, ,

Why I Hated Sewing

Man Sewing? Nope, this is a 1977 women's patchwork waistcoat from a BBC beginners patchwork publication.

Man Sewing

We all know by now that ‘man sewing’ gets on my tits (as opposed to the sewing and quilting the rest of us (with aforementioned appendages) do).

It’s International Women’s Day, so naturally the topic of man sewing/men quilting has been on my mind again. But let me be clear right from the start, it’s not men that sew or men that quilt that get on my nerves, far from it, it’s the appropriation and masculinisation of sewing and quilting to make it acceptable to other men (and some women) that gets my blood boiling. Man sewing? What a load of…tosh!

(If you’re a new reader, you might enjoy the post ‘Luke Haynes, Quilter: That Gender Question‘ – there’s some good discussion in the comments about ‘man sewing’ and gender and quilting in general.)

A Short Story for International Women’s Day

I mentioned in my newsletter that I’d publish a story today, for International Women’s Day. I’m going to tell you why I hated sewing, why I could barely bring myself to admit that I sewed anything at all. It’s why ‘man sewing’ drives me nuts.

Why I Hated Sewing

A hollow intermittent noise vibrates through the chipboard floor to the room below, the ‘front room’ as the family call it. The noise is coming from my mother’s bedroom. If you go up and look through the door, as I often did when I came in from school, she’d have her back to you, barely noticing you’re there. She’s sitting facing a wall, head bent at a cold, stark grey machine: it has all her attention. She’s surrounded by cheap white nylon lace in organised piles that she’s chain piecing. Eventually she’ll sew them together to make over-the-top frilly dresses for little girls. Old fashioned Shirley Temple affairs. It’s piecework and she’s paid a pittance for the number of pieces she makes. A man turns up on dark winter evenings with black bin bags filled with more little bits. He hands my mum some cash and she gives him the black bags she’s filled with her hours of work. They make a few jokes and smile, then he heads off into the dark again. I don’t like the idea of a stranger being in my mum’s bedroom.

I grew up in a working class home where making ends meet was difficult. I remember my stepdad  having periods of unemployment and I imagine the money my mum earned helped them get by. But not much more. The first and only job she’d had outside of the home, soon after she left school at 14 and a good few years before I was born, was in a factory where she sat with other women on grey machines piecing away who knows what. I remember other times when my mum sewed for the home; curtains, a patchwork for my brother’s bed, made from the scraps of her piecework.

I hated it: sewing for a living represented drudgery to me. I never wanted to wake up and have to look at an industrial sewing machine in my bedroom. The trouble was, I was good at it. Before my teenage years I was learning to make my own clothes at school and my mum helped me to use a domestic sewing machine at home. As I became a teenager I learned to design my own clothes and cut patterns. I loved the creativity of it, the fact that I could wear clothes that no-one else had. I made some weird stuff, but I was often complimented too. My school teachers were keen for me to study fashion design but I resisted with the stubbornness a mule would be proud of, determined I wouldn’t end up like my mother. And, there was another factor I was becoming acutely aware of: sewing was ‘women’s work’, domestic, demeaning and vilified. Worthless. Publicly admitting I enjoyed sewing made me feel worthless. And it wasn’t just men that I felt belittled by, some women made me feel I should be doing something more worthy too, whatever that was. These were women I was coming to hold in high esteem: second wave feminists demanding equality. The domestic was eschewed and sewing for money was something poor women did in crap conditions for next to nothing. But there didn’t seem to be any move to change attitudes to that.

I left home soon after my 19th birthday and went off to study an undergraduate degree in fine art, 250 miles away. I loved art with a passion; creative expression was (and still is) everything. And I got to use my brain. The probability of sewing frilly dresses for the rest of my life felt like a million miles away. But people began to notice my clothes, asked me where I got them. You could pick out an art student around the small town with no trouble at all. We were a tribe, a subculture coming out after dark in our DM’s and charity shop clothes, which no-one else would ever wear. It seemed odd to me that a few other students were even remotely interested in what I was wearing. They asked me to design and sew them things too, made to measure skirts, a coat, trousers. I said no at first, but caved in with the badgering. After a while I was seriously fed up with it: making clothes for others took any pleasure out of making my own clothes and had become the drudgery I was desperate to avoid. People constantly nagged me to hurry up, to change this or that. And for what? A bag of sweets or a bottle of wine. Because that’s all my hours of time and skills were worth. Nothing but a glib word of appreciation and a cursory trip to the supermarket. This is what ‘woman’s work’ was worth. And I vowed it was not the sort of work I’d ever do again.

I picked up patchwork again when I was about 21, after a few experiments I made as I was growing up at home. This was private sewing, something I could do at home that no-one would see and no-one could make me feel worthless for enjoying. I made small things, cushions mostly, on an old hand-cranked machine. I loved tiny strips of Liberty fabrics in traditional log-cabin designs, that eventually became threadbare from constant use. I tried my hand at English paper piecing and loved hand stitching. I did embroidery and experimented with textile art, I had a go at knitting lace. I went on an embroidery course. Around that time I bought an old second-hand BBC book on patchwork (from 1977), produced after a tv series, and I’ve still got it now. I have fond memories of trying out the patterns – and laughing at some of the frankly ludicrous things you could make with them. I’d be absorbed for hours in my own private world.

Man Sewing? Nope, this is a 1977 women's patchwork waistcoat from a BBC beginners patchwork publication.

One of the ludicrous things I decided I’d never make in a million years!

As the years went by I taught myself to make things for home, designing hand stitched, thickly lined curtains and blinds and yes, more cushions! I made myself clothes from time to time, but any pleasure I’d got from it had long since gone.  I was slowly drawn back to patchwork, one of my first textile loves, and today, thanks to the internet, I’ve found a community of like-minded people where I feel at home. I feel valued here and began to feel that what I do is valued too.

Not much more than a year or so ago, someone asked me the usual “what do you do?” question. I replied “patchwork and quilting” and then described a few of the things I was working on, this blog and the many talented people I’ve met here. He looked at me with disdain and said in a voice laden thick with sarcasm “well I suppose we need more cushions in the world”. This man, only in his 30’s, is a primary school teacher. This man is entrusted with nurturing young people’s sense of self-worth through education. Lots of young people. Class after class, year after year. And this man and his sexist, demeaning attitude is fairly typical. Decades after I made my sewing and quilting activities a private affair, one comment from one crass individual could still crush me to an inch high. But I decided to revel in the ‘feminine’, I believe in it and I own it. It’s mine and yours. It has a long and valid history and it’s with a needle and thread that we can and have expressed ourselves despite of, or because of, limited, controlling attitudes like these. This is why Luke Hayne’s asinine ‘gender issue’ and ‘man sewing’ gets my back up. This is why International Women’s Day is important. With attitudes like this, fair and equal pay for people in traditionally female roles will never be achieved. This is why women’s labour is exploited across the world. This is why we have to celebrate the feminine as well as the female, because the feminine persists, it’s tenacious despite being actively pilloried in patriarchal societies, by people of both genders. It’s why I don’t like the ‘I’m hiding my fabric purchase from my husband‘ jokes: they just perpetuate the idea that the feminine should be behind closed doors, and controlled by men.

Not funny, sexist joke about quilting and housework - "Sure, bring the family over! Barb's working on a quilt so you'll want to bring your own food and dishes...and a folding table if you have one.'

Because Barb (presumably his wife) is obviously meant to do the cooking and washing up…which is obviously beneath him.

Some people laugh these ‘jokes’ off as ‘just a bit of lighthearted fun’, that’s up to them, but we all know that what lurks behind the smiles of some is the knowing smirk of others. And so, I’ve made up my mind, I’m never going to feel belittled for doing something perceived as feminine ever again. And ‘man sewing’ can do one.

Have you ever felt belittled by someone because you sew or quilt? What did you do about it?

#pledgeforparity.

Signature: Stephie © Stephanie Boon, 2015 www.DawnchorusStudio.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

16 replies
  1. Patti
    Patti says:

    I NEVER feel belittled by my sewing. I’m in my late 50s and have done some kind of sewing/quilting/costume making since the early 70s. It’s my creative expression put to use by others – a way to leave my mark on the world creatively. I’ve made costumes for the local ballet and my kids – I’ve made clothes and now I’m making quilts – lots of quilts, the kind that you see little kids cuddling under, the kind that people use while relaxing – all part of bringing my art to daily life. I can say I do it for others but I really do it mostly for ME. It’s only belittling if you choose it to be.

    Reply
    • Stephie
      Stephie says:

      Hi Patti, thanks for your comment. It’s great to hear your positive experiences. I don’t belittle what I do myself, but I have been belittled by others on lots of occasions (for sewing) and your last sentence really hit a nerve: “It’s only belittling if you choose it to be”. Well, I’m definitely choosing not feel belittled by those sort of people and their comments anymore! I don’t know about you, but I’ve never really had friends that sew (other than my mum, as I mentioned). With no peers and zero self-confidence perhaps it was easier for me to retreat than stand up to such entrenched attitudes? Meeting people like you on line has really helped me gain confidence to say, ‘Yes, I sew, and?’. The online quilting community and sense of belonging probably does more for people like me than most individuals inside it could imagine! What do you think of it? I’d love to hear! Thanks so much for reading and joining in 🙂

      Reply
      • Patti
        Patti says:

        Thanks for your reply Stephie. My mom made all my dresses when I grew up – she had one pattern and I had about twenty dresses with different fabric. She also made blouses for herself, curtains, pillows, etc. she made the dress and coat she wore to my wedding. She was all self taught. Once I grew up it made me laugh because she would buy a pattern and use maybe half the pieces. She never pinned the patterns (she laid knives on top to hold the pattern pieces down lol). I wanted to sew like her but she did her own thing. Once I got into home ec class and had to use a pattern and do annoying things like “stay stitch” I did horrible. I was never cut out to be one of those people that followed the sewing rules lol. When I was newly married I was obsessed with quilting but back in the mid 70s it was all about little pieces all fitting together. I was so thrilled to have taken several workshops with Eleanor Burns back when she was starting out (now she’s mainstream but back then it was so daring to rip fabric by the grain and toss it in the air!!!) I got into costume making when my kids were little and did some for the local ballet company (again, rewarding creativity – I remember making some headpieces out of electrical wire and strands of old Mardi Gras beads) and they were worn in a production of Romeo and Juliet). Fast forward and now I’m a modern quilter. The last several quilts I’ve made have been totally improvised. I don’t worry about competing with anybody because it’s all about how I feel when I’m creating. I’m so blessed to belong to a modern quilt guild and it’s empowering to stand in front of your guild mates and have them ooo and aaahh over your creation. I have taught a few workshops and it’s so exciting to see people get out of their comfort zones and blossom and just CREATE. I’m just too busy enjoying myself to worry about what anybody else thinks.

        Reply
  2. Abigail @ cut&alter
    Abigail @ cut&alter says:

    This was such an interesting read. Hearing what the teacher said really makes you think – as you say hundreds of children will come into contact with that kind of attitude over the years …… makes me glad we Home Ed!!!

    Reply
    • Stephie
      Stephie says:

      Hi Abigail! You’re so much braver than me – Home Ed and my maths ability would equal certain disaster, haha! I think teachers have a huge impact on our self-esteem, especially if we’re not getting much validation at home. Education should be more than learning facts; what about empathy, compassion, understanding…if you can’t show those qualities yourself, how on earth are you going to teach them to others? I’m impressed by anyone that has the confidence to go for home ed, it must be a wonderful way to learn. I would have felt so out of my depth, did you ever feel daunted by it?

      Reply
  3. Lynne
    Lynne says:

    Oh boy do I ever agree with you. Mind you one thing I do like now that I didn’t when I was young is homemade clothes. I remember being teased for the homemade summer school dress, and school jumpers but shop bought and anything that wasn’t a hand me down was a luxury and mum was a brilliant seamstress, handknitter and machine knitter. In fact I’m tempted to buy a knitting machine and table I saw in a charity shop today to give it a go as now I would love to have the wonderful garments my mum made our family with love.
    Of course now I look forward to sewing one of a kind clothes (if I ever find time I don’t know how I had time to work as I’m always so busy now as a full time NANA!! 😀 )! Someone has already asked if I’ll make clothes for them and part of me dreads the idea as it sounds like work not fun!! 🙁
    This girl just wants to have sewing fun!! 😀

    Reply
    • Stephie
      Stephie says:

      Ah Lynne, I know what you mean – we learn to appreciate our mothers’ efforts so much more as we grow older!!! My mum didn’t really sew us clothes (perhaps she’d just had enough of doing it all day?), but she knitted like a demon and I was always loved the jumpers she made me. I was still asking her to knit for me into my mid 20’s – she could never teach me as she’s left handed and I’m right handed (although I suspect it’s because she just didn’t have the patience ha!). So, did you go and get the knitting machine???

      Reply
  4. Ann Symes
    Ann Symes says:

    I rebelled too in my own way and chose Industrial Arts rather than the traditional sewing & cooking that girls were expected to do. I’m at a spot on my life where I don’t much care what others say about my choice to make quilts and to make a little $ from the effort. My grand daughters and grandsons are welcome in my sewing room to see what I’m working on and they could just as easy catch Grandma out on the tractor or using the tools in the shop. Gender issues are real & the only way to change them is by our actions.

    Reply
    • Kat Scott
      Kat Scott says:

      Ann I totally agree… Gender issues and slams can be very insidious. I have learned to take note of the comments I bristle at and examine them carefully.

      Reply
  5. Kate Heads
    Kate Heads says:

    A very thought provoking post. We are all the product of our past experiences, good or bad. Like many others my Mother made most of my dresses as a child and knit my jumpers and cardigans too and those of my sister. I always wanted to sew and knit well, but with four children she never had time to teach me. But sewing has always been in my blood, my great grandparents were tailors and although I never sewed seriously I always sewed or knit something, baby clothes, embroidery, cross stitch, whatever, until 10 years ago when I did a patchwork class. For me it is my relaxation, my stress relief, the thing I turn to in bad times.
    Attitudes to sewing have not changed for centuries, it has always been badly paid and demeaning work for those who relied on it for their living. To me there is no difference at all between women who sew and men who sew, we are all just people and we all sew because we enjoy it. Men who sew are not special, they don’t deserve special exhibitions, unless of course they are afraid to compete with women on a level playing field.

    Reply
  6. Ann
    Ann says:

    Other than my grandmother, I was the only person I knew who sewed and quilted. I definitely kept it under wraps. In fact, I broke up with a boyfriend rather than mend the pockets of his pants. Funny. I’d forgotten that.

    Reply
  7. Sarah
    Sarah says:

    What a thoughtful article; you’ve given me lots to mull over! I usually get the opposite reaction when I sew, actually, women saying how they wish they could make things like I do but they can’t (that is the one that gets my blood hot, that female self depreciation), how they never feel feminine and like a real woman because they don’t know how to sew, etc. Which, come to think of it, causes the same frustration within me. I do not sew or create because I am female, I sew and create because it’s as vital as breathing to me, because it’s something I can do with flair and confidence and it is one of the tools I have to create magic and beauty and love and comfort and help and sanity, and mostly just because I can’t help myself, I love color and fabric so much!!!! I am feminine, I am a female, but how that relates to my sewing I have no idea — I guess my sewing is feminine because I am and it’s an expression of me. I grew up in a family where handmade things were expected and valued from and by everyone, regardless of gender; they were gifts, and kept and used and treasured. I also do not do sewing “jobs” for people — I do not ever make clothing for anyone but myself, except for my young children on rare occasions. I tell people that I do not sew for money — then I am free to choose what I create, and who I create it for. I do mend for others, but not for everyone who asks, only those I want to mend for; an elderly, poor gentleman who’s wife is ill and he’s taking care of her day and night… I hem his trousers and sit talking with his wife, all the while being apologized to for being imposed on — that is a joy to me. Taking in a satin and chiffon dress 1/4 of an inch for a skinny 20 something who thinks it makes her look fat — that I don’t do. 🙂 Making quilts for people who ask; that I also don’t do — I refer them to the Amish quilt shops nearby — I’ve never encountered a requester who would be willing to pay what a hand made quilt is worth — for the time and money, yes, but also for a large chunk of the heart and soul of ME that went into making it.

    Reply
  8. Bossymamma
    Bossymamma says:

    A really interesting read, Stephie. I have been sitting here reflecting on my own self esteem issues since reading it and have realised some surprising things. Thank you.

    Reply
  9. Karen Goad
    Karen Goad says:

    I never hated sewing but I have never understood why so many people underrate it. When I was a teen I made my own clothes – large family, little money one took apart some old clothing to make a new item from it – i still remember taking apart a very large old fashioned pleated navy blue skirt and making a pair a pants from it. Made baby clothes for my children then I went on to quilts. If someone asks “what do you do” indicating a profession I tell them I make hand quilted quilts, sometimes designing them and sometimes using patterns already made and I almost always get the reply “really!” like how astounding – people really do that kind thing still.

    That said yes sometimes I have felt belittled, you tell someone what you do and they kind of give a little snicker or weird strange look “oh you sew?” like what is that? But then they might ask you can you make a quilt for me and I tell them not for free – and tell them how long it takes and how much it might cost for my time and fabric – they then get a better appreciation – after all does one ask a painter to make them a free drawing or painting – you expect to pay an artist which is what a quilter is – just an artist of a different medium.

    I do not and have never thought I would make a living from quilting – I quilt because I love it and it keeps me happy. I have never done deadlines – that gives quilting stress in my mind and I do it because I enjoy it – I sell when I want to and if I can – never really getting what it is worth but in my area of the country people could not pay that so I make sure I get enough to cover expenses and then some more on top for my time – just because I want to have some extra money to buy something in particular for the sewing room or more fabric. I do not hide my fabric from my husband and those jokes you mention are very strange in my mind – I can never imagine hiding my fabric all over the house so he doesn’t see it – it is on the shelves and used as I need it

    Reply
  10. Kaja
    Kaja says:

    A great, thought-provoking post. Like you I don’t really know other people who do this and sometimes wonder if I would feel different about things if I lived in the US and could belong to groups of other like-minded people – more mainstream maybe.

    Reply
    • Stephie
      Stephie says:

      It’s strange looking at quilters in the US sometimes, the sense of community is obviously really strong there even without access to the internet. What we do and don’t value has a lot to do with culture and the culture around quilting here in the UK is non existent really (in my experience of it anyway).

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

I'd just like to say...