There were always benefits to having a crafty mum. As an Eighties toddler, I was dressed in Cloth Kits dungarees with matching fabric toys and smocks up-cycled from her old Laura Ashley skirts. Later I pillaged her sewing supplies for adolescent fits of self-expression, like embroidering flowers on my Converse or stitching song lyrics onto a denim skirt.
But, for a long time the idea of homespun, ‘made by Mum’ clothes seemed like a retro throwback compared to the shiny immediacy of fast fashion. It’s only in recent years that I’ve fully come to appreciate her skills for what they tell about history, sustainability and love. Having been unable to hug her for over a year during the pandemic, swaddling myself in a quilt she made and a pair of socks she knitted has felt like the next best thing.
She'd scoff at the idea of herself as a sustainability icon, but the truth is that my mum taught me more about conscious dressing than any article, brand or Instagram caption ever has. As a trend-hungry teen, I learned how to transform midis into minis, that jeans could be turned up and taken in when fashion changed – and that it changes so often you may as well keep everything in the loft for the next time around. She showed me that darts could be added, secret poppers could be sewn between buttons; that clothes could be altered to my fit me better, rather than the other way around. From her I inherited a passion for charity shops and a blithe ambivalence towards the odd stain (which hardly shows) or musty aroma (it's proof it’s 'lived'). While I used to think ‘privilege’ meant being bought armfuls of Topshop clobber, now I realise that wisdom is its own kind of inherited wealth.
Fashion Is A Feminist Problem
Like so many subjects in modern feminism, there's a tricky line to tread between honouring the women who went before us and rejecting their hand-me-down values. Just as supermarkets freed 1950s housewives from endless daily shopping rounds, affordable, ready-made clothes for women were one of the many strides made for our liberation. But, is it possible to champion sustainability and dismiss the notion that sewing is just 'women's work' and also acknowledge the importance of sewing and crafting for women's liberation? And how do we fight for a more sustainable future and learn craft skills without betraying the women who put down their darning needles and took to the streets in the name of equality?
Of course, the responsibility for sewing, mending and maintaining our clothes shouldn’t fall largely with women. And yet, it still does. It's estimated that approximately 80% of global garment workers are women. And, as campaign group Labour Behind the Label explains, the vast majority are in the job not by choice but through enduring gender discrimination: ‘Women are desirable in the garment industry because employers take advantage of cultural stereotypes – to which women are often obliged to adhere – that portray women as passive and flexible.’
On the home front too, women are still overwhelmingly the ones making nativity costumes and sewing buttons back on cardigans, with a 2019 study by Iowa State University finding that nearly 70% of home sewists are female.
‘At the origin, it’s all women’s work,’ Orsola de Castro, co-founder of Fashion Revolution and author of new book, Loved Clothes Last: How the Joy of Rewearing and Repairing Your Clothes Can Be a Revolutionary Act, tells me. ‘Inventing complex systems to fabricate, experimenting with dyes and fixatives, weaving local folklore into patterns, taking their cumulative household knowledge into their community, and then across other communities; that’s what [women] did, for millennia. We can claim it as ours.
‘But at the same time,’ she continues, ‘I can understand why women burned their needles and yarns together with their bras in the search for emancipation. I feel it is only recently that women are ready to claim our threads back, the threads that bind us.’
From the make-do-and-mend thrift of wartime housewives to the communities keeping artisanal traditions alive around the world today, there are millions of stories to be told about the matriarchal impact on our wardrobes. Many were born out of poverty and necessity, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have style. It's a fact that makes Dolly Parton’s 1968 song 'Coat of Many Colours' spring to mind, the heartbreaking ballad which recalls a rag bag turned into a spectacular piece of outerwear. 'Momma sewed the rags together / Sewin' every piece with love,' she croons.
For centuries women's contribution to sustainability has been downplayed, with sewing dismissed as domestic drudgery or a soft, genteel hobby while men have been aligned with grunt work with blood, sweat and steel. Yet as De Castro points out, needle skills 'are not unique to seamstresses and housewives, they are also needed by surgeons'. And when we lift the curtain on the role of sewing in history, it sheds light on the resourceful women who have long used textiles as a tool of empowerment, a driver for change, or a way to speak when nobody will listen.
We can trace a thread from today’s sweary feminist cross-stitch kits back to 1830, when 17-year-old domestic servant Elizabeth Parker used needlepoint to document her life story, including an account of her sexual assault. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Smith Miller, one of the first American women to popularise trousers, created her Turkish-inspired pantaloons in 1851 after becoming ‘thoroughly disgusted’ with the way her long skirt slowed her down in the garden. The women of the Black Panther Party used their all-black ensembles as a symbol of unity and resistance, while under military rule in 1970s Argentina, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo embroidered white headscarves with the names of their missing sons and daughters and wore them in an act of silent protest. When designer Katharine Hamnett shook hands with Margaret Thatcher in 1984 while wearing a handmade T-shirt that read '58% don't want Pershing', her anti-nuclear statement became an iconic photo opportunity. The designer later told the Guardian: ‘That T-shirt gave me a voice.’
Nowadays the art of quilting is hot property thanks to designers like Emily Adams Bode, who uses antique textiles to make her one-of-a-kind workwear jackets (if the £1,075 price tag doesn't inspire us to pick up a needle ourselves, what will?) and Tristan Detwiler of Los Angeles label Stan. But patchwork has long been a form of political protest. We can look to the Suffragette banners embroidered with names of imprisoned women; the ‘freedom quilts’ used by enslaved African-Americans as a way to signal safe houses and alert each other to potential dangers; the AIDS memorial quilt, begun in 1985, which now has more than 48,000 panels. Artist Tracey Emin subverted the genre further, with furious floral blankets that proved the medium could be anything but twee.
Beyoncé spoke of the power of sewing during her speech after collecting the 2016 CDFA Fashion Icon award, paying tribute to her seamstress grandmother and mother who famously made so many of the singer's clothes. Sewing, she said, was 'a tool for finding your own identity, expression, and strength. It transcends style and is a time capsule of all of our greatest milestones'. Hell, even Geri Halliwell’s infamous Union Jack dress was a DIY effort. From punks and new romantics to the current global drag scene in all its sequinned glory, sewing has always been a valuable tool for anyone wanting to subvert the gender binary and kick against convention.
A Different Kind Of Industry
Likewise sewing has been, and still is, a valuable way for women to gain financial autonomy. Slow fashion brand Birdsong London, whose slogan is ‘dress in protest’, works with skilled female makers who face barriers to employment, as well as run community ‘Knit & Natter’ groups of older women. Ethical labels Mayamiko and Sika Designs champion artisanal craft in Malawi and Ghana, respectively, with business models that support indigenous women makers and their communities rather than – as so many other brands do – ripping them off.
But even without financial incentive, the process of making, repairing or transforming something with your own hands can bring a sense of personal satisfaction that no ASOS parcel can compare to. When Iowa State University researched the reasons women sew, they found that ‘personal fulfilment’ is the main motivation – a factor I’m reminded of every time my mum reaffirms that no, thank you, she doesn’t want to start an Etsy shop to sell her crafts. As we emerge from the years of the #hustling #girlboss, it’s nice to remember that mastering a skill for the sheer love of it is allowed too.
Of course, crafting can be a privilege in itself. Not everyone has the luxury of the time, resources or ability. But even while we fight for the world’s garment workers to be freed from exploitation, the goal isn’t a future in which no women sew. It’s the opposite; we need textile skills to be valued and exalted, paid for fairly and cherished for decades. We need sewing, mending and crafting to be so respected that even straight, cis white guys want to do it.
The needle might already be moving on that score. In August, Esquire reported ‘The Rise Of The Sew Bro’, with lockdown inspiring more men to thread up a sewing machine and find out how good it feels to wear your own creations. Olympic diver Tom Daley’s crafting Instagram account and Harry Styles’ viral JW Anderson cardigan could both help make crochet a worthy successor to sourdough as the new dude hobby du jour.
'I salute the new generation that sees DIY, sewing, mending and repairing as genderless and revolutionary,' says de Castro. 'To beat consumerism, to slow down excess, all we have to do is to keep the clothes we already have for as long as possible.' With a few sewing skills under our belts, however basic, we stand a better chance of clocking up our #30Wears (an initiative that encourages people to wear an item from their wardrobe at least 30 times) – not just through keeping them pristine, but because of the time and effort we’ve put in.
In fact, I believe any garment you can trace back to a person, even just their name on a clothes label, stands a better chance of being loved and worn for longer. From those teenage fashion experiments to a handmade Liberty-print face mask and the knitted rainbow that's hung in my window since April, my life is filled with little pieces of my Mum’s handiwork, and I’ll know I value them all the more because of their emotional ties.
But even while we celebrate the textile traditions that women have kept alive for millennia, we can’t shoulder the burden of sustainability alone. There are too many holes in the system to be patched up, and too many toxic patterns to unpick. What we need is as many people as possible, regardless of gender, to slow down, upskill and join the fight.