A History of Sewing

Yep, in 300 words or less, I’ll do a history of sewing here – and I’ve never made a mistake except once when I thought I did, but really didn’t!!!!

Ahem – and now back to the real world!!!

I’m not going to try a do a complete history here, but just the most recent, only because I lived through it (can’t believe I’m that old – I don’t feel that old)!

I know among the young sewists out there, there’s a waxing on and on about the beautiful days of the Mad Men Era.  And yes there were pretty fashions.  And yes, sex roles were more easily defined. And yes, things were easier – sorta!

But it was also a time right before a major shift in thinking.  When times like these occur, there is almost an exaggeration of the reason why there is change.  Look at the French Revolution when Marie Antoinette is to have said: “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche” (let them eat an enriched egg & butter type bread), showing her complete ignorance of the plight of the poor, as well as the condition of the country and it’s mood.  The exaggeration between the two was headed toward one thing – revolution.

For me, such was the case in the 50’s when sexual roles were so distinctly and severely defined that if you even dreamed of stepping out of them, you were immediately excommunicated from any sort of normal life and were reminded constantly of the error of your ways of thinking.

The pendulum had swung so harshly to the side of everyone must fit into this one mold:  Everyone had to be happy about their life; the woman worked at tasks that were not of her choice (they were the choice of society), and was always supposed to be happy about it; to be thankful that she was in the position and place she was in.  And if she wasn’t married, happy, happily cleaning, cooking and always there for the kids and her hubby, then there was something wrong with her, not society.  If the man didn’t fall into his own set of parameters, then he too was mixed up.  And if you were mixed up or not happy in your role in this society, you didn’t go seek help from a shrink, because that meant you were a latent killer or worse.

IOW, not only were these rules so severely put on all the roles in life, if you stepped out of them you were messed up; if you didn’t complete them and fit it, you were messed up;  if you wanted to do something else (no matter how beneficial or moral), you were messed up.

Within this restricted framework, there was an “underworld” that no one discussed, no one talked about and just about everything that wasn’t considered appropriate was then taboo or so bad that it just wasn’t even thought to exist.

No wonder we feel today that the world is full of such evil and immorality.  Compared to yester-year, it is.  But the truth is that it most likely existed then.  There were “refers” (folks who smoked marijuana), other sexual orientations and other lifestyles that were going on, it’s just it was not admitted or recognized – as if it weren’t talked about it would just go away.

As a result it came out in other ways.  If a woman was more dominate, aggressive and ambitious, then she ran the household, albeit in a very different way often undermining those around her, after all she couldn’t take the bull by the horns and go out and get a job in the business world like her husband, so she manifested her ambition through her husband.  The same is true of the male if he had an aptitude for home life and doing that sort of thing, he didn’t actually do it, he micro-managed the process or manifested it in other ways other than just doing the work around the home.

Those skills that were synonymous with the happy-homemaker, things like cooking, cleaning, sewing, staying at home, were considered appropriate skills and traits for women.  If you wanted to divert from that, you were considered anti-social at best, and subversive at worst.

There were many other examples of the restrictiveness of this time, including vocation choices, fulfillment of individual dreams even what you were allowed to study and the future role you were allowed to play.

This sort of life style is not even close to being healthy, and although on the outside all appeared to be really hunky-dory, it was anything but and as these social mores continued to exist and grow, they exacerbated the restrictiveness and oppressiveness of the system.

It was ripe for a revolution.

And that happened with the 60’s.

Art, fashion, music and finally lifestyles changed so dramatically it was as if a hot Coke bottle had been shook up and opened and it all spilled out too fast and furiously.

All revolutions are great when they start.  They are well-meaning and start with the most noblest of causes.  And the revolution of the 60’s and 70’s was just so.  It set out to free everyone, men and women from the binding mores of the past.  No more does a woman have to settle for a life prescribed by her mother, grandmother, great grandmother, etc.  She could break free and start her own company, work in a large corporation or do just about anything she wanted (within reason – no Bonnie & Clyde stuff!)

The same was true of men – if they wanted to find a career in a more womanly field, like cooking or raising children, they could.  Society even begin (with time) to accept these parameters, and pretty soon the boundaries between what was women’s work and men’s work blurred.  It left us with an unsettling and uncomfortable feeling.  It always does.

But society grew out of that – and like Noah Cross said in Chinatown: Politicians, ugly buildings, and old whores get respectable if they last long enough!  Even the most stalwart and extremist of revolutionaries of the 60’s and 70’s has not achieved some semblance of legitimacy.  Martin Luther King, at the time was considered  Anti-American, Twiggy was seen as some flippant whimsy that would pass after the initial buzz, Peter Max was a cartoonist not an artist and music…well, music had this jungle beat that was meant to do nothing but stir up feelings that should be left well enough alone!

We laugh when we read all this today, but at the time, this revolution was considered not only subversive but anti-American.  How could you be against motherhood, apple pie and the American Way!

From upper left clockwise: Bobby Seale (co-founder of Black Panthers Party), Angela Davis (Civil Rights Activist), Gloria Steinem and Twiggy

But time again does it’s trick even with the most outlandish of revolutions and makes even the scariest of personalities legitimate and main-stream.  And while these movements and revolutions become main-stream, that makes room for other revolutions and changes.

And that’s where I’m headed with this little ditty today….where and what is our next revolution.  I think we’ve seen a hint of it, in that what was prescribed as a “freedom” movement from the mores of the 50’s has now become a dictum.  It’s become all that’s offered and available for members of society to participate in.

What happens if you want to vary from that?

What happens if you want to search out a lifestyle that is not revolutionary but maybe even old-fashioned?

And that is why I think you see so much interest in kitsch and things of the 50’s.  Yes, we want the freedoms that were fought for and earned in the 60’s & 70’s, but we do not have to be limited by them.  Yes, we all love the freedom that we can have to choose vocations, lifestyles and preferences we want, but do we have to be limited to just those revolutionary views?

Can we choose past those views, maybe into something that would be considered passe by the revolutionaries, but being so passe now makes those very choices revolutionary?

Do we always have to be pressing the outside of the envelope to find our true fulfillment of life?

What happens if we would like to choose a more old-fashioned style of life?

Is that not acceptable?

What happens if we would like to take up sewing, something that was so demonized in the revolution of the 60’s and 70’s that it became synonymous with a dud of a blind date: “She’s great, shew sews all her own clothes,” and what followed was usually, “…and she has one leg and barks like a dog!”

What would happen if sewing became revolutionary?

What would happen if choosing to sew your own clothes became revolutionary?

I see that today.  More and more people are wanting to learn how to sew.  They come to me as much to express themselves individually (wanting to have more than the cookie-cutter selection of clothes available in stores), as they do to for wanting to participate in an experience that gives them pleasure and satisfaction.

Whereas sewing would have been considered a skill to provide necessities for the family before the 60’s, today it is considered more of an art form and a process.

And then there are those who know that they want to learn, but are just a little fearful of stepping into the water.  To those I say, dive in.  Not only is it refreshingly fun, it is indescribably fulfilling and satisfying.  There is no mystery, no secret organization that keeps the secrets of sewing guarded like the Masonic initiation rites. And most of all it is not impossible to learn.  And the feeling of accomplishing your first garment that you can wear, is so much fun and fulfilling that words belie description – they do for me.

I make sewing fun for my students and most of all, I make them nurture their own creative tendencies and expressions.

Sewing is revolutionary.

So go out there and create!!!

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