Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Sewing in America -- 2 Major Ideas (Part 3)

It's taken me a while to post again because I realize there are two separate ideas here:

A.) Sewing as a lost art (even mending stymies most people)
B.) Limited apparel manufacturing resources in the US

On the Subject of A (let's call it "Lost Arts"):
This Sunday's New York Times Magazine presented an interesting article about our nation's dwindling cooking abilities, and how women's lib, cooking/food lifestyle shows and the packaged food industry have turned eating into theater, cooking into sport, and diminished the daily activity of food preparation. "Weekday meals are hum drum, a drag to shop and prepare for after a long day, so let's nuke/order something and make a REAL meal on the weekend."

I think the same thing has happened to sewing:

The Women's Lib Effect:
I think for girls growing up in the 70's, sewing was old-fashioned, house-wifey, uncool, unliberated. It was a big deal when our district decided that boys AND girls would take Home Economics AND Wood Shop. Having the boys in Home Ec made the subjects at hand into comedy. The boys would goof around (egg tosses, anyone?) and when we were doing sewing projects, the boys would instigate "races" where they would floor the pedals and rev up the machines. The boys aren't completely to blame, though, because the girls happily joined in -- at least the girls who cared about being cool to the boys (which was most of us). Looking back, I feel so sorry for the Home Ec teachers. What they taught was being stigmatized right before their eyes.

I remember in the 90s, when I worked in an office, and a button popped off my jacket. I asked the other women (mostly in their 20s) if any of them had a needle and thread. They furrowed their brows and said they'd never even used a needle or thread. They'd never even sewed on a button. So what do you do when a button falls off? They told me they put it back in their closet and figure they'll get around to it (then throw it out in a few months), or wear it anyway. I described the idea of a Home Ec class and they giggled. I get the sense that when people profess their ignorance to threading a needle, it's a badge of honor that they are not Suzy Homemaker.

Cheap Clothes, Sold Cheap
Why make when you can buy? Why mend when you can buy? Clothing is cheap and disposable. In fairness, it would be a real drag to have to make every single thing you needed to wear, and to mend the heels of your socks when they wore thin, but if replacements were not so inexpensive easily available, wouldn't we do a LITTLE more? Of course the relative inexpensive price of the goods has a lot to do with Subject B (Limited US apparel manufacturing).

Creative Outlet versus Life Skill
Whereas the elevation of cooking to an art form bows to Julia Child and the Mario Batali, sewing has Project Runway and Etsy. Have you checked out the sewn goods on Etsy? They're amazing. Amazing and intimidating. Etsy and Project Runway celebrate the art of design and the craft of sewing, and elevate them to a point where all we want (or can, for that matter) do is admire.

So where should I go with this? Do I have a point of view on how or why to bring sewing back into the American mainstream? Not really. The Times article quotes Harry Balzer, a food-marketing research expert, who comes off as an amusing, crusty curmudgeon, on why peole need to get off their high horses about the Lost Arts. Just substitute "cooking a chicken" with "making a dress" (and the attendant preparations):

“Do you miss sewing or darning socks? I don’t think so... Here’s an analogy,” Balzer said. “A hundred years ago, chicken for dinner meant going out and catching, killing, plucking and gutting a chicken. Do you know anybody who still does that? It would be considered crazy! Well, that’s exactly how cooking will seem to your grandchildren: something people used to do when they had no other choice. Get over it.”

So yes, we do have more choices now. To sew and create. To mend or replace. And that's great; I like having choices. But I guess I would be less indignant if more people would just sew a button back on once in a while.

What do you think? Do you guys sew? Can you thread a needle and sew on a button? How important a skill is it?

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