Taking Back Seamstress

Last January, I had a conversation about the word “seamstress.”  I was lucky enough to be in Palm Springs at the Heather Ross Workshop, and even luckier to be hanging out one evening after the excitement was dying down with Gretchen and a whole host of other seriously cool ladies.  And as we’re all talking, we keep stumbling over what word to use to describe one-who-sews.  We tried “sewer,” but acknowledged that it looks, on paper, a lot like where-the-sewage-goes rather than one-who-puts-thread-through-fabric.  We tried “sewist,” but agreed that it’s a little bit pretentious–just a smidge, not a ton, and it’s not really as descriptive as we’d like, because you have to define the word each time you use it, which can be tiresome.  We floated “stitcher,” which has been my default for a while, but it falls a little flat, in all honesty.

And then Gretchen asked me, “How do you feel about ‘seamstress’?”  My answer:  “Ambivalent.”

Here’s what I mean: when someone would come to our house back before we moved, and need to pass through my studio space to get someplace else, I would often get asked, “Oh!  Are you a seamstress?” in an excited tone.  And I would be offended.  Part of that was because I was busy manufacturing children’s clothing at the time, and thought of myself as something higher and fancier than a seamstress, and part of it was that the word itself conjured up images of sweatshops and piecework and wage labor–not creativity and design and innovation.  So I would get my feelings all hurt, and complain that someone had “referred to me as a seamstress–as if!” I saw myself as MORE than “just a seamstress,” with the smallness that term implied.

At the same time, though, the term seamstress has been used for many, many decades and quite simply describes what it is someone who sews is doing: putting in seams.  The term is effortless, because you don’t have to define the word for your listener or reader; it’s universal, because it can apply to someone who does any type of sewing (although I acknowledge that it is more commonly used for garment sewing rather than crafts or quilts); and it has the added benefit of all its historic connections and connotations, granting us nostalgia and a sense of continuity with the past. It’s not a mean word, and seamstress-ing doesn’t have to imply that the work done is too blue-collar or too low-tech or too small-potato to be artful and sophisticated and urbane. A seamstress can be all those things.

As the months have passed and I’ve ruminated periodically on the term, I’ve become more and more a fan of bringing seamstress back.  I don’t like the push-back I felt when someone would “accuse” me of being a seamstress, that sense that what I was doing was SO MUCH BETTER and so FAR ABOVE what someone who is “just a seamstress” would do.  I didn’t like the picture of myself that painted, the slight arrogance, the self-importance, the idea that I saw my own sewing as superior to the sewing women (and men) have been doing for far longer than I have been alive.  I realized that my rejection of the term was about my own pride, and that I’d made the mistake youth so often makes: believing that I’d discovered and/or invented this thing, and not that I’d inherited it, that it was a gift passed down rather than my own creation. Owning seamstress, making that word something to be inspired by again, requires that I re-examine why I disliked it to begin with, and what it is I want to be able to say about myself and my sewing. I say we shake off the negative connotations that the word seamstress has accumulated, we take it back and make it a term to be proud of, an identity to embrace, something we would be flattered to be called.

I am a seamstress.  In the same way that some who acts is an actress, someone who inherits is an heiress, someone who governs is a governess…  Wait, that can’t be right.  Could that be part of why so many of us push back on seamstressing?  Because when a dude does it, he’s a tailor, which is mighty and can defeat seven with one blow, but when a lady does it the task is diminished?  When a man is a governor, he’s in charge of an entire state and when a woman is a governess she’s in charge of someone else’s children? That’s a load, right there. How irritating.  How last-century.

I am a seamstress.  I am one who puts in a seam.  And the seams I sew bind not just fabric, but my family and my friends, ideas and desires, hope and dream and play.  What I do is nothing to be ashamed of, it is something to rest easy in and to feel grateful and proud to be gifted to do.  Let’s stop being sewers–seriously.  And while I appreciate the intent of sewist, I worry that for folks who don’t sew, it doesn’t give an accurate picture of what I’m hoping to accomplish at my machine.  I don’t feel like a stitcher, which somehow sounds like you’d have to wear piggy tails to fit the term.  I want to be a seamstress.

Join me?

Feel free to grab the button and be a seamstress, too.  I think that would be awesome.

Whipstitch
<div align="center"><a href="http://whip-stitch.com/blog" title="Whipstitch"><img src="http://whip-stitch.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/seamstress.png" alt="Whipstitch" style="border:none;" /></a></div>

**Updated to ask: Of course, if we take back “seamstress,” what does that make our fellas who sew? Tailors? Seamers? Might need your help with answering that one, y’all…

Updated x2: A fabulous button for all you SEAMSTERS! (See comments thread for more details if you just got here, y’all.)

Whipstitch
<div align="center"><a href="http://whip-stitch.com/blog" title="Whipstitch"><img src="http://whip-stitch.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/seamster-sm.png" alt="Whipstitch" style="border:none;" /></a></div>

33 Comments on “Taking Back Seamstress

  1. I don’t mind “seamstress”, but to my ear it carries the sense of making one’s living by the needle, which I do not do. I think “sewist” is super pretentious, and it was in revolt against that term that I started using the word “seamster”. I like the tough guy sound of it rhyming with teamster, plus it is gender neutral! Of course you still have to explain what it means.

    • Hmmmm… That professional-versus-amateur thing is a good point (I had a professor in college who asked us what “amateur” meant, and I answered, “someone who does it for love,” since the Latin root of the word is “amat,” which means love–he proceeded to agree, and then say someone who is a professional “does it for money, with all that implies”). I suppose there’s an aspect where not wanting to present ourselves as sewing for a living makes us not want to associate with the term. I DO like “seamster,” though–I haven’t heard that before, but I think it’s great! Thanks, Lesly!

  2. Wait, I see Lesly beat me to it. Great minds think alike! I want to add that SEAMSTERS also sounds mischievous and a little punky, both of which are right up my alley. Go SEAMSTERS!

  3. I agree with Lesly that my idea of a seamstress is a person who makes a living at sewing, or more specifically, altering, clothing. And as you updated, that pesky -ess also excludes males. I usually get around it by only using the verb: I sew. :)

  4. Well, I named my blog small town stitcher because I felt like I didn’t sew enough clothing anymore (mostly quilts now) to be called a seamstress. But you may have changed my mind Deborah. Of course, I agree with the ladies above that seamster is even better…it does sound a little mischievous and that can be a good thing. :)

  5. I was about to suggest the same thing – Seamster! Close enough to seamstress that it doesn’t require explanation, perhaps?

  6. Personally, I’m a “Fabric Diva” since I quilt and create clothes.

    Seamstress to me sounds like a mender of clothes even though I realise that it does encompass much more than just mending clothes.

    • See, I agree, but the thing is: why IS that? Why is it when we hear the word “seamstress,” we hear “menial labor” or “unskilled sewing” and not “someone who makes seams”? I guess that’s the root of what I’m asking: can’t we embrace the word and make it mean something new, something NICE, instead of hearing a down-grade of our sewing when someone says it?

      I do like the idea of being a “diva,” but I’d want to wear more sequins while I was sewing in that case. :)

  7. Well, honestly, I can’t decide if I’m a seamstress or seamster or sewist or quilter or what. But, I agree, there’s not much of a word for it other than “I sew”. I guess the lack of word may be a result of the lack of action on this front for awhile. As it becomes more mainstream again, a word is bound to stick…

    • When I taught school, I would never, ever refer to myself as a “teacher,” only saying, “I teach school.” I think I want to find a term that will make sewing a bigger part of my identity, rather than a hobby or pastime–because don’t those, too, seem to minimize how big a deal it can be? At least, how big a deal it is to me, anyway. You’re right, I’m sure at some point a word will arrive that we all love–seems like “seamster” is taking the lead today!

    • I love how *tough* it sounds–I actually chose Whipstitch because I thought it sounded just a little edgy and naughty, but also gender-neutral, like boys could sew, too. Maybe seamster can do the same thing, but as an adjective…

  8. Pingback: How Do You Define Yourself? « Jane Not So Plain

  9. I’m late to the conversation, but I have had this exact discussion with a friend. When I think “seamstress,” I think of someone who sews clothes. I also sew bags and quilts and home decor.

    My friend suggested these alternatives: sewthusiast, sewologist, sewphile. I like sewologist.

  10. I am not a seamstress, it is not my profession. I sew. I work in fashion. We refer to the people that sew for us as either sewers, samplehands or samplemakers. They are very talented and their work is not menial.

    • Agreed–the work that’s done in NY samplehouses is beyond skilled. When I first learned how valued a cutter is–and that the skill of cutting is such that you can get work doing ONLY cutting, because it requires such training and finesse–I knew that there are those who truly value the art of sewing. Which is why, I suppose, we all have allowed the term “seamstress” to become one that is less valued for the average woman who sews?

      Thanks so much for adding this–you make a good point, that sewing occurs at all levels, from hobby to professional, and that the fashion industry has its own terminology that we haven’t even looked at yet!

  11. Seamster is kinda cool (like hipster), but it still seems a little shallow. There is so much more to sewing than just the seams, and seamstress/seamster just conjures up the image of the worker who just sews the seams and is not involved in the full design process. Tailor seems like someone who makes clothes fit (but has no say in the creative process). They both don’t express the creative element. Designer seems a bit over-the-top. Hmm, I guess I am back to just the verb – I sew.

    • I couldn’t even call myself a designer when writing yesterday about the children’s clothing I used to design years ago–it always felt so pretentious and ridiculous. But I agree: none of these terms (maybe not even seamstress) seems to hit the nail totally on the head. I DO love how folks have really rallied behind seamster–at least it has the popular vote! If only we could find something that is more descriptive of the work that goes on–how is that “quilter” seems to capture the whole design-to-completion picture, but seamstress doesn’t?? Sigh.

  12. looked on Dictionary.com for the word Seamstress: “1644, from O.E. seamestre “person whose work is sewing”. So that’s a good definition, right? I’m down with that word.

    Tailor: “a person whose occupation is the making, mending, or altering of clothes, especially suits, coats, and other outer garments.”
    Not quite the same fit as “Seamstress”.

    I’m not one to be bothered or offended by gender-specific names. I’m a female, but I ride a horse…. I am not at all bothered if someone refers to me as a “horseman” or “equestrian” as opposed to “horsewoman” or “equestrienne”.

    That said, I love BOTH buttons because they are spunky and smart… and like I Tweeted to Deb yesterday… she needs to make them into bumper stickers to sell at the shop!

  13. Maybe we are “new-age” seamstresses? I don’t know … Since I’m getting old, I don’t want to draw too much attention to my age. Geese
    Seamster is cute and so is sewologist. I just haven’t cozied up to sewist for some reason.
    Fabric-manipulator is a mouthfull …. It’s late and I’m sleepy… Just wanted to chime in.

    How fun

    Debbie

  14. Some of the terms are technical job names in some professions. When I was working in theatre professionally, a stitcher really was that menial image you all keep calling up: just sewed where they were told, while a draper and a cutter are higher-status jobs. Having lived in a small town, there are plenty of working seamstresses and tailors who do the traditional work, anything from taking up a hem to designing and constructing an entire wedding dress or a full wool suit from scratch. I for one have plenty of respect for the work that they do. I do not think it is the same as those of us that do a lot of sewing. Another old term is “home sewer” and I like that one despite the problems in print, because mostly this comes up in a verbal situation. Most times it’s in print we’re looking at a niche blog, so there’s little chance of confusion. Anyway, I’m a home sewer: I sew at home, not at work. I still feel the connection to generations of innovative sewers before me who were not making a living but were solving problems, saving money, and creating beautiful things for the places they lived and the people they lived with. I also use quilter and craftsperson, but like some of the people above I often use a verb form, like “I make things. A lot. All the time.”

  15. I am incredibly late to this conversation, but reading it made me laugh…I’ve always liked the word seamstress and aspire to be considered one, but I love the dialogue you’ve inspired around it. Now if we can just get Heidi Klum to stop saying “it looks home-sewn” with that sneer that makes her look as though the very words make her want to vomit. Sure, I get what she’s saying, but it just sounds so incredibly insulting to all people who sew their own clothing at home. Why can’t she just say it looks sloppily sewn? Meh! =]

  16. Yes, and I’m late to the conversation too, but well said. I love Amy’s comment above, sloppy over home sewn, yes. My “home sewn” garments are more couture than anything else. And, I too am embracing the Seamstress, I thought well I am not a professional so I shouldn’t call myself as such, but this is what I do, what I love, I’m a seamstress. Love your button and I’m putting it on my blog!
    Thanks!

  17. I like seamstress, but I am not a seamstress. I am “learning to sew.” I used to say that my mom sews. But at some point in my life, I realized that my mom does more than “just sew.” If she “just sewed,” it would imply that she hems my too-long pants & skirts (which she does) & she can replace a button (which she does), but my mom does SO MUCH MORE than “just sews.” She makes suits that would rival Chanel, she made my prom dress, which was simply stunning, she sketches her own designs & creates her own patterns. In short, my mom is accomplished. Ergo, my mom is a seamstress.

    I, on the other hand, am “learning to sew.” I can only hope that one day, I too, can be a full-fledged, accomplished seamstress.

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