a matter of shopping at your local boutique or visiting a thrift store.
Clothing is easily found and bought – but there was a time when what you wore had to be sewn either by yourself, a family member or from a tailor or seamstress.

Sewing was painstaking too. For centuries, all sewing was done completely by hand, with needle and thread and no machine to help get the job done. Considering that most of the people who were sewing were women, and women had plenty of other household chores to keep them busy, sewing garments was less of a leisure and more similar to yet another task that needed to be completed.
But then, in 1853, the job of sewing became revolutionized when Isaac Singer, an American businessman and inventor, created the Singer Sewing Machine.

This new machine could make 900 stitches per minute, which was a significant increase over the roughly 40 stitches a minute that an accomplished seamstress could make by hand.

The time it took to make a garment was shortened drastically, but seamstresses who wanted the new invention paid dearly for the machine.

When the Singer Sewing Machine debuted, it cost roughly $10 (a little over $300 in modern USD) – which could be the same as a week’s worth of income (or more) for some families in the 1850s.

To make the machine more accessible to women, Singer offered purchasing plans that allowed buyers to make payments in installments.

Sewing was revolutionized with the sewing machine, but it would take another leap a year later when a milliner from New York created the first paper pattern in 1854.

Ellen Curtis Demorist introduced the concept of paper patterns and made the fashions of Europe accessible to the women of the United States.

It was thanks to Demorist’s patterns that French fashion began to flood the United States; no longer was a Europe-influenced wardrobe something that only the wealthy and elite could afford – with Demorist’s patterns, home-seamstresses could piece together their own French fashions.

Demorist’s idea of paper patterns was improved in 1863 when Ebenezer Butterick created the first sewing patterns that varied in sizes for different seamstresses.

As the world moved into the 1900s, fashion continued to become more accessible, but through department stores, rather than home sewing.

For several years, interest in sewing began to wane as shopping became an exciting part of growing a wardrobe – why sew your clothes, when the shops offered pre-made garments that could be worn immediately?

Sewing didn’t become an important part of maintaining a wardrobe until the Depression Era when women and families were encouraged to “Make do and mend to save from buying new.”

But rather than sewing new clothes and accessories, women put their skills to use by mending older dresses, pants and blouses.
Clothing began to feature more simple lines to conserve fabric and anything new became too expensive.

The thrill of creating new fashion wasn’t revived until the late 1940s after World War II had ended.

Fashion designer Christian Dior introduced a “New Look” for the women who were looking to revive their wardrobe from the plainness of the Depression and Wartime eras.

This new fashion featured a waspish waistline, a full skirt and yards of fabric – a luxury that women didn’t have in the 1930s-40s.
In the 1950s, interest in sewing and creating fashion exploded into what is now known as The Golden Age of Sewing.
Women shifted back into domestic pursuits after holding war-time jobs, and sewing was a way to fill in the hours they would have spent at work.

Fabric shops, printed patterns and pattern books of the latest fashions became hot-selling items and sewing once more became a crucial part of having an iconic fashion taste.
Sewing contests were also introduced, with some of the recorded contests promising thousands of prizes to the women who created clothing from patterns.

Creating clothing at home continued to attract the Modern American Woman in the 1960s, and in the 1970s, the fad of handcrafting continued.
In the 1980s, though, sewing as a hobby and necessity took a hit.

No longer was it necessary to sew your clothes, as department stores and malls were now on the scene, and the new generation of 1980s young people weren’t interested in sitting at a sewing machine.
In fact, wearing homemade clothing became less popular in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Therefore, sewing didn’t become an appreciated past time until the late 1990s, when a new generation of younger women began dusting off their mother and grandmother’s old sewing machines and digging out the vintage patterns.

A 1997 article from the New York Times wrote:
“Once, home sewing was perceived as so resolutely unmodern as to be an affront to the freedom of women. It was archaic, time-consuming and fraught with economic distinctions: the poor sewed, the rich bought. Today, nearly one-third of the country’s adult female population – more than 30 million women, mostly college-educated, between ages 24 and 54 – are revving up their sewing machines.”

While sewing is indeed an “unmodern” activity, it is also a time-tested and resolute activity that has been both a necessity as well as a hobby.

As the coronavirus epidemic of 2020 began to flare, sewing once again took a forefront in the minds of men and women alike – with masks becoming hard to find and plenty of people staying home from work and social functions, sewing machines were once more removed from dusty corners and closets.

Sewing may be ancient and time-consuming…but it has survived for generations of change, progress and varying interest. Sewing as a hobby and necessity is likely not something that will fade easily into history.