Series: The Anthropology of Sewing; Part I: The Craft Gap

During my interview with Fox-5’s Good Day Atlanta, I mentioned The Craft Gap. It’s my theory of why crafting–and sewing specifically–seems to suddenly be everywhere all the time: blogs, the news, street fairs, online shops, all over.

Sewing has always been around. In my former life as an archaeologist, I spent plenty of time looking at the physical evidence–material culture, we called it–of the lives women lived in the the past. This has always included sewing implements: needles, awls, hooks, pins. So the perception that sewing is new is false. But it feels so new, so NOW–why is that? And what has caused sewing and craft to suddenly become the hip thing to do?

My hypothesis is that we’re witness to the crest of a generation who didn’t have crafting and sewing as a central part of their experience. I call it the Craft Gap. Born anywhere from, say, 1965 to 1990 or so, we didn’t have sewing presented to us as a viable, valuable outlet for creativity. Now, I’m not saying NO ONE born in those years ever learned to sew–obviously that’s not the case, or I wouldn’t be sewing today. I am saying, though, that there was a distinctly different attitude toward sewing after 1965ish than there had been in the past. 4-H programs were fewer in number, Home Ec classes were disappearing all over, and fewer moms and grandmothers were passing on their skills, either because they were less involved in sewing themselves, or because we were less interested in picking up a craft that was increasingly viewed as dowdy and out-of-touch.

What this has left us with is a whole generation–mostly of women, but certainly of men, too–who don’t have the background and the years of experience that our predecessors did. And there seems to be some part of us that misses it.

These days, as I teach sewing classes, I see student after student come through and repeat these same ideas to me: I always wanted to learn but never knew where to go; my mom/grandmother/aunt wanted to teach me and I wasn’t interested; I took home ec, but haven’t done it in so long that I feel like I don’t remember anything. And all of us–me included–have this sense that there is a richness lacking from our day-to-day lives as a result, that having this creative outlet and challenge and inspiration and accomplishment would make us feel more satisfied and connected and a part of something lasting and bigger.

I’m looking to explore in this series of blog posts some of the really big questions, the answers to which I hope will support my Craft Gap hypothesis:

  • who?
  • why now?
  • can it really be a resurgence if it never went anywhere??
  • how is modern sewing a reflection of a change in design aesthetics over the past 40 years? and where does “crafting” fit into the current interest in “design”?
  • where to next??

I’d love, love, love to hear your input as I go along, and answers to the inevitable questions that come about from asking these kinds of questions in the first place.

To start with, what made YOU want to learn to sew? Leave your answer in the comments, and a randomly selected comment will receive a coupon code for free shipping in the Whipstitch Etsy shop!

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  • ~Michelle~
    July 21, 2009 at 8:51 am

    I sewed a bit as a kid in the late 80s/early 90s, but was taught by a nice lady @ my church and my aunt (who used to do my mom's home ec projects for her). I jumped back in a few years ago, because I saw that quilting was a creative hobby, but it's very methodical, which my analytical brain likes very much. I'm never going to create art quilts or probably even do a quilt ala Denyse Schmidt, but I do my best to sew straight lines, and follow instructions, and I like the results. 🙂 Can't wait to hear more about what you have to say!

  • Leigh
    July 21, 2009 at 9:07 am

    I love this theory! I actually learned how to sew when I was about 6, and I used to make my own skirts until it was no longer "cool…" 😉 I started sewing again after college when I wanted to make my own curtains for cheaper than I could buy, and I've been sewing ever since. It used to be more utilitarian sewing, but it's become much more of a creative outlet for me.

  • wearyourcake
    July 21, 2009 at 10:24 am

    My first sewing experience was in Home Ec in high school. I absolutely LOVED it, but did not have a sewing machine. A couple of years later my Grandmother (Grannybelle) passed away and unknowingly to me had written my name on the underside of her sewing machine. It was a bittersweet gift that inspired me from day 1 and I taught myself as I went and never looked back!

  • Rebecca
    July 21, 2009 at 10:27 am

    My school growing up didn't have home ec. My mom did some sewing when I was very young, but didn't teach me. As a very young mother (17), I sewed a few things, very much self taught – a halloween costume, some curtains, etc… Then the sewing quit, I'm not sure why – mostly because I moved out of my parent's house, and no longer had access to a machine.

    I had my fifth child earlier this year (oddly enough at twice the age I had my first – 34), and we decided to use cloth diapers with him. A very generous friend gave me the diapers, but I needed covers, which I thought were kind of pricey. So I started looking online how to make my own. That opened up a whole new world! I love sewing now, but still have only VERY basic skills! I told my girls I'd make them new outfits for the first day of school, and am starting to wonder if I can really do it! But I'm trying to keep a good attitude – I can do it!!

  • Morning Glory
    July 21, 2009 at 11:28 am

    I think that a lot of the downswing of sewing had to do with the feminist movement. Meaning, sewing was associated with the "molly homemaker" image that many women were trying to shake. I think the resurgence shows that women are embracing the balance of work and home and that we are more than capable of doing both. More of a creative outlet now than a necessity! Although feeding my fabric obsession has become a necessity!

  • kristinorth
    July 21, 2009 at 12:21 pm

    I just recently started sewing and quilting. I was on a shopping trip with my MIL (a quilter) and saw 30's reproduction fabrics that just seemed to call to me! I have since started reading blogs and am interested in all kids of sewing and fabric!

  • Shieldmaiden96
    July 21, 2009 at 1:02 pm

    I live in an area where there are a lot of 'plain' folk; I am literally surrounded by women who can whip out a dress on a Saturday afternoon. I want to! I'm sort of making a 'fashion transition' to dresses and I figure the easiest way to do it is to do it myself.

  • K-
    July 21, 2009 at 3:01 pm

    I began sewing just last fall. My mom always sewed, and my granny too. But never me – partly I felt that I wouldn't be able to do it well? It took some life changes to bring to the point of being ready to learn and make mistakes. My granny found a brand new machine from a yard sale. I have had the most fun learning. I think current sewers are more driven to sew what they want, rather than out of a need. We are reading the Little House Series now, which helps me see the drastically different definitions of "need" over the generations. Regardless, once I got started, I felt my hands move in the motions that I had watched so many many times, almost without me. Mechanical, yet fluid – and channeling my mother and grandmother all the way. Yet what I create is my own. And most certainly, I agree with your theory about an innate desire to create.

  • JC
    July 21, 2009 at 3:54 pm

    Hi there. I very recently discovered your blog somehow via a search. I learned sewing in junior high (now called middle school), and during that time, my mom enrolled my sister and myself into a class at a local Singer store (long gone). After hight school being so active, I forgot about it, then college. I lived in Atlanta for 16 years (and only wish I had a sewing thought–although I remembered my crocheting). It wasn't until October 2008 that somehow (without knowing anything about sewing blogs, etc), the thought of sewing came to mind.

    I took a beg class this spring, found a free sewing lounge in my area where I've learned some, and am still learning. I as a beginner 32-33 years ago and still am.

    Lots to learn, but I am willing to learn. My mother still has a machine from 30 + years ago that we just got professionally cleaned today and it is in excellent shape.
    That's my story

  • Courtney
    July 21, 2009 at 6:16 pm

    I definitely fall into the category of my mother made every stitch of clothing her closet and mine too when my sister & I were little, and when she tried to teach me as a tween, I was not at all interested. I "helped" her make my college dorm duvet (read: picked out the fabric and watched TV in the same room she sewed in). It wasn't until I bought my first house at age 27 that I really wanted to learn how to make my own drapes and pillows, so that's when I finally asked her to teach me and she did. Fast forward 5 years and I love love love to sew, still drapes & pillows and now I've even graduated to wearing clothes I've made! In public! Thanks to taking, oh, about 7 of Deb's sewing classes. I am amazed at the time that I now realize my mother must have put into making outfits for me, my sister and our Cabbage Patch Kids.

  • The Slick Mom
    July 21, 2009 at 7:28 pm

    I'm with Morning Glory on this. The 60s and 70s were a big time for women to take on careers outside the home and sewing and "homemaking" went on the back burner. Who had time to sew clothing when they worked, came home made dinner, cleaned house and got the kids ready for bed? Now women have the help of the fathers (not so much in the 60s, 70s) in the home and more and more are finding that work/life dance easier to manage.

    I personally just began a month ago! But am finding I really love it.

  • rubidoux
    July 21, 2009 at 11:13 pm

    Interesting theory! I was born in 1969 and I've been thinking about my great grandmother's granny squares all day. She taught me how to make them when I was maybe six, but the yarn was terrible! I think she used only Red Heart acrylic.

    The women in my family knew how to sew, knit, and crochet, but they did it only infrequently. I was exposed just enough that when I got my first sewing machine almost five years ago, I felt comfortable sitting at it. And I learned how to knit and crochet well enough that it was easy to reteach myself as an adult. But I don't think I ever finished a project as a child. I think I probably wouldn't have started sewing and knitting and crocheting without that taste. But it may have been that had my appetite been more satisfied back then I wouldn't have been craving it in my 30's.

    Interestingly, my mother has just gotten serious about sewing for the first time. In the last few months she's actually gotten herself a serger and a coverstitcher. I think I'm the inspiration!

  • Melanie O
    July 22, 2009 at 7:33 am

    I totally agree with you. I was born in the late 60s and although my mother was taught how to sew (and, apparently, was quite accomplished) she never taught her children. She never sewed when I was growing up, I think she thought it was old-fashioned and it was easier to just buy things. My grandmother is a very accomplished sewer but I always lived faraway and it never came up when visiting. I love to sew and think it is a bit of a shame that somehow sewing and other homecrafts were devalued by society in the 70s and 80s. I'm glad they're making a resurgence. Thanks for a great post!

  • asimplestitch
    July 22, 2009 at 8:12 am

    I'm excited that you're writing about these things. I've been thinking about them as well. I wasn't sure if it really is a resurgence of sewing/crafting, or if I was just oblivious to it until recently….

    If I'm being honest, I first wanted to sew because I was attracted to the fabric and the tools. I also wanted to create something. I had tried crocheting, knitting, cross stitch, but they took too long and I always ran out of steam before I finished something. Once I got past the buying things stage, I really craved things that were hand made. I love giving a gift of a quilt or something similar that I made, that was made especially for someone else. I like the creative outlet that also ends up being useful. And I like that I can sit down at a sewing machine and have something to show for it in a very short amount of time. And maybe there's something there about getting back to simpler things…

    I could write a novel on this topic relating solely to myself, but I'll spare you that!

    Thanks again for writing about this. I look forward to reading more about it.

  • kaiolohiakids
    July 22, 2009 at 8:37 am

    Back in 1958, I was a 12 year old who always got bored during the summer. My mother enrolled me in a sewing class at the local Singer Store and I have been sewing ever since. Home Ec in High school taught me how to better better set in sleeves & zippers, so it was a growing process.

    My daughter -born in 1971 -took "Home Ec" in middle school & what did she learn? Woodworking & Metal shop-things she would never touch today. She has my old sewing machine, but I have to reteach her to thread it whenever I visit her! She did make a "Cave Man" costume once, but cannot even mend her kids clothes!

    So I wholeheartedly agree with your Craft Gap theory and am looking forward to (hopefully) teach my granddaughters to sew!

  • Kelli
    July 27, 2009 at 9:32 am

    I find your theory so true and interesting. I am 29 and I've sewn all my life and for most of my life it was kinda the thing I did in 4-H and that was it. I never went out of my way to sew things, just kept up with my skills and made one or two things a year. Once I became a stay-at-home Mom I realized I wanted to sew more–a creative outlet mixed with a way to save money… Now when I make things for my kids or gifts, my friends look at me like I'm a miracle worker. I've literally had people in awe over my stuff, and believe me–it's not the high quality of the workmanship! It's just that I can do it and they can't.
    My Mom grew up sewing and knitting, but never pushed it on us. My sister can't sew at all! I hope I can teach my daughter–she's 5 and already asked for a sewing machine for Christmas!
    –can't wait to read the rest of this series!
    [email protected]

  • mommymae
    July 27, 2009 at 11:40 am

    i wanted to sew to make & refashion my own clothes. i took costuming in college to get some basics since it was kind of difficult to take a fashion-based sewing w/o having to take basics first. i now sew quilts, childrens' clothes, costumes, bags, etc. it is fun & i love being able to make gifts.

  • Angela
    August 12, 2009 at 7:04 am

    I love your theory. Of all of my friends I grew up with, I think I might be the only sewer or even crafter (excludes scrapbooks). How about that? I'm a '66 baby. My grandmother was a very talented and creative woman. She always had a craft going and every time I was with her she had a craft set up for my sister and me to do. She taught us a bit of everything. I have many wonderful things she made for me, including my very own Little House on the Prairie outfit. She could do it all. She died when I was 12, but I had my other granny teach me to sew in college. She really was a fine teacher and I made a mini wardrobe. Then, I graduated, got a job, got married and forgot about it. Pulled out the garage sale machine once or twice for my first child, then nothing. Now, I have quit my job and I am staying home with my family. I am trying to catch up and make many things: pjs, quilts, gifts, etc. It takes me back to my childhood. It means love for me. Sewing or crafting in general, but especially sewing is memory of my grandmothers. My mom sewed of necessity and my grandmother seemed to do it for pleasure. That's where I am now.

  • jen
    August 13, 2009 at 5:03 am

    I learned to sew when I was 15 … I wanted to make things I couldn't buy. It was very uncool at the time … late 80's, early 90's. I've been sewing ever since, and it is crazy how I am one of the few people I know who know how to sew.

  • Emily
    September 23, 2009 at 12:11 pm

    I know that I am a bit late in leaving this comment here but I had to put my two cents in.

    For me sewing is an addiction oddly enough. My grandmother taught me how to read a pattern and taught me the basics. She sewed for us when we were younger. Ever since she taught me I have loved it. If I am not at my machine then I am thinking about it and making plans to buy fabric or projects to do. I am always wanting to improve my skills and constantly sew for my children.

    I believe in the Craft Gap Theory. Even now sometimes it is easier and cheaper just to buy what you need instead of making it, but then again it isn't really yours because you didn't make it. You know?

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  • Paula
    March 8, 2010 at 12:55 am

    I learned to sew at about age 7, when I started to play with Barbie Dolls. We were a family without much money but with alot of love. Each time my mother and I would visit Woolworth’s (then located in downtown Atlanta), I would see these beautiful Barbie clothes that our family budget just could not afford. So, my sister who was taking a home-ec class in school taught me how to make the clothes that I could not buy! I would design the clothes and my mother would save old clothing and buy small remnants for me to create my doll’s wardrobe. I also made hats and shoes for my Barbie.

    It seems that the value of sewing never dissipates, however really rises to the top in times of economic stress. It not only provides and avenue for those of us who love pretty things to have some of the items we want for a reasonable price, it also fulfills an inate desire to create, which for me relieves a great deal of stress. Sewing is not just a hobby, it’s a means of therapy!

  • Get Thready
    May 20, 2010 at 1:15 pm

    I have been sewing since I was 13 with the help of my grandma. First it was simple hand stitching and that soon went to making purses to sell to friends at school for $5. My grandma instilled the DIY attitude in me from a young age and It is something I hope to pass on to my children someday.

    My grandma has always been sewing and even has the very first quilt she made when she was 16. She’s made everything from blankets, curtains, prom dresses, purses, and clothing for my sister and I when we were little. She worked full-time, maintained her marriage (going on 50 years this year!), and raised her son, all while continuing to quilt and sew. She recently made quilts for all of her family (8 siblings and her mother), which amazed me.

    My mother was also interested in sewing and would make Halloween costumes for my sister and I. She left the sewing machine out after Halloween sewing one year and I learned how to use the machine all by myself. The manual turned into my bible and I was hooked.

    Right now, I don’t know too many people my age who know how to sew (or are even interested in sewing). I am participating in more craft shows and I am able to meet more people who share this interest with me. In my family, it’s still just me and grandma. Hopefully my mom will get back into sewing.

  • Connie
    May 22, 2010 at 12:23 am

    I left a full answer of how/why I sew on my blog, if you’d like to read it, but also I wanted to say here that I agree with so much of your post, and the comments. As to why women *stopped* crafting: I’d add that it’s also a time consideration. Raising a kid and home-making in the distant past didn’t involve much “away-from-home” time. Cars were invented so we (our mothers, really) traveled more in summer, and met up with friends for playdates, and “ran” to the grocery store, and chauffered kids to organized sports, and could travel in winter thanks to 4-wheel drive. So they were no longer “stuck” at home trying to find things to do with their hands by the fire! Even I, who LOVE to sew, crochet, embroider, etc simply don’t have much time to do so. I have WAY more project ideas, than I have the time in which to create them. I HAVE the space, most of the materials bought and ready to go…but I cannot justify time away from my little munchkin to craft. Afterall, that’s why I’m a SAHM!! So, I do it when he goes to bed, IF I have the energy!

    I’ll also “second” what Kelli wrote about how — what I make isn’t always that stunningly beautiful or well-made, but it’s the simple fact that I sew/crochet/etc that makes people ooh and aah. Like they had never seen anything handmade before! LOL

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  • Jacqueline
    December 26, 2010 at 6:56 pm

    This post is old but in case you read comments….I wanted to learn how to sew because I have four little ones and could not keep up with the cost of clothing them all. My love for sewing started with refashioning their clothes.

  • LaPriel
    March 18, 2013 at 6:20 pm

    I obviously just found your blog. I am 46 ( born 1967) I grew up in a small farming community. I think everyone there knew how to sew! I spent many hours hanging out with my mom, 2 sisters, and even at times my brothers; in the sewing room at our house. I loved moms button box and played in it often. So, I think it was just in my blood. Sewing is what we do. Needless to say, I have some incredibly talented sisters and cousins who sew and do all kinds of hand work that would knock your socks off! :). I hand stitched clothing for my dolls from scraps and at about 10, I picked out a pattern from the cabinet, choose some fabric, cut it out, and then went to find my mom to ask her what to do next.
    I had some incredible home ec teachers in high school. I learned to make jeans, a lined jacket with welt pockets, knits ( yes, even without a serger), and even a Gunnie Sax dress.
    I haven’t sewn anything difficult since the 90’s. Why? It was cheaper to buy clothing than make it and I got tired of trying to get a really good fit for myself. For years I tried t o find some where to learn tailoring. I gave up. Oh, I know basic pattern adjustments, just not the stuff for hard to fit areas. Oh, and where have all the great fabrics gone?
    So, now I am so sick of trying to find tops that fit right that I am thinking of starting to sew again. But, only if I can get some good help for fitting.

  • Ruth Sias
    May 28, 2013 at 11:59 am

    I have always loved fiber arts. My Mom could do them but was a difficult person to learn from. I love sewing, knitting, crochet among other forms of needle arts because I love making it all MINE!