When I was younger, I attended a sewing camp where I was taught the basics of sewing techniques. Each summer, while other kids went away for weeks of roughing it in tents and cabins, and chowing down on classic campfire fare after long days of physical activity, I would pack my pattern and fabric and gear up for a week of non traditional camp complete with sewing lessons and a fashion show to flaunt what we had made.
I attended this camp for more than five years until I aged out. After my camp years were through, I quickly turned my back on the skills I had acquired, proclaiming that it was a stupid and childish hobby. I was embarrassed to tell people about my time at camp, and I would make jokes about it to compensate for what I feared others would perceive as a lame way to spend my summers.
Then last Christmas, I was gifted a top of the line sewing machine, and after years of not going near a needle and thread, I decided to put it to use. It was a decision born more out of necessity than any true desire. I had pants that needed hemming, tears that needed mending, and a few items that needed taking in. But as I've begun to renew by sewing skills, I've also started to challenge some of the assumptions I realize I was unconsciously making about the craft of sewing.
I associated sewing with the ultra-feminine, which automatically made it unfeminist in my eyes. And my assumption reflects a larger cultural clash between domestic culture and feminism, that has largely remained unresolved. As a society we’ve discarded the home-ec activities of the past for being associated with an ultra-feminine and repressed version of what it means to be a woman. I get that; once it was more common to see a woman at home taking care of children and keeping house by cooking, cleaning, and sewing. Sewing was considered a woman’s work; if mothers weren’t making their children’s clothing, they were mending. According to my grandmothers who were raised into womanhood during this period, it’s just how things were done.
As women moved into the workforce, these domestic duties began to be shed, and for better or for worse, we have left these skills behind. Australian author Germaine Greer, a leader in the second-wave feminist movement, summed up the cultural attitude toward traditionally “women’s work” when she infamously said, “Women have frittered their lives away stitching things for which there is no demand.” The problem is, Greer is making an assumption based on a stereotype; that women sew because we have to, because it's women’s work, and not because we want too.
But it’s wrong to assume that all pre-feminist-movement activities are regressive. Sewing provides choices (even if just about what to wear) rather than having to conform to others’ choices—a key cornerstone to the feminist movement. What could be more feminist than choosing an activity that allows me to have control and power?
Dr. Jessica Bain, a professor in media and communications at the University of Leicester, has explored this concept in an article (perfectly titled, “Darn right I'm a feminist…Sew what? The politics of contemporary home dressmaking: Sewing, slow fashion, and feminism”). Bain notes how Western culture has experienced a recently revived interest in domestic activities such as sewing, knitting, and cooking. This has made many reconsider the feminist rejection of these activities and has compelled many to “explore new ways of thinking about the role of domesticity in social, economic and cultural life that neither simply condemn domesticity as a site of oppression and boredom nor simply celebrate domesticity as an expression of feminine virtue.”
Bain further explores how sewing may always have been a predominantly feminist activity. She points out that working class women found sewing to be empowering as it allowed them to “transcend” class lines and to stand as equals with women of a higher social status.
Bain’s findings ring true to me today as well. This past year, sewing has given me an opportunity to take control, to fix what was broken, and to have a skill that doesn't render me helpless. It may be a small victory, but it’s valuable. Instead of throwing something away because it's ripped, I can salvage it and practice more sustainable living. This is also my contribution to the slow fashion movement, which at its core is about equal and humane treatment for workers—another principle key to gender equality and feminism.
Currently, I am rebuilding my skill and working toward being able to use my own patterns and designs. My hope is to explore greater self expression as I cultivate my image with intention.
I now love sewing. I feel as if I am taking back a skill and a truly relaxing hobby. Gone are the stereotypes of repressed women sitting hunched over their sewing waiting for the men to come home—whether I am mending something that is torn, or sewing an item of clothing to my own specifications, I do so proudly.