Fashioning Yourself: a story of home sewing

National Women’s History Museum

A history of fabrics, colors, and trims reflecting a century of women's interpretations of style. 

A History of Home Sewing
Fashion is more than just clothing. It's a form of self expression. Choices in clothing, style, and accessories express the wearer's personality and sense of self. Fashion choices place one within a cultural context as an insider, outsider, or outlier.

Affordability and Availability

Fashion magazines, catalogs, and department stores brought fashion awareness in the 19th century to increasingly larger audiences up and down the economic ladder. Innovations like the sewing machine, paper patterns, and factory-produced textiles made fashion ever more affordable. By the turn of the 20th century, fashion as a lifestyle choice permeated American culture. Technology democratized fashion.

The technologies that created new markets for fashion enabled clever, creative women to design and construct fashionable wardrobe items at home. Sewing ephemera shows the rich history of home sewing.

Making fashionable clothing at home allowed women to express their fashion ideas. Choices of fabrics, colors, and trims reflected their interpretations of style. Home sewing enabled women to suit themselves.

Mass Production

19th century Americans looked to Paris for fashion, which was, even then, the world's fashion epicenter. Capitalizing on technological innovations in printing and distribution, fashion magazines communicated the latest trends.

The mid-19th century invention of paper patterns revolutionized fashion. Suddenly, fashions could be copied precisely. Dressmakers used them to execute the latest looks for well-off clients. Or, for less money, dressmakers could be engaged to cut out the pieces to be sewn at home.

Mass-produced men's clothing became widely available following the Civil War. Women's fashionable clothing remained in custom production through the end of the century, crafted by professional dressmakers and by home sewers as well.

While the sewing machine was invented before the Civil War, it was not until afterwards that manufacturers produced lighter domestic versions. Companies pursued middle-class housewives as buyers, assuring them that new technology would lighten their housekeeping burdens

Changing Roles Changing Fashion

Women's changing roles changed fashion. The shirtwaist blouse became popular at the turn of the century. Modeled on menswear, it was a stylish and practical addition to both working and professional women's wardrobes.

It became symbolic of a new kind of Progressive Era woman: one who worked and was self-supporting.

The shirtwaist lent itself to mass production. At its height of popularity, more than 450 factories employed 40,000 garment workers to sew shirtwaists. It was among the first ready-to-wear garments produced for women.

Even as women's ready-to-wear hit the market, women continued to sew at home. Store-bought clothing was more expensive than the equivalent fabrics and notions. The hours of sewing time weren't factored into the cost.

Individualization

The emerging paraprofessional workforce of clerks and office assistants often found themselves clothing poor. Like the department store clerks below, their jobs required a professional wardrobe. But many lacked time to sew their own. Meager wages left them chronically short on cash to invest in high quality, ready-made garments. Consequently, they cycled through disposable, fast fashion.

The predominantly Jewish garment workers of New York's Lower East Side developed a reputation for flashy interpretations of current styles. The "wide sidewalks show[ed] more fashion to the square foot on Sunday than any other part of the city," according to the New York Tribune. Skilled professional sewers, they collected scraps, purchased cheap fabric from pushcart vendors, and "Americanized" themselves through fashion.

Upwardly mobile African American women girded themselves with fashion. Spelman College's dress code required that skirts not "be too short or too narrow, and necks to be high enough to avoid any appearance of immodesty." Dress expressed character. Home sewing skills produced eminently respectable wardrobes.

From the Home

At the turn of the century, most women--of all social classes--knew how to sew, having learned from their mothers.

To the Classroom

New educational opportunities for women emerged in the late 19th century. The field of Home Economics developed to teach women the science of housekeeping. Iowa State College offered the first Home Economics curriculum in 1871, which included cooking and sewing.

The curriculum at industrial schools, such as Hampton Institute in Virginia, trained students in sewing and cooking to prepare them for jobs as seamstresses and maids.

By 1938-39 more than 90% of schools in cities and town with populations of 2,500 or more had Home Ec programs. Of those schools, 90% required it for seventh and eighth grade girls and over 50% for high school.

Sewing Simplified

The simplified silhouettes of the 1920s reduced the cost of manufactured clothing. An increasing number of women in the workforce decided that purchasing ready-made was easier than making at home. Marketing changed to emphasize the non-economic benefits of sewing at home, especially the higher quality and better fit of home sewn clothes.

Hollywood boosted American fashion through the signature looks created for the glamorous stars of the 1920s and 30s by studio designers. Women eagerly copied styles popularized by their favorite stars, like Joan Crawford below, reenergizing home sewing.

Making Do

World War II brought a pause to home sewing. Sewing machine factories retooled for war production, and fabrics became scarce as supplies were redirected towards the military. Some women patriotically donated their old machines to scrap iron drives, like the one below.

Government campaigns encouraged women to remake, mend, and make do. Fashion embraced styles that used the least amount of fabric. The woman below demonstrates how to cut a dress using minimal material.

Fitting In

A post-war shift towards conformity emphasized the importance for women to socialize and fit in. Popular media further encouraged a vision of the American woman's ideal lifestyle characterized by the need for an extensive wardrobe. The right kinds of clothing were critical to social acceptance.

Shifting Markets

Sewing marketing in the 40s and 50s identified a new consumer: the American teenage girl. Starting in 1946, Singer—the country's largest sewing machine manufacturer—ran a 20-year campaign offering the Singer Teen-Age Sewing course to girls aged 12 to 17. Advertising sold home sewing as the creative, cost-effective pathway to a wardrobe sure to ensure a busy social calendar and snag the ideal boyfriend.

Home sewing reached its high point in 1958. Increased leisure time, on-going sewing instruction in schools, and culture encouraged sewing as a hobby.

Aprons, like this one, were a common first Home Economics project.

Pattern companies stayed up to date in the 1950s with fashion, recognizing that customers primarily sewed for pleasure and self-expression.

Homemade fashion followed all of the popular trends, which continued to be dominated by Hollywood and celebrities.

Going Out

The 1970s saw a steep decline in home sewing. Pattern and sewing companies stressed individuality and original fashions at a reduced price to entice customers.

But they were fighting a losing battle for women's precious leisure hours. As women controlled more of their own incomes, shopping became a recreational outlet rather than a chore.

As more and more entered the professional workforce, making clothing was seen as an uneconomic use of time.

New Hobby

By the 1980s, commercial clothing production had migrated to countries with lower labor costs. The cost of sewing a garment at home in 1985 was higher than purchasing one ready-made in a store.

Sewing became a leisure activity. Whereas in the 1920s, the majority of women who sewed did so to save money. In the 1980s, middle and high-income women sewed more often than low-income women.

Today, arts and crafts—including sewing—remains a popular hobby for women. The DIY and handmade movements encourage young girls to learn handiwork skills.

Home sewing has experienced a recent resurgence, especially among professional women—and men—motivated by quality, originality, and fit. Domestic sewing machine sales topped 3 million in 2012. Venerable McCall's continues to issue 700 new patterns a year under four imprints.

Home sewn fashion remains an American tradition.

Credits: Story

National Women's History Museum

Director of Program - Elizabeth L. Maurer
Program Manager - Jeanette Patrick

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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