I’m a third generation home sewist.[i] My grandmother lived through the Great Depression and the Second World War—the height of the make do and mend movement—and made clothes for herself and her family with such skill that they were indistinguishable from store-bought items yet came at a fraction of the cost. My mother started sewing in 1970 at age 11 when it became clear that the family’s clothing budget couldn’t possibly keep up with her desire to dress like Goldie Hawn on Laugh In. My mom remembers her first project vividly: After choosing a pattern (a shift dress with short sleeves and a Peter Pan collar) she laid out the paper pattern pieces and cut the fabric—the dress was made from fabric salvaged from the skirt of one of my grandma’s old dresses—and then sewed the pieces together, though she had to pick out the side seam and re-sew it eleven times before it was straight. In the end, though, she got the Goldie Hawn dress of her dreams and the skills to have a wardrobe of fashion-forward clothes at a fraction of the cost of store-bought. My mother, like countless women, since the sewing machine first emerged for sale over a hundred years before, sewed her own clothes so that she could participate in and gain entry into a consumer fashion market that was beyond her financial means.
The desire for fashionable clothes that were otherwise prohibitively expensive was a significant motivation for home sewing from its inception in the 1860s and 70s until the early 1990s when foreign manufacturing made ready-to-wear fashion dramatically cheaper. When I started sewing in the early 2000s, the pastime was thoroughly passé, but this has changed in recent years as sewing has experienced a resurgence. This resurgence, however, comes with a major shift; home sewing appears to be characterized less by women wanting into the consumer fashion market and more about opting out.
Using fashion as an expression of class and individual taste is nothing new. Continue reading