Is it okay for feminists to sew? Or: Want a man? Get a sewing machine.

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Can you sew and still be a feminist? Oh honey, I’m a feminist from way back.

My mom taught me to sew in the 60s, because every woman in the midwest needed to know how. At some point, your daughter was going to come home from Girls Choir with a mimeographed sheet instructing “Mom” to come up with a red corduroy jumper with a zipper up the front from a Simplicity pattern, and you just had to do it. Sewing was right up there with cooking as a life skill.

These were the women who had flexed their muscles as Rosie the Riveter during WWII, or were co-eds like my mom. Then the men came back, and the women were expected to go home, be quiet, and raise a passel of kids while secretly reading “The Feminine Mystique” and pounding back Excedrin. We’re talking Betty from Mad Men.

My mom wisely got out of the house as a teacher, assigning Robert Frost and Kurt Vonnegut then moving on to Marshall McLuhan and “the medium is the message.” My Dad was the director of the school, so on top of all that she had to entertain as part of his job. I remember her sewing — rather than buying — a maxi dress of washable teal doubleknit to wear at the parties she was catering and hosting, because my parents were wisely choosing to spend the family money on college for us three girls.

I knew if I wanted to wear anything the least bit fashionable up there in Northern Lower Michigan, I had to make it myself, with patterns by Betsey Johnson or Kenzo. Imbued by the overconfidence of Cold War America, I thought everything I made was great.

The Girl Scout leaders knew we had a big job ahead of us too, so we learned to hike and camp with a pack, build a campfire and cook a “one pot” meal using a #10 can for the pot. We’d eat off of a table we’d made by lashing branches with twine, while sitting on our hand-woven (from newspaper) “Sit-Upons.” After dinner we’d sing “Ragtime Cowboy Joe” with hand motions, then bury all the trash.

But since we were training to be women, another night we had to cook and serve a “dressed up” fondue dinner party for our dads. I remember sewing a maxi wrap skirt out of wool houndstooth to wear. I was 12.


Pretty soon Ms. Magazine started showing up at our house, and my mom was going to feminist “consciousness-raising” meetings. My dad, who believed in fairness and lived in a house with four females, stuck up for her, which was a highly unpopular position for a man to take back then. He started cooking, and would invent casseroles from ground beef and giant zucchini from his garden. One of them was called “How To Stuff a Wild Zucchini,” but after a couple of nights it became “Baseball Casserole” because, as he said, “three times and you’re out.”

My mom was finally freed from sewing by then because I, the youngest, knew how. I could knit and embroider, too, and one summer in the 70s, my sister, who now is the Artistic Director of the Martha Graham Dance Company, came home from Juilliard and taught me to macrame plant-hangers.

In college during the recession, I was part of the first generation of “thrifters” who lived in vintage fashion and army surplus, inspired by the book “Cheap Chic.”


That’s me in a 40s “Popover” wrap dress.

Too broke for retail when I started in TV in Ohio, I sewed myself a velvet dress to wear when I got an award at the Waldorf.

Then I moved to New York, where my love life replaced my sewing machine. Power suits from Anne Klein II. Nights at the Plaza in Norma Kamali. Marriage to a guy with custody of three kids. Cooking Christmas dinner for his teens (who decided the night before to become vegan). Yards of curtains sewn. Parties for 40 with a rock band crashing at our house. Doing the rock band’s laundry because I didn’t know any better. Wearing vintage haute couture from Didier Ludot in Paris. Fifteen years of writing and producing for television. Ten years raising our boy — a much wished-for but exhausting surprise. Then menopause, which is as bad as puberty — but in reverse. By the time I was through, I had skills for days and was restless.

I took a $25 online course about French haute couture sewing, and made a Chanel-style jacket. I remembered how much fun it was to sew. It was more fun than shopping, which has been ruined by fast fashion. And lots of people were online chatting about sewing, of all shapes, sizes, hues and ages — women, men, gay, straight, trans. They were posting proud pictures of themselves in their “makes.”

It was all so much more fun than thinking about test prep for my eleven-year-old’s four-hour middle-school admission exam — an incredibly anxiety-producing thing that was meaningless in the grand scheme of things, I now realize. I started blogging about recreating vintage fashion by famous designers here at JetSetSewing.com, and it took off. Sewing kick-started my career again.

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(Speaking of which, three kick pleats in this Charles James “Dorothy” skirt! And a shrug by Claire McCardell.)

Here’s the deal: feminist or not, domestic crap is a part of life. I sew for fun and cook under protest. I drive my son to stuff and try to figure out what’s on his mind. I’ve cleaned up plenty of puke and poop, and checked for pinworms (don’t google it). My husband’s put up shelves, done the dishes, and decorated the house. We’ve hauled umpteen pieces of furniture up and down stairs, swearing at each other. I’ve made up five million beds. My husband’s done a lot of varnishing. We’ve both dustbusted a major portion of the East Coast.

I’ve read young bloggers agonizing about whether “crafting” is anti-feminist, and here’s what I think, now that I’m in my 50s: go ahead and get good at sewing, cooking, woodworking, small engine repair, whatever floats your boat. You have no idea how many freaking skills you’re going to need over the next 30 years.

As the Dalai Lama noted recently in a New York Times Op-Ed, a lot of western anxiety can be traced back to the feeling of not being “needed.” I really can’t stand a lot of the housework I do, but I do feel useful.

Now for the part about “getting a man” (or whatever gender “rings your chimes,” as they used to say in the 60s), which is feminist too, because, trust me, your family ties will outlast your career. Even though the shimmering blonde hair on the next girl over may be temporarily blinding, once a guy does the math about how much it costs to touch up those roots every three weeks, an engaging, independent and industrious gal like you with a sewing machine can start to look mighty good. Because in the end, you two are going to be spending a lot more time keeping house and eating dinner together than you will fooling around.

(Just don’t show him your sewing stash closet until after the honeymoon.)

57 thoughts on “Is it okay for feminists to sew? Or: Want a man? Get a sewing machine.

  1. Haha my partner saw my sewing stash/left overs from my embroidery business the first time he walked into my garage and asked what all the plastic tubs were for and we’re just about to celebrate our third anniversary, so it must be love!!!

  2. Well said!
    And, if/when D enters the mix, a sewing machine is no match for big boy toys during inventory appraisal, leaving advantage to SM owner

  3. Right on, Julie! Love this & agree, having experienced much the same, but sans partner & farther south.
    Somewhere lately I read sewing might be about ready (again) to be cheaper than buying. For designer pieces, it already is.
    It’s sheer practicality for us “experienced” women who can’t find a thing in shops but shapeless muu-muus in dark colours.

  4. Amen sister! Would anyone question your feminist credentials if you said, “I like to build furniture with my miter saw”? Would a potential life partner blow you off because you were too handy around the house? Folks, it’s all just materials and power tools. No matter what materials or which tools, its always a good idea to have mad skills.

    • Oh yes. The spouse likes to wave at me, telling the sons: “Marry handy. And funny. Funny and handy.” So that must be me.
      I don’t know that I am saving money by sewing (please do not ponder how much I spent on that per yard. Just don’t. It’s not worth discussing, honey.) but I am by my mad alteration skills and a deep love for thrift stores that my sons have baked into them. Those pants on the clearance pile need new pockets? Puleeeeese!

      I am torn about this, but I have to tell you that the Dalai Lama would love the Dali Lama, and don’t you dare change that. The mind reels with the possibilities.

  5. Totally! Happily feminist and sewing here too.

    Sometimes I think that all that domestic drudgery (to me anyway…cooking, cleaning, midnight sick kids care..) is invisible, but creating, sewing is this visible manifestation of work, effort and skill. In the world of undervalued ‘care’ roles.

    I sew of necessity, it’s better than me buying clothes, and now I can make most of my outerwear. SO liberating, and it’s all revolutionary work too. And so good for kids to see these skills, and maybe pick them up!

  6. And when after 45 years of marriage, your husband does more than glancing at a much younger blonde woman, you can take refuge in your creativity. It saved my sanity, and I hope my marriage.

  7. This goes both ways. My husband married me because he needed a tax break; I married him because he can fix things. Win Win. (We also like and respect each other which is a big help.)

  8. I, too, am in my mid-50s and started sewing when I was in elementary school. The first outfit I made was in the fifth grade–a purple skirt embroidered with flowers and I crocheted a “shrink top” to go with it. (Remember those?) Girls weren’t allowed to take shop or drafting in High School so I taught myself to draft patterns. Eventually, I realized that this was all a specialized form of engineering so I went back to college. These days I’m an automotive engineer. And all because my mom taught me to sew when I was a child.

  9. I am in my 60’s and sew because I want to wear something that looks half decent on me. That muu muu comment was oh so true, but it took me far too long to learn the fine art of fitting. Things are better, sartorially speaking, but I have to say that the older you get, the less you care about other people’s opinions. Great place to be. If you don’t like the sentiments that are expressed, just move on. No fuss.

    • I’ve definitely gotten to that “you want a drama, take a number” phase. And the great thing about knowing how to fit is that it can keep a “mature” body looking sharp without a lot of hassle. I think retail designers are pushing shapeless things because they’re don’t take a lot of skill to sew and they “fit” everybody.

  10. Oh Julie, that was just great. I’ve always been a proud sewer but for a while there, in the 80s I did it in a closet – as they say. Now I’m out, loud and proud, though I still get very strange comments at my husband’s work functions!

    • I know, I was getting so many funny looks at cocktail parties that now I say “I write about vintage fashion history…(and sewing)” which gets the conversation going a lot faster.

  11. I love this post! I sew and finishing a project and seeing it being used is one of the most satisfying feelings hands down. It’s my 40th birthday today and reading all the comments above makes me feel like I’m headed in the right direction. Age is not just a number, it’s a good number!

  12. Love the post! I am 59, and have sewed since I was 11. My father discouraged it , because only poor people sewed. His mom made all their clothes during the depression- often from other old clothes. When I made him a custom fleece jacket with his company logo on it, he stopped complaining. I love sewing and crafting- it is a great relaxing pastime.

  13. Love this! I learnt to sew from my grandmother, who became a dressmaker to get away from working on the chicken farm as a teenager in the 1930’s. After she was widowed young, she turned to dressmaking to support her family. Having good practical skills is such a valuable thing to have. I am surprised online at how many people my age (early 20’s) are intimidated by cooking really basic dinners.
    And I had to laugh at your last line! My sewing stuff is all over our tiny apartment, and my husband has often stepped on the pin cushion!

    • I’m so glad some younger people like you know the value of sewing. it’s true that it was a profession that allowed a lot of women to support themselves. In fact, women garment workers were instrumental in starting the labor movement here in the U.S.

  14. Absolutely loved this post! I really do not understand those that think that sewing or crafting is anti-feminist though. Because for me, anything that you can do for yourself is empowering! Skills of all different kinds make us better people, more self-sufficient, all kinds of good things. Perhaps those that wonder might spend some of that energy diving deeper into feminist thought. 🙂

  15. I totally empathize with your early sewing experiences. Having grown up in NW Pa. (Absolutely no fashion stores, and a distinct propensity towards Paris fashion) I had no choice but to sew. Sewing has gone from being anti-feminist to an expression of yourself. My husband and three sons have definitely capitilazed on the sewing abilities of mom. I’ve had too many requests (demands) for Big Bird, Elmo, fix my suit, etc. You are so right about family trumping all else. Loved this post.

    • Hi Mary, your family’s lucky – I’m always up to make costumes, but if they need something altered…go to the tailor! I’m taking a two-day class at Ecole Lesage this summer – maybe I’ll run into you at Janssens again.

  16. First thought – dudette, you’re so damn interesting. Second thought – who are these bloggers talking about whether or not crafting is feminist? I certainly have none of them on my radar. Third thought – hurry up and finish commenting so you can get back to sewing because time is freakin precious right now and the baby is probably going to wake up really soon so you don’t have time to finish that thought and get philosophical.
    But really, apart from skills and assuming you are obligated to do it – do it because you love it, and it makes you happy. That’s enough.

    • First – I’m really impressed you can find time to sew with a baby. I was a wreck! I’m glad you got to hang out with La Khalje for awhile. There are young bloggers who have written about it though I think they were from the U.S., as we tend to gaze at our navels a lot.

      • Funny you put it that way, I think Australian’s as a whole admire the American’s ability to speak their feelings so well (it’s not something you see en masse here). Even funnier enough, I actually noticed this difference the most when watching the Australian version of ‘The Batchelor’ after having seen the American one. A rather fascinating cultural difference.

  17. started sewing around 11, all my friends sewed too, so we met up to make things together. Sewed everything–including bathing suits–except our underware. Bring back home ec!

  18. Love this. My story is the same but different and you have inspired me to write it. However, I have to get to bed so I can shop a washing machine tomorrow. I will have my Excel spreadsheet and my analysis of gallons of water per load x the expected marginal price per gallon and cost per year spread over the expected lifetime. In the 60s I sewed, refinished furniture, changed my oil, cooked from scratch, typed and drove a tractor. Had no idea I was a feminist. In the 80s I had a big deal career in a field chosen because it was not dominated by women–needed to make a living. Now I long to sew again, beautiful clothes, feminine clothes made slowly and worn a long time. On the surface, that doesn’t hold up to winning awards for doing good deeds, but the desire keeps coming back. I am thinking that perhaps there is something in sewing that does perpetuate choosing life and being salt.

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