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Why I Hated Sewing

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?


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









The price of fabric and other values

Oh that’ll be just perfect, I said to myself as my eyes came to rest on a bolt of blue Phillip Jacobs fabric. This was ‘the one’ for my August Rain quilt, the perfect backing fabric. The colours would complement the front and, I don’t know, I could just imagine these petunias after some summer rain.

Backing fabric

Phillip Jacobs, Petunias

I took it to the counter to have a length cut and the sales assistant warily asked “you do know this is £16.00 a metre?” (That’s $25+ USD). I was expecting it to be £12.00 (which in itself is a hefty price tag, but not unusual these days). “It’s a Kaffe Fassett.” Well, no actually, it’s a Phillip Jacobs. I roughly calculated that I would need four metres (due to the width): £64.00 ($102+ USD) for a lap quilt. For the back. Maybe I could get away with 3.5 meters? Ok, so that’s, what £56.00 ($90 USD)? For the back. I stared in disbelief, having seen only yesterday that someone on Facebook had picked up 7.5 yards of Kaffe Fassett Aboriginal Dot in a sale for $2.99 a yard (£1.86) in the US. I think it’s fair to say that would never happen here. I really would love to know why fabric sold in this country, that’s made in the far east, costs such ridiculously high prices, when clothing, made in the same part of the world, can be so cheap? That’s clothing. Fabric that’s already been cut up and stitched back together again. As opposed to fabric. Which hasn’t. It’s actually more expensive to make your own clothes than it is to buy them. Which is downright bloody ridiculous.  Who’s making the money? And at who’s expense?

I bought half a metre. My August Rain quilt is made of scraps: waste not want not, make do and mend. I would make do with half a metre of the perfect fabric and find a creative way of piecing it with something perhaps less perfect, but most definitely more affordable.  I’m going away next week and I plan to take it with me to hand quilt in the evenings. I’m really looking forward to getting it under way and by the time I finish the quilting I might’ve saved enough pennies to buy the perfect fabric for the binding instead. I still came out of the shop smiling, half a metre of a lovely fabric is better than none at all. That sorted I had some time to spare as I waited for my son to arrive in town after college. He needs to buy a new jumper.

That reminds me (don’t ask me why!), I need a new bag. I haven’t bought a new bag for well over a decade and I’m getting a tad fed up carrying around the massive (but lovely – it’s orange!) laptop bag that Kim and his dad gave me for my first mother’s day 16 years ago (and I don’t want to completely wear it out either.) I want something small, robust and relatively waterproof. I find something I like, make sure everything I need fits in (it’s pretty small), buy it and take it home. Kim decides he’s not coming in to town after all.

I’m still smiling when I get back. Until that is I realise I’d forgotten to try the bag with my glasses in and that when they’re in a  hard case they won’t fit in with everything else. There’s nothing like getting to ‘a certain age’ and needing reading glasses to remind you that you’re a ‘certain age’. They drive me nuts. Having got this far down the road I was used to not wearing them, so now I have nothing but trouble remembering I actually need the things. And I can never find them when I do. The evening’s agenda suddenly changed. I gave myself a couple of hours to make a soft, quilted case that would easily fit in to the new bag. And was bright enough that I could see it a mile off.

Red quilted glasses case 2104. © Stephanie Boon, www.DawnChorusStudio.com

New glasses case. It’s bright! (And this *is* Kaffe Fassett fabric.)

I am ridiculously pleased with the results. Disproportionately pleased for something that was quick and simple to make and is as utilitarian as a glasses case. Little things please little minds, so they say.

I’ve also been cutting up more shirtings for the Ocean Waves blocks I mentioned yesterday. The train journey to Norfolk at the weekend will be a long one and piecing some of these should pass the time productively. I love the rhythm these blocks create, even though I’ve got one of them upside down in the (terrible) photo.  I suspect that when I come to stitch the blocks together I’ll be doing plenty of ripping out!

Ocean Waves patchwork blocks, © Stephanie Boon, 2014 www.DawnChorusStudio.com

Riding the waves

This quilt will eventually be for my son, Kim, although it’ll probably be a couple more years in the making yet. Can you imagine saying that to some people, “a couple of years to make”. It’s just so against the ‘now, now, now’ culture this society promulgates (I think it’s even evident in quilt making). I would love it if more people found the deep satisfaction that can be had in ‘slow stitching’, making something by hand, for yourself; it gives so much more meaning to the word ‘value’ (and of course that doesn’t just apply to sewing). Value becomes about time and process, intention – which is significantly more than it’s monetary worth. I’m already thinking about what I want to quilt in those white squares, something to do with the sea, with Cornwall perhaps, so that wherever Kim ends up in the world, he’ll have something to remind him of home.

To me that’s where real value lies.


If you’d like to see some completed Ocean Waves quilts for ideas and inspiration I highly recommend these:

  • Ocean Waves Quilts Pinterest board by Jean Hortado includes modern, antique and vintage interpretations
  • Great book with a crib quilt Ocean Waves pattern

Well that’s me about finished for the day, what have you been working on, I’d love to come over to your place and find out 🙂 Linking up with Work In Progress Wednesday at Freshly Pieced (link in the sidebar on the right) – some festive Fair Isle inspired quilting going on over there this week!
Happy quilting lovely friends

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