A Little History of the Business of Sewing

I don’t know about you, but when I think of sewing, I remember everyone learning how to sew, at least to some extent. I was the baby of the family, and I remember sitting at my mom’s feet while she sewed on her old Necchi machine. She never really enjoyed sewing, and says she was never very good at it, but I didn’t know that at the time. I remember her making summer clothes for us. Simple patterns that I still come across today.

Mom says that her sisters, especially the second oldest, Blanche (there were 18 of kids in her family), was especially good at sewing, and made all sorts of things, including coats. She said my grandmother sewed all the time too, which I consider to be a miracle. I would love to have been a fly on the wall in a three bedroom house with 18 kids, where grandma had a huge garden, cooked and baked, AND sewed for the kids, all while grandpa was away much of the time, doing his thing as an engineer on the railroad. I’m in awe, I tell you. But I digress.

I remember my older sisters taking home ec, and taking the mandatory sewing module, and my mom helping them. They did 4-H too, and there was sewing there. But somehow, things changed when I got to middle school, and it wasn’t mandatory to do sewing in home ec. I took the semester of cooking, then took wood shop instead of sewing. I was already doing embroidery like crazy, so I don’t know why wood shop interested me more than sewing. Truth be told, it was probably that the boys were all in wood shop, but I don’t really remember. But those memories combinged to lead me to believe that home economics class had always been a thing. It wasn’t until I read The Lost Art of Dress, by Linda Przybyszewski, that I realized that home ec wasn’t always a thing. If you get a chance, read the book — it tells how home ec classes weren’t needed in the beginning, because girls learned household management, sewing and cooking from their mothers, but as mothers went to work and mass marketing started, those skills were no longer taught at home, hence the start of home ec, and the ladies who steered fashion. It’s fascinating reading.

So although I knew that, I came across an article from 1958, in the St Louis Globe-Democrat , talking about a “sewing revival” and how it was generating a billion dollars a year. Wow. It states that two out of three girls were now sewing, as a revival in the art had started five years prior. There was a decline in home sewing after World War II, and it’s stated that sewing was a practice done mainly by those in lower incomes in the 1930s and 1940s. Come 1953, “all income distinctions were erased,” and now women in the higher income brackets were sewing as well. The number of home sewists increased fourfold over several years, and by 1958, reportedly twenty percent of all women’s clothing was made at home. WOW.

The story was conceived when the reporter, Sylvia Porter, decided to see what was happening that Pierre Cardin had come to New York on a tour to promote his sewing pattern line for McCall’s. She found that it was projected that in 1958, 95,000,000 patterns would be sold, to the tune of $48,000,000. Pattern sales were expected to increase to over $100,000,000 by 1960. This does not take into account fabric sales — projected to be $250,000,000 in 1958, and increase to 265,000,000 by 1960.

She states that a large factor in the increase of home sewing was the cost of well made ready to wear clothing. She states one style from Cardin’s McCall’s pattern would cost hundreds of dollars if bought off the rack, but could be made at home for about $40. She notes that there was, at the time, an “increase in leisure time” in middle and high income households, so women and girls looked for a creative outlet.

Marketing played a big part in the draw of sewing during this time, as this was about the time you started seeing big designer names on patterns. Pierre Cardin was not the only one to license patterns with them. Givenchy did a line as well, notably creating patterns with Audrey Hepburn styles from Sabrina. McCall’s also contracted with Helen Lee to make children’s patterns, as she was a leading designer for children during the fifties. Stores joined in the surge, because they realized that if they sold patterns, they could also upsell when customers bought fabric, notions and trims.

Here’s hoping that we see a similar resurgence as people embrace simpler lives, slowing down, and lifestyles like cottagecore. When they do, I’m here for them.

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