One of my readers, Mary from Oregon wrote to say:
” When someone admires something I have made, most times they will very sheepishly add: “I can’t sew. You are amazing. I should really learn…” They feel so horrible about themselves because they have never (up to now) produced a wearable garment. Why is that? When I find myself in conversation with a cheese-maker or a brick-layer I don’t feel bad about myself for not mastering those crafts. Why do women (it is usually women) feel so embarrassed that they can’t or don’t sew?
I am not sure about this one – an interesting question. What do you think?
I suppose the answer lies in women’s traditional role as mothers and housewives. Certainly, from what I have read, since the industrial revolution women have always done the domestic work – cleaning, making, washing and repairing clothes for the family; preparing, preserving and cooking food; and caring for children, alongside work that was close to home – looking after the animals or growing food, chopping wood, repairs and maintenance.
In modern society most of this work is specialised, socialised and commodified. Schooling, elder care, the provision of energy, food and clothing, is no longer in the hands of the household, but is generally bought in. Our food is processed (how many can brew beer or pluck a bird?) and most of our clothes are bought from shops. Women are alienated from some of the most basic roles they once assumed.
Freed from the burden of domestic drudgery, a result of large scale industrialisation, even the working classes found that they had leisure time. Now we spend our spare time cooking, looking after the family and the house, and buying things from shops, but we may have a little time left over for ourselves. No longer required to produce our own meals and garments, grow our own food or make our entertainment, some of us choose hobbies like cooking, dressmaking or allotment holding. As it is no longer necessary to fatten the pig for slaughter, nor to weave our own bed sheets, these tasks now becomes a pleasant pastime.
For the keen home dressmaker, constructing a blouse or jacket can take many hours. A factory can do it in minutes, but we take weeks (well I do!) to make something nice. This is not about economy. It may be about fit, style, non-exploitation, taste and preference. But essentially, it is a leisure activity.
As Mary notes there is nothing inherently good or bad about making your own clothes, or growing your own food. Being a really great cook, or a competent dressmaker takes time. I know I am still, compared to a professional, an absolute beginner, and learn every single day. The problem arises when people who enjoy these things, and become rather good at them, adopt a haughty, superior attitude. That sourdough loaf or a hand-knitted mohair jumper is seen as somehow morally superior to things bought from Marks & Spencers. Then rather than it being our pleasure and preference, sewing our own wardrobe becomes a matter of proving that you are a better person. Instead of spending hours watching The Sopranos, we spend hours basting two bits of fabric together. There is already too much competitive behaviour and envy in the world without allowing it to encroach on our sewing!
We dressmakers don’t have the high ground. We simply choose to spend our spare time on something that we enjoy. Others like to sail, or ride horses. Some like casinos and fine wines. Many people enjoy long healthy walks with a dog. And lots of us, often me included, feel so exhausted by work, kids and life that watching TV or going to bed early is the best we can do. We all need to be kinder to each other, and ourselves.