National sewing month encourages to keep sewing alive as a hobby for making your own clothes and a cheap way to alter or repair clothing. This post gives a brief review on the history of sewing.
- Clothes Making in Ancient Times
- Mid-evil Seamstresses and Tailors
- Embroidery Conquers the World
- How the Industrial Revolution Changed the Making of Garments
- The Invention of Zig-zag Stitching Simplified Clothes Making
- Who Invented the Safety Pin
- Back to the Roots for the Aristocrats and the Rich
- Sewing Becomes the Job of the Housewives Again
- Custom-made Clothes for the Middle Class
- Outfit of the Day with Self-made Dress
- Wrapping Up the History of Sewing
Disclosure: There are affiliate links in this post.
Clothes Making in Ancient Times
In ancient times, animal hides were stitched together with bones and tendons for clothing and tents for shelter. About 4000 BC, fabrics were made from natural fibers and turned into clothes in the Middle East.
Mid-evil Seamstresses and Tailors
Traditionally, sewing like spinning was a women occupation. In the Middle Ages, aristocrats and rich people employed tailors or seamstresses to make their clothing. New clothing was a major investment. The poor often had their clothes repaired. Old fabric was of great value as it could be turned into new garments. Together this means there was no look-a-like attire. Everything was hand-made.
Embroidery Conquers the World
Skills like embroidery were highly valued and were country/region specific. The clothes making and decoration skills were handed down from one generation of women to the next. In Europe, young brides got pins, needles and pin cushions as part of the dowry between the Middle Ages and the 17th century.
Embroidered clothing was luxury. The silk road brought stitching from the far East to Europe. Also the traditional organic floral stitching from the middle East was on high demand. The Hanseatic League spread embroidery patterns from around the Baltic and North Seas.
Today embroidered clothing is considered ethnic and traditional and hence difficult to style. When you love embroidered attire see this guide on how to create ageless style with embroidery.
How the Industrial Revolution Changed the Making of Garments
In 1790, Thomas Saint received the patent for the World’s first sewing machine. Other sewing machines were developed in the 19th century. For example, 1829, Barthélemy Thimonnier (1793 – 1857) invented a sewing machine and filed the patent together with Auguste Ferrand, who made the drawings required for patenting, in 1830. His invention used a barbed needle that formed a chain stitch, i.e. only one thread was needed. In 1841, he used them to produce military uniforms for the French Army. A mob rioted his store. They accused him to eliminate their jobs. He won several prizes at World Shows, but died in poverty.
In 1932, Walter Hunt also invented a sewing machine that had two needles one of which had an eye. He never filed for patent because he feared that the machine would put tailors and seamstresses out of their jobs. He abandoned his idea in 1838.
At the same time, Elias Howe had the same idea. He got his patent in 1946 in a stage man vs. five seamstresses challenge. His machine beat the speed of the ladies. He never received any royalties for his sewing machine. Isaac Singer invented a similar machine, but with only one needle with eye. He paid Howe thousands of dollars in royalties for the eye-pointed needle. So did seven other manufacturer.
Of course, these machines made a huge impact on the clothing industry. No wonder! The machines permitted production of garments in fractions of the time needed to hand-stitched items. Shops with often underpaid women produced industrial clothing.
As the photo below shows that some machines were driven by pedals. I remember Granny Hannah having an old-fashioned one with foot-pedal. It needed a lot of coordination making it work.
The Invention of Zig-zag Stitching Simplified Clothes Making
In 1873, Helen Augusta Blanchard (25 October 1840 – January 12, 1922) improved the sewing machine so it could create a zig-zag stitch. Her zig-zag stitch permitted sealing the edges of the fabric in an easy way. Before, one had to sew the piece together on the right, trim away the fabric close to the seams, iron the piece before turning it over to the left and doing the final stitching. I actually learned this technique still in middle school. It was tedious. Why? Machines with zig-zag options were more expensive. Thus, the school didn’t have them. I still used the old-fashioned method when in graduate school as my Singer had no zig-zag option.
Ms Blanchard further improved the sewing machines as well as the needles. In 1881, she establish the Blanchard Over-Seam Co. in Philadelphia. In total, she received 28 patents!
Who Invented the Safety Pin
One of the easiest ways to sew a full skirt or so-called dirndl skirt, is to sew a tube at the top of the skirt, make a hem at the bottom and a seam either on both sides or in the back. Finally, you pull a piece of rubber band with a safety pin thru the tube. See detailed post on sewing a full skirt at this link. Just imagine how to do it without a safety pin! The risk to sew into your fingers was pretty high. Done that, been there. Now you can imagine how Walter Hunt invention of the safety pin revolutionized the clothing industry. In 1849, he got the patent for his safety pin as “dress pins.”
Back to the Roots for the Aristocrats and the Rich
In the 19th century, attire made by tailors and seamstresses became associated with high-end fashion. According to my Granny Hannah, until the turn to the 20thcentury, rich families hired a seamstress or tailor twice a year to make identical garments for all female and male members of the family. The new clothing was worn by the entire family to go to church or other events that required dressing up. The next year, the worn attire turned into everyday wear. Thus, the kids could wear hand-me-downs without other people noticing. Everybody in the village knew they all had the same clothing. And now the family of course wears the new pieces to go out. A smart way to save when shopping for clothes.
Sewing Becomes the Job of the Housewives Again
By the middle of the last century, sewing machines became household items at least for the middle class. My mom had an electric Singer machine. She used her Singer to create beautiful summer dresses for my sister and me. I can’t remember whether and if what she sew for my brother or herself. I used her Singer to make my first skirts when I learned sewing in middle school. They told us that there a reasons to learn how to sew.
Later, when I was in graduate school, she got a new Singer. It had all kinds of different stitches. In contrast to her old one, it was not integrated into a piece of furniture. You could put it easily in a storage room when not in use. My mom gave me her old one. I used it to make a lot of my clothes. Mainly pencils skirts. When we immigrated, I tossed it. The US has difference voltage and watt requirements than Germany. Guess what I have today?
Custom-made Clothes for the Middle Class
Today many clothing companies offer custom-made attire at affordable prices for the middle class women. When you are a regular reader of this blog, you may remember my review of Rita Phil custom-made pencil skirt. Some clothing industries even use software that gives the potential customer an idea how an attire looks with a different version of sleeves, hem length, etc.
Outfit of the Day with Self-made Dress
This dress has an old 1940s cut from a vintage pattern. I used this cut twice. Once for this floral dress and once for a corduroy version for winter.
Wrapping Up the History of Sewing
Who did the sewing has changed several times over history. Today’s fast fashion bears the rish that sewing becomes a lost art because fast fashion is cheaper than designing and making your own clothes.
Don’t let your outfit be a random thing. Wear the right look in every situation by looking up what to wear when in How to Dress for Success in Midlife. Buy the book now.
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Döbler, Hannsferdinand, 1972. Kultur und Sittengeschichte der Welt – Kleidung, Mode, Schmuck. Bertelsmann Verlag, München, Germany.
Smithsonian, 2019. Women: Our story. Smithsonian.
Stamp, J., 2020 The Many, Many Designs of the Sewing Machine. Retrieved: 9/7/2020
Photos of me: G. Kramm
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