She is sitting on an armchair or a sofa with a ream of flowing cloth, her embroidery kit beside her. The kit is neatly contained within what once was a biscuit tin, as obviously disclosed by images of buttery biscuits and cookies on the lid. The tin box is large enough to hold the embroidery ring, a collection of colorful thread, a thimble, needles of various sizes, scissors, tracing, carbon papers, and the design ideas ripped from housekeeping magazines and books. The time of day is usually afternoons, till before the evening tea. There may be others in the room. A living room with the half-drawn curtains – just letting enough light in to sew or read yet prevent the afternoon heat from making the room uncomfortably hot. On a day off, the man is either napping or reading the day’s paper, attempting the daily crossword, or is immersed in a book. Two young children are playing or coloring under the woman’s supervision – a setting for impressionist painting reflecting the tranquil in familiar roles and activities.
It would be a fair assertion that most women in the 1950s/1960s were expert embroiderers, taking pride in the work they produced. A woman knowing to sew was expected, admired. What drew them to this craft, outside the conventions of grooming and compulsion? Why did they sew? It wasn’t uncommon for tablecloths, chair backs, pillows, cushion covers, and clothes to be sewn, embroidered, or stitched by the women of the house. The chair backs encased within beautifully embroidered covers. A floral pattern comes to life against a pastel-colored background of yellow, green, blue, or pink. The living room sofa with embroidered cushions, lending the sofa a perfect balance of familiar aesthetics and comfort. The design could be as simple or complicated as the stitches used to create it. It is essential to mention here that not all such artwork was pleasing to the eye despite the skill used to produce it. It wasn’t uncommon to see obviously hideous pieces of upholstery, so much so that sometimes being around them could feel strangely unsettling. However, sharing any feedback with an expert embroiderer or an enthusiastic spinster of marriageable age was never an option. Within the neighborhood, there would always be a lady who conducted sewing courses, a perfect space for the women to unwind – young ladies had the opportunity to learn the ways of family life, while other women could indulge in the latest gossip and juicy scandals. Did women sew so that they could indulge secretly in daydreaming, delve deep into their minds and thus nurture a thinking mind? Did lifestyle stores, with their endless supply of mass-produced home items, ruin a woman’s secret indulgence in reflection and unwinding? Did modern women get robbed of a therapeutic activity simply for being too stereotypical?
With different types of complicated patterns and stitches, one cannot help but assume a certain level of artistic fulfillment attained from bringing them all together into a visually appealing piece of work. Sewing has been a craft that women have claimed as an art of their own. It was a form of expression that found its place when other platforms did not exist. Something that she could have complete ownership of and control over and which perhaps served to empower. Sometimes her creations were tokens of love and affection, which again contributed positively to her self-esteem as well as the power of expression.
What did the process of hand embroidery entail? Perhaps it began with the selection of a pattern or design. The design theme or pattern would determine the amount and variety of threads used, the ease with which the embroidery could be done, and the time taken to achieve completion. Yarn and other necessary materials called for carefully considered decisions owing to their cost, which the woman tried to accommodate within the monthly household expenditure. This was especially true in the case of families that were limited to a tight monthly budget where a home-sewn garment would go a long way in saving money while spending on materials for embroidery was pure indulgence.
Coming back to the designs, one could choose a straightforward cross stitch pattern or attempt an intricate floral one which resulted in big moments of showing off if achieved well and engaging in gloating over failed attempts by other women in the neighborhood.
The second step would involve doing the embroidery. Although an enjoyable process, it required her to follow the pattern with great concentration and focus, especially in the early stages of pattern formation. Mistakes in this context seem trivial, but in the context of artistry, it is pretty severe. The duration of completing a piece would vary, and women did exaggerate that part of the information depending on what would get more valued in the given context, the talent of finishing something fast flawlessly or toiling over for days and thus reflecting perseverance and attention to detail. Women often worked while major life events unfolded – sometimes happily returning to their piece of work soon after the event and at other times being unable to pick up from where they left off. Of course, there were occasions where they sewed as it provided respite amidst everything else. It would be fair to say that it was rare for a woman’s sewing project to continue smoothly from start to finish. If not major events, a minor event like a tiny cut on the finger from a kitchen accident would delay the process almost indefinitely.
The imagery of women sewing is deeply embedded in cultures around the world, often captured in literature and film. Elizabeth from Little Women (Louisa May Alcott), whose homely nature is reflected through her sewing and knitting. Satyajit Ray’s highly acclaimed film, Charulata, has a woman sitting by a window and sewing in its opening scene. She pauses, puts her sewing down, and peeps outside the shutters to glimpse the world outside. She is the protagonist who appears to have a keen interest in artistic aspirations, including music, literature, and sewing.
Phantom Thread tells the story of an enigmatic dressmaker – a genius who is obsessive and controlling by nature. He is shown to be haunted by the death of his mother and often stitches hidden messages into the linings of his creations. He falls in love with a waitress and makes her his muse. The story progresses to show how their dynamics impact him and his craft. And yet when designs and cuts and stitches and folds are shown to be at the center of this man’s world, much like the real world of fashion, it is the seamstresses who sew and, just as the women in the movie, become principal actors.
Two books that immediately come to mind when one thinks about sewing are – The Gown (Jennifer Robson) and The Dressmakers of Auschwitz (Lucy Adlington). The former is an intergenerational story loosely based on Britain’s Royal family and centers around the protagonist, a seamstress. The latter is based on a true story of how a group of Jewish women was chosen to sew dresses for the Nazi elite women and, in doing so, escaped being sent to the gas chambers and survived the Holocaust during WW 2.
We have come a long way since WW2, and it is pertinent to ask now whether the modern woman sews. What role does culture play? In economies like Bangladesh, sewing plays a huge role in earning a living. In India, sewing as a means of making a livelihood may be limited to destitute women where charities facilitate the process. For middle-class women, it is a hobby and often a stress buster. Perhaps because of its ability to distract the mind and focus on achieving a positive artistic outcome. In the West, sewing has experienced a reawakening with the rise of sewing clubs that promote the craft within a community environment.
As we move towards a more gender-neutral society, are perceptions about sewing changing too? Are we encouraging our boys to actively seek out and learn hand embroidery, knitting, or crochet? Or are we limiting them because of preconceived notions related to gender roles? The crochet movement for men in Sweden is an encouraging step towards gender neutrality, but a lot remains to be desired in shattering stereotypes and changing mindsets.
Author: Snehal Amembal
[HR Advisor; London School of Economics; Poetry]
Illustration: TDLM Design Team