How Home Sewing Personalized Fashion

For generations, families have relied on thimbles, needles, and thread to transform the clothes they have into the clothes they want to wear. An Object Lesson.

Stefan Wermuth / Reuters

I am on the short side of petite, so clothes shopping is often a problem. But my mother, a gifted seamstress, always came to the rescue with her round, gold sewing tin with the red-and-green, mid-century starbursts on it. She’d instruct me to climb up on the dining room table so she could hem pants that puddled at my ankles and skirts that dangled unfashionably past my knees. These and other alterations—nipping in the waist, adding invisible snaps to unruly blouses, or lifting out wads of shoulder padding—turned my off-the-rack wardrobe into made-to-measure couture tailored just for me.

Today, advances in the way we make clothes have spread from the garment industry to the home. Modern sewing machines are more like personal computers. They can be programmed to sew almost anything from quilts to sequined cocktail dresses without the user doing much of anything at all. Yet there have been almost no advances in the way we repair clothes. In part, this is because repairing clothing is more intimate than creating them. Compared to a sewing kit, even the most space-age sewing machine can seem cold and dull.

For example: Upon arriving to go out to dinner, my mother once decided that the new dress I was wearing didn’t fit me right. Specifically, she thought the shoulders were droopy and that it was too long-waisted. I was going to change, but she could “probably at least fix the shoulders,” she assured me. A small plastic case emerged from her pocketbook, and then out came a seam-ripper, and while I was still wearing the dress, she carefully cut open the shoulder seams, gathered the fabric and pinned it. Then with invisible nylon thread (also from the case) she sewed the new seams together. Then we left for dinner. The shoulders looked better. The dress looked better. I looked better.

My mother’s traveling sewing kit is part of a centuries-old tradition of on-the-spot mending. Charles Bazalgette, whose book, Prinny’s Taylor, chronicles his ancestor Louis Bazalgette, tailor to King George IV for 32 years, writes that Louis issued “a striped silk [sewing kit] filled with colored silks, thread, needles, and thimble for the pages.” It makes sense that those tending to the royal frocks would want to have a sewing kit with them at all times to make emergency repairs should they suddenly discover a missing button or a frayed hem.

Of course, remaking a dress to suit the wearer instead of remaking the wearer to suit the dress is a skill that must be learned. And it requires an understanding of garment construction. “In making over a garment the home seamstress was limited in the amount, shape, condition, and type of fabric with which she had to work,” Sarah A. Gordon writes in her book, Make It Yourself: Home Sewing, Gender and Culture 1890-1930. “One had to pick apart seams, press the pieces, and figure out how to combine odd shapes and different fabrics.”

Like these turn-of-the-last-century ladies, my mother saw all off-the-rack clothing as lumps of clay to be molded and shaped with new buttons, narrower shoulders, or shorter hemlines. She tailored the clothes she had into the clothes she wanted to have. And she did it all by hand. Dresses were reimagined into blouses, worn-out jeans became shorts or skirts, and in one particularly impressive renovation, my aunt’s dowdy Persian lamb overcoat became a chic bolero jacket.

Today, if I buy a dress that doesn’t fit right, I return it. When clothes show signs of wear, they get sent off to Goodwill or relegated to at-home loungewear. It's not because I don't have the tools to do proper mending, either. My mother helped me assemble my own sewing kit to take to college. We roamed up and down the aisles at the local fabric store picking up supplies: dressmaking scissors, a collection of needles of different sizes, a thimble, a seam ripper, tiny gold safety pins, straight pins, a pincushion shaped like an overripe strawberry, a small ruler, tailor’s chalk in case I had to hem something, and five spools of thread in navy, black, white, clear nylon, and red.

This creation of a personalized sewing kit for a relative leaving home is another tradition, dating back to the Napoleonic Wars. The portable sewing kit was originally called a hussif and was first mentioned in print in 1749 to refer to a small cloth case holding a selection of needles, thread, pins, and maybe a pair of tiny scissors. In an interesting etymological development that reverberates to this day, the word hussif evolved into “housewife.”

A sewing kit assembled by a loved one shows that they care—and it transports that care over a physical distance. Soldiers received sewing kits as gifts from wives, mothers, daughters, and girlfriends, usually made from scraps of silk and fabric remnants, sometimes embroidered with hearts or initials. A hussif owned by a soldier in the American Civil War might have the word “Dad” embroidered haltingly on the inside. An exhibit at the National Army Museum in London marking the 200th anniversary of the battle of Waterloo displayed a sewing kit owned by Captain Newton Chambers, who served with the 1st Regiment of Foot Guards. In the time before safety pins, soldiers used the items in their kits not only to mend uniforms, but also to sew on buttons, bars of rank, and awards. There were also many improvised uses: Needles were used to remove splinters and the needle and thread to sew up wounds on the battlefield.

Despite its association with women’s work, the sewing kit’s utility earned it respect within the military. The anonymous authors of A Remedy for the Evils that Have Caused the Destruction of a Large Portion of the British Army Before Sevastopol, an 1855 pamphlet examining the failure of the British army in the Crimean War, note that all the Russian soldiers carried hussifs—perhaps, they theorize, if the British soldiers had also done so, they would not have arrived at Sevastopol in rags. A well-outfitted cavalry, buttons and all, might have led to a better military outcome.

Basic sewing skills were essential for every Regency lady and gentleman soldier. Before department stores, a knowledge of sewing was necessary to make functional items for the home: sheets, pillowcases, and towels. In the 19th century, more specialized sewing tools and increased leisure time allowed women to sew for artistry as much as necessity. Sewing kits were no longer crafted from salvaged scraps of fabric, but showier and more elaborate materials. Among the period treasures at the Victoria and Albert Museum are beautiful “etuis”: small decorative containers of fine porcelain and enameled metals. They were designed for carrying needles, small spools of thread, scissors, and perhaps even a pencil and paper, and tapered so a lady could hold it in her hand. An industry developed to market useful and beautiful items for the dressmaker. In the 1940s and ’50s, needlebooks, sometimes called Sewing Susans, were sold at hardware and five-and-ten-cent stores. The little books had decorative and topical paintings on the covers and a collection of needles, two or more needle threaders, and sometimes even a bit of thread.

Before she met my father, my mother was a bookkeeper for a coat factory in Manhattan’s Garment District. She would watch the buyers come back from fashion week with designer coats that they would cut apart on the factory floor to see how they were made. Then they would rework them ever so slightly for a less well-to-do but still stylish customer. Mom had her own tailor to whom she brought more complicated alterations (blazers with linings, skirts with pleats). She brought him her wedding dress for last-minute alterations when a pre-wedding crash diet proved a little too successful. He gave her double the amount of lace she could afford and made her a veil as a wedding present, as thanks for years of loyal patronage. Mom has a beautiful, radiant smile in her wedding picture—it was her wedding day, of course, but I suspect she’s also smiling because she knows that the dress and veil are a vision of inspired tailoring.

Today, mall shoppers don’t blame the dressmaker when clothes don’t fit right in the changing room; they blame themselves. If only they had taken that Saturday spin class, or skipped that side of fries. The very idea of tailoring is foreign and outmoded. The TLC make-over show What Not to Wear would often feature hosts and stylists Stacy London and Clinton Kelly sighing deeply while trying to reassure a frustrated, depressed client that every single item of clothing could be tailored to fit just right. The dazed client would furrow a brow with skepticism, as if the word “tailoring” was a foreign, sinister word that had no meaning at all in modern fashion.

The status of fashion also does a disservice to the humble sewing kit. Fashion designers create styles from scratch, while tailors merely adjust what is found or given. And yet, there is reason to believe just the opposite. In Make It Yourself, Gordon writes that altering an existing garment required more skill and innovation that making an item from scratch. She quotes this passage from a 1925 sewing manual:

There is no doubt about the fact that it takes more brain power to produce a successful make-over than it does to make a lovely gown from sumptuous new material, for the pieces of material to be made over have certain set limits beyond which we may not go, while new material stretches out yard upon yard to lure the scissors.

Home sewing, Gordon writes, can be an outlet for personal tastes and creative self-expression. A sewing kit is much more than a needle and thread in a pocket or purse. It is also a license to realize the body’s wants and needs, rather than to force it to conform to the whims of fashion.

This article appears courtesy of Object Lessons.