generational attitudes toward sewing

A little while ago on the Oliver + S discussion forums, one of the members introduced a topic that I thought was very interesting and timely. She mentioned that she had been doing some research on her family and had been thinking about how attitudes toward sewing have changed over time.  Not all that long ago, sewing was a necessity for many women, not a hobby or pasttime. Have attitudes toward sewing changed now that sewing is no longer a requirement to keep a home running and a family clothed?

I loved this topic and immediately contacted her asking if she would like to write a blog post about it. So now I’d like to introduce you to Tamara Kowald.

Tamara was born in Perth but raised in country Western Australia and now lives on a farm inland from Geraldton in the Midwest with her husband and two children. Since about the age of ten, sewing has been an important part of her life. She is sure it is “in the blood” as countless generations of her family have taken to needle and thread for work and pleasure.

Since receiving her first sewing machine at 18, Tamara hasn’t looked back and now spends alot of her sewing time, machine sewing rather than needleworking which is her first love. Tamara loves working with natural fiber fabrics and exploring new options to create different elements that compliment the patterns she works with. Although not completely self taught, Tamara learned the majority of her sewing knowledge through books and by watching and conversing with other sewists.

Here’s her post.

I’ve been spending some time just recently, researching some of my family history and throughout this time, I’ve been thinking about how the women in my family have viewed and valued the skill of sewing. I’ve always wondered whether they saw this as a chore or if they actually liked to sit and stitch beautiful things for their homes and families.


Whichever way, you look at it, throughout history, women have viewed sewing as a valuable skill to be used in a myriad of ways. Prior to the industrial revolution, women conducted their sewing by hand and made everything from linen to clothing and in between. Even after, during the two world wars, women entered the workforce and used their sewing skills to make parachutes and uniforms for their men along with all the other sewing at home. Women had no choice but to make things as the motto goes during the Depression “Make do and mend.”

In some cases these periods in our recent history would have been difficult. Could this have changed some women’s attitudes somewhat today?

I had a brief conversation with the home economics teacher at my local school this morning and she was saying that her 8th grade students needed to be taught the simplest of sewing skills, simply because most of them didn’t even know what a sewing machine looked like! She also offered information about the younger generations of her own family who are grown and how they don’t mend or sew anything. They pass the things that require mending onto her!

Why is it that only some of each generation continue this most valued and often unappreciated skill?

Looking back into my own family history, I have always known that within my mother’s family, the women were almost born with a needle and thread in their hands. Whatever undertaking they had been assigned to in their lives, they still took time out to work the needle and thread and later (once it was invented and readily available) utilised the sewing machine.

I have memories of my childhood where I was desperately trying to make a dress for my Barbie doll and I was attempting to do the humble blanket stitch. I was about 10 years old at the time and not allowed to go near the sewing machine. It was my paternal grandmother, the one who couldn’t sew a stitch that helped me master this most simple start to what has become such an important part of my life. Later on, my other grandmother (the one whose own mother was a professional seamstress) showed me how to lay out a pattern and cut it out. I could never work out why she didn’t sew more clothing when she knew so much.

For some of us, it was our mothers who paved the way. But for me it was these two most inspiring women who sowed the seed that has grown into a passion.

I found out later why my grandma didn’t sew clothing and the reason to this was because she didn’t like doing the everyday type clothes sewing. She would however, make a dress once a year for my mum to wear to the annual local show (fair).

When I’ve discussed the topic of sewing with my friends, they have quite mixed reactions. Some of them learned to sew in school and had been taught by their own mothers but they seem to have put their enjoyment for sewing aside to make way for other things. In short, they claim they have “no time” to sew.“

Finding the time is always a potential problem but if our attitudes to sewing reflect our need to sew, then, we would make the time and effort to sew. It’s simple!

I don’t believe that sewing is a dying art at all. I mean it is evident that it will always be there to fall back on. But I do believe that our priorities have changed our attitudes towards sewing. I’ve heard so many exclamations over the last week with “I love to sew but…” and there is always some excuse attached.

I find it extraordinary how through history, women sat together to sew shirts for the poor and chat. How they sat together to teach their daughters to sew and through this developed positive attitudes within the next generation. I also find it pleasant to realise that those of us who sew today really enjoy the process. And that is a good thing.

Illustrations courtesy of April Henry of April 1930’s.




  1. mel

    Great post Liesl and Tamara! I remember that forum thread and enjoyed reading others’ stories.

    On the topic of skills that are unappreciated and fading, my husband is, in a couple of weeks, going to speak with an elderly gentleman about becoming his apprentice. This gentleman practices blacksmithing and woodworking, two skills that I rarely see used anymore! I’m very excited for him and hope it works out. I would love to incorporate so much more handmade into our lives, both for the personal satisfaction and as a lesson to our child(ren) about the pleasures and gratification of hard work and patience in creating something of your own!

  2. This is very interesting! I often think of what sewing was like even 100 years ago. Much different than today!

    The women on both sides of my family sew (for the most part) and I think I learned how to lay out and cut a pattern before I could read chapter books. My grandmother quilts, my mother sewed all her maternity clothes and mine and my brother’s clothes when we were kids, and both still sew today. It was only a matter of time before I started, and it wasn’t until I was on my own that I was really interested in it. Funny you say most women don’t have time – sure, I don’t sew everyday, but I started because I needed something to do after work and commuting that wasn’t just watching TV. It’s become an invaluable skill. I’ve mended clothes, created outfits for babies and myself, and am now planning Christmas presents.

    If I ever have children, I plan on teaching them how to sew, or at least acclimating them with the machine and fabrics. The more you know, the better. Unfortunately, I don’t have a group to sew with, so I mainly talk to family members or people online. I wish it was a widespread hobby/practice still–I’d love to have people to discuss it with!

  3. Margaret

    I enjoyed reading this post. My mother sewed some of my clothes and my sister and some quilts when I was growing up. My oldest daughter doesn’t want anything to do with sewing but my youngest daughter is eager to learn. She sewed a pillowcase and wanting now to make a skirt. One day, I believe my oldest daughter will come around as I did. I wasn’t interested in sewing for a long time, only when I retired and my children were older that I found time to sew. I enjoy sewing it relaxes me and it feels wonderful when I complete an garment and it looks better than the other garment I finished. Your blog is an inspiration, looking forward to buying the DVD’s that you have made. Saving my money. Thanks for sharing and your blog.

  4. Lee

    This so reminds me of a conversation I had with my mother many years ago. She was a child of the depression and came through WWII. When that was over, she, and many of her friends, wanted nothing to do with hand made. She had a sewing machine that she loved in the 60’s but she used it very sparingly for clothing. It wasn’t until her grandchildren were born that she enjoyed making clothes and that was because she could embellish the clothes in ways that her clothes growing up had never been. She often said that the love of handwork skipped a generation as she watched my sister and I enjoy just about every type of handwork there is.

  5. Rosamond

    I will echo what Lee said. My grandmother was not only an excellent seamstress by necessity in her personal life (sewing things for her 4 kids as they grew), but also worked in a shirt factory for many years. By the time I was born, she pretty much wanted nothing to do with sewing, and my mother inherited some of that attitude. The idea is that we don’t have to do that anymore, we have money for storebought clothes and I’ve done enough sewing in my life. (Incidentally, my grandmother also refused to eat chicken, because she associated it with raising them during the Depression, again by necessity, and she said they were filthy creatures that she wanted nothing to do with. Ironically, perhaps, I now have pet chickens in my urban backyard–for eggs, not meat!–and I find them lovely.) I do wonder if some of the modern enthusiasm about sewing and other handworks has a lot to do with romanticizing periods in our history that seems charming to us because we did not have to live through it–but ones which those who lived through them are often glad to have left behind.

    Regardless, I gladly undertake all these activities (sewing, knitting, gardening, cooking from scratch, etc.) when I can find the time–but maybe that’s just the point. Everything is more fun when it’s optional, and you can choose to fit it into your “free time” or not. When you *have* to do it so that your kids will have decent clothes on their backs, or food in their bellies, on top of all the other essential tasks you must complete (long day of factory work, hand washing everything, line drying and ironing everything, walking because you can’t afford a car, etc. etc.), the bloom wears off that rose pretty fast.

  6. Reader

    I’m a little surprised that the author’s attention is focused on women and girls, instead of men and boys as well. Men have always sewn, and usually because of sexism, when a man did it was somehow more elevated. If one is going to advocate sewing education, let’s include everybody.

    I’m someone who has taken a number of rigorous sewing classes in an effort to learn how to sew really well for herself. As rewarding as I hope this will be, it is enormously time-consuming, demanding, and expensive. I’m not surprised that many people would prefer to spend their time in other ways.

    It would have been nice if I’d been able to learn to sew earlier, but apart from a required home ec class in which I could barely get beyond threading the machine, I had no means to learn how to sew and later, no time.

  7. Reader

    Couple more things: Garment construction is for me an “interest,” not a “hobby” or a “pasttime.” I have put too much into this to trivialize it.

    I do not use the term “seamstress,” which I consider dated and sexist. I will not buy contemporary books or read blogs in which women consistently refer to themselves “seamstresses,” or that have “seamstress” in the title. My little stand against sexism and misplaced nostalgia.

  8. Lisa

    I think some of us are just born to sew. As a young child, I could not wait to get ahold of needle, thread and fabric and make something with it. By the time I was a teenager, I was making clothes to sell. My father was very upset about this, however. He felt that sewing was a dead end, that developing sewing skills was a waste of time and talent and would only lead to “working in a sweatshop somewhere.” This really wounded me, as sewing is somehow a part of who I am, not just something I do. I continued to take classes, learn, and to sew my whole life.

    For those who did not have a feel for or enjoyment of sewing, the past must have held a lot of drudgery, because, as you say, most folks had to sew, out of necessity. I feel for them since there is little enjoyment doing something only because you have to.

    Sewing is something that brings me a lot of pleasure. I don’t care what you call it or what you call the person who sews; the name is not the substance. Sewing is creating, a very specific and tactile means of creating. When you have the urge to sew, you find a way to fulfill it, in whatever age and culture you live in.

  9. It’s an interesting topic to think about! I suspect that whether or not women sewed after it stopped being absolutely necessary probably depended on whether they saw it as something they still had to do (and hence resented) or if they saw it as a creative pursuit. My mum saw it in the latter way so happily taught me to sew for those reasons too – plus back in the early 80s as a teenager it was actually still economical to make your own shirts! Nowadays I’ll only do it for the better fit 🙂 My SIL’s mother deliberately didn’t teach her to sew, or to do any of those ‘homemaker’ type skills (including cooking to a degree) because she didn’t want her to have to do them, I guess sheer ignorance being your defence when asked to hem pants? Sometimes I wish I could do that too but my husband knows I can sew!

  10. Emily P

    Fun article! I want to make that coat in the 4th picture down… My girls attend a local alternative school where all students learn to sew on a machine in 2nd grade, and gradually learn other forms of sewing as they go along. Both my kids (ages 5 and 10)have their own machines, and my ten-year old sews better than most adults, although her first love is soccer…I love that sewing is coming back so explosively – it’s like a whole new world!

  11. Great post! I have to agree that sewing must be “in the blood”. I had one grandmother (we called her Mere) that did mostly handwork….she loved embroidery, cross stitch, and plastic canvas. My other grandmother pretty much made everything that I wore until I entered high school.
    I can remember spending every Friday night at Mere’s house and she would give me a needle and a scrap of plastic canvas and teach me a stitch. When I got older she taught me how to embroider. In high school, I took Home Ec and was very clumsy with the sewing machine….I was so bad that my machine ended up needing repairs when the semester ended. (Don’t ask, I dont’ know what I did!) After that I pretty much stopped sewing except for picking up an occasional handwork project. When I had my daughter, I decided to give the sewing machine a try again…..I didn’t break it….and have made her several items to wear. I have even ventured into smocking so I could combine a love and interest in both machine sewing and hand work.
    After my home ec experience I really lost interest in sewing, but for some unexplainable reason it came back full force. I only hope that I can pass this skill down to my daughter….and maybe when she takes home ec in highschool she won’t break the machine!

  12. Dawn

    Wow, I have so much bubbling up inside me. I apologize if I offend anyone. Let’s make something clear, SERGING is not sewing. It is appaling the things I see daily that people try to pass off as “sewing” or “handmade.” Giving credit where credit is due, everyone needs to start somewhere, I commend anyone who takes up the “art” of sewing.
    I soaked up everything I could from my two grandmother and two neighbor ladies that were talented seamstresses. My mother a child of the depression was not interested in sewings and made a few disaterious attempts. My theory being if you are not interested, you do not do well at it.
    My grandmothers made sure I was pressed and polished everyday in beautiful handmade clothes that FIT me. Spoiled by this luxary at fourteen I began making things for myself. We were a middle class family and cound no way come close to affording the quality of clothing I had been accustom to wearing. Even store bought clothing needs alterations, seams need mending…what!?….do you throw out your pants because a seam comes apart???
    With two girls of my own and being a stay at home mom, I began making things for them before they were born, bumper pads, curtains,etc…next came all the pretty clothes, the ones our budget didn’t allow.
    I am now sewing for my four almost five grandchildren. Do I do it out of necessity, yes…..But I also do it because I enjoy it so much. I would not know how to survive without sewing, it is a wonderful friend to me. Not to mention all the loving, beautiful memories and people that come along with it.

  13. I totally love this post, Liesl! I’m going to link to it if, you don’t mind, in our next Newsletter. What a great article – thank you to Tamara for the inspiration!

  14. Nikki

    Perhaps some women prefer woodworking or computer programming. I am less concerned that fewer women sew, and more puzzled why more men don’t sew. Why is this still such a strongly gender-biased activity? Now that sewing and woodworking and gardening are more “art and craft” activities, rather than “survival” activities, I would hope that practitioners would come to participate because of their innate love of the craft’ and not because they “should” care because that is what “women (or men) have always done”.

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