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 70s, 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.”
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.
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.)