| Sewing Patterns for the Modern Woman - Blog Post: A Brief History of Garment Sewing

A Brief History of Garment Sewing

By Allie

Allie is the co-founder of Indiesew and creator of all things pretty on the site. Follow Allie and receive other Indiesew updates by subscribing to the blog.

20th century garment factory |


Just how, you ask, do we kick off this sewing revolution we call Indiesew? Well, we need to start at the very beginning. To fully understand the art of sewing, how it came to be and how we arrived at the current state of things we're going to have to back wayyyy up. I promise this will be fun.

Sewing has been around almost as long as humans. Yes, seriously. Cavemen used bone sewing needles and sinew thread to patch together pieces of leather to cover themselves when temps were unbearable. Their version of "sewing" was all completed by large, leathery caveman-hand. As the clock ticks forward, we continue to see evidence of hand sewing in many indigenous cultures. Native Americans and tribes in Africa were crafting needles out of random objects and sewing together hides, leaves, and whatever other fabric type material they could get their hands on. These people were brilliant.

Fast forward to the middle ages and the sewing scene largely consisted of seamstresses and tailors. Only the richest of the rich could afford the services of a tailor to sew up their brightly colored wool robes. The common people wore neutral colored cloaks of basic construction. Clothing was an indicator of wealth, and new dyes and sewing techniques were actively being employed at this time. Sewing was still done by hand.

During this time and up until the 19th century, clothing was prohibitively expensive and sewing was considered an important skill if only to make clothing last longer. Mending was an art. When clothing was faded, it was taken apart and sewn back together wrong side out. When clothing was simply worn out, it was repurposed into quilts or other functional items. These people understood reduce, reuse, recycle out of pure necessity.

Then in the 19th century, the sewing machine appeared. At first it was a way for tailors and seamstresses to produce custom clothing items more efficiently. But not long after full textile sweatshops appeared in large business districts of London and New York City. By the 20th century, clothing was mass produced. And here is where the story get's a bit sad.

Of course, with mass produced clothing comes much lower prices. People in developed countries were thrilled to be able to afford clothing with limited use of a tailor or home sewing. But clothing was still relatively expensive (think $300 for a fitted blazer, in today's dollars). Trends were changing a little faster now that clothing was mass produced, and the lower class was trying eagerly to keep up with the current day styles without breaking the bank. Hence, home sewing and sewing patterns exploded.

Butterick was the first company on the scene to publish sewing patterns that women used to quickly construct a garment they had been eyeing at their local department store. Many other pattern makers soon followed, and home sewing became commonplace in most households. Garment making by the average housewife was now the norm.

Butterick Sewing Patterns |


But as things go, the practice of home sewing deteriorated after the 50's and 60's. The US started to outsource much of their garment construction labor to places where employees were paid almost nothing (sometimes they actually were and still are paid nothing) and clothing prices plummeted. Quality was forfeited for a lower price point and the way we consumed clothing changed drastically. Trends started changing by the month; so quickly, that people were shopping for clothing every three to four months as opposed the previous once-per-year trend. Rock bottom clothing prices made this realistic. Soon, sewing your own garments became more expensive and time consuming than buying them off the rack at the local Old Navy or Gap. Sewing, even for the home hobbyist, all but disappeared.

But, there's hope on the horizon! Sewing is making a resurgence in Western countries! The US, UK and Australia have seen huge increases in the number of individuals making their own garments within the last five years. Sewing machine sales are seeing record growth. Just within the last two years, the number of independent sewing pattern designers has increased more quickly than ever before. People are getting back to basics!

It's probable that most Indiesew users aren't sewing out of monetary necessity, but instead appreciate quality garment construction and fit. Some of us consider it an art, others just like to pass the time by making things. Whatever your reason for sewing your own or loved one's clothing, we know that the creative release we get from this hobby is unparalleled. We know when we talk about sewing amongst other sewists, we start to get a little excited and talk a little too loud. This is literally what our hearts beat for.

The future of sewing is unknown. Maybe one day clothing will be indestructible, eliminating a need to mend and make new. Maybe clothing will be a permanent part of our bodies (wouldn't that be bizarre?). But all we have is this very moment. So let's just sew the heck out of some clothes. And when people ask where we got that adorable shirt? We can reply with a confident, "Oh this? I made it," and know that we're doing our own little part to keep sewing alive.


To learn more about the history of sewing, we recommend reading Overdressed by Elizabeth Cline and this rather interesting Wikipedia article.

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