One Year of Sewing: Women’s Work

The first thing I sewed, other than a pillow case, was a pair of trousers. The pattern is of three pieces: two identical leg/butt/waist pieces, and a crotch gusset. Even using a sewing machine for the whole thing, that pair of trousers took me almost a month to make, and it’s not even very good. Hakim swears that he loves them and will always want to wear them, but yeah, they’re kind of crappy, if you look up close at the seams. I can only imagine that in particular the inner leg seams and the crotch gusset seams are a bit uncomfortable for Hakim to wear.

But making that pair of trousers taught me things, and I transferred those skills to the second garment I made. That second garment was a camisa. It’s meant to be fitted, but it was fitted while I was wearing a bra, so it doesn’t fit me. It fits me-with-bra. I can’t wear it without a bra, in other words, so it’s kind of useless for the supportiveness that I was hoping to achieve. The construction seams are sewn on a machine, and the bottom is machine-hemmed as well, thought I did all the other seam finishing by hand. While making that garment I loved it, and I’m still proud of it and will probably wear it (with a bra), but I can also see the mistakes I’ve made in making it. For one thing, I idiotically decided that it should be laced up the back, which means I can’t get dressed by myself. This is a problem I haven’t had since I was four years old. Stupid, stupid choice.

Since then I have completed a lavender Viking tunic, about which I’ve blogged, and I’m slightly more than halfway finished with a white tunic of the same pattern (but with an added gore in back, because I wanted more space for my majestic backside). The lavender tunic was constructed by machine, finished by hand. The white is being sewn entirely by hand.

Guess which garment I like best, out of all the ones I’ve done or partly-done so far?

Yep. The one that’s taking the most time, the most effort. Because I’m me, and of course I prefer that one.

All this has taken me about a year, so far. I’m thinking I can finish the white tunic by the end of the secular year, which is in 9 days from now. Going forward, I’d like to think that if I try, I can finish about one garment per month as long as I have the patterns to make them (meaning, I need other people to pattern things on me).

This year of learning such a “basic,” “everyday” skill that just about every woman and many men once knew how to do, has taught me a lot. It’s changed me through realization after realization.

I can do things. I can make things. It takes me a lot of work, learning through a learning disability, but I am in fact capable.

It isn’t the end of the world, or the end of the garment, if a seam becomes unraveled or unstitched. That $6 shirt is someone’s hard work. Fix it.

It is the end of the world if that same $6 shirt gets a stain, or a rip that can’t be fixed. That shirt is someone’s hard work, and throwing it away is disrespectful. Keep it. Use it for cleaning house, washing the car, camping, or at least dusting the furniture. If the stain or tear is very near a seam, take the garment in by an inch or two, and gift it to someone smaller than yourself. Waste not, want not.

People who make clothing aren’t paid nearly enough for their expertise and labor. I’m now willing to pay more, if I have it, to buy from companies that pay their workers a living wage and keep them in conditions that are not degrading, dehumanizing, or unhealthy. I’m also willing to pay more, if I have it, for a garment that will last five years instead of two, so that the materials are not wasted.

I am worthy of hand-made, beautiful clothing. A seam that takes me 5 minutes to sew by machine is a good seam, but a better seam is one that takes me 3+ hours to sew by hand. I am also worthy of wearing things that took that much time and care. I know, because I’m the one who took that time and care, and someone who can and will do that is certainly worthy to wear it.

Women’s work, for many centuries, was hugely centered around textiles. Think of all it takes to grow flax, turn the plant stems into usable fibers (look that up sometime if you don’t know; it’s fascinating!), spin them into thread for sewing or weaving, weave them into fabric, design and cut the fabric, sew it, dye it, decorate it… This all takes up so much time that it’s honestly a wonder anyone got anything done other than just clothing production.

It’s also no wonder that for centuries as well, clothing was made with rectangular construction: if you can avoid wasting cloth that took you months to make, you avoid wasting even the tiniest scraps. You make large pieces, such as bodies, out of smaller pieces. Look at a modern pattern layout (this picture and others in this post are used without permission; please, if this is your picture, either give me permission or tell me you don’t give it and I’ll find another one).

Moder Pattern Layout

Notice that, even if you shove the pieces up as close together as you can, there’s still a lot of fabric that’s left unused, and it’s all in weird, wonky shapes.

Now, here’s a typical layout for a Viking style tunic, which was also the same pattern used for under-tunics (variously known as chemises, Hemde, camisas, camicias, smocks, and a lot of other interesting names), tunics (variously known as gowns, bliauts, bliauds, Kleide, and a few others that I’m blanking on at the moment) — and, used for both men and women. Beneath it, I’m putting a layout for a Viking dress known as a hangerock or, in English, an apron dress.

Viking Undertunic Layout


Hangerock Layout
Hangerock Layout

Ahhh, now that’s more like it. Very little waste at all in that tunic pattern, and what there is is a shape that can be repurposed to something else. You can make it into more under-arm gussets, line a small pouch or purse, make panels for a cap, even give a coif to a baby. And with the hangerock? No waste at all! If a weaver planned for a specific person’s size and figure, she could even make it so that the cloth was the perfect width and length, just like these two pieces, to waste little or nothing with each garment made. That was the kind of thing that took a lot of skill, a lot of patience.

All of the stages of clothing production, in fact, took that level of skill and patience. Every last bit of it was important. If this was done well at every stage, the resulting clothing could last as long as the wearer, or longer. One baby’s outfit might be used by a dozen or more infants in succession, throughout a family or a village. One pair of trousers, with careful mending, could last from a man’s first days of growing to that size, possibly for the next decade. If done poorly at any stage, the wool of those sheep or the flax of that harvest, and the labor put in by all the other individuals, were wasted because the garment wouldn’t last more than a year or two at most. People planned their wardrobes to last, and last they did. There are still pieces of extant garments discovered from Viking finds, for instance, that still show stitches, mending, and even their dyed and embroidered decorative touches can still be determined.

Now, try to imagine a Viking village that wasn’t properly clothed. They couldn’t be respected by the other villages; they couldn’t be very powerful traders or warriors. They’d likely die of cold and dampness. That’s how important it was then, and still is now. Naked people have little influence, as a famous feller once said. Sturdy clothing keeps the wearer safe from elements, and is an important signal of relative wealth, status, power, culture, and identity. Wearing clothing that is very good says, “Our warriors are strong enough to protect our textile producers while they do this fine work. Our textile producers feel safe enough to do their best, however much fine detailing is involved, and even to decorate: therefore, we are both safe and prosperous. Look at the dyes we can afford! Notice our beads, that we can trade for or steal or have time to make for ourselves! Respect us!” In other words, clothing is sort of the basis for what keeps a people going and keeps a society working.

So, if clothing takes this much skill, this much expertise, this much patience, this much knowledge, and is this important… Why is “women’s work” so disrespected? When and how did that happen?

2 replies on “One Year of Sewing: Women’s Work”

  1. Gah! That first pattern was painful to look at. I pretty much always modify modern patterns when I use them anymore to reduce fabric wastage. I’ve been too trained in the medieval “fabric is precious” mindset (plus to me the really GOOD stuff that I use IS precious) to waste an inch that I don’t have to!

    1. It set my teeth on edge, too. It hurts to see that much waste, especially now that I’m buying fabric. Even the “cheap” fabric isn’t something I feel like wasting at all, but especially not the good stuff. Of course, the other problem I’m having now is that once I’ve sewn something, I don’t care how big the mistakes are — I’ve sewn that seam, and by G*D I’m not un-sewing it for love or money! So my existing garb could get better, but it probably won’t. 😉

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