It may be something you take for granted and perform on a daily basis, but what actually is the art of sewing? Well it’s a way of fastening or attaching objects using stitches from a needle and thread and is one of the oldest forms of textile based art. It’s been estimated that sewing can be dated back to during the Paleolithic Age. It is believed that before the invention of spinning yarn or weaving fabric, the first people living on Asia would sew fur and leathers using bone, antler or ivory needles and thread would have been made from various animal body parts. In Africa, sewing was combined with the weaving of plant leaves to create baskets. Natural fibre weaving originated in the Middle East around 4000 BC. The first known use of the word sewing was in the 14th century.
Sewing was done by hand for thousands of years as the invention of the sewing machine didn’t come about until the 19th century. The rise of technology in the 20th century saw a rise in mass production of sewn objects. Hand sewing is still practised around the world, and can be seen as a form of high-quality produce in the likes of tailoring and haute couture fashion.
For the majority, sewing was a woman’s occupation. It was an expensive investment to purchase clothing, so women had an important role in extending the longevity of items. Once a piece of clothing became worn or torn it would be taken apart and used to make other items.
Decorative needlework such as embroidery was seen to be a valued skill, and young women with the time would seek to build their expertise in this area. It was valued in many cultures worldwide although it is traditionally British, Irish or Western European in origin. The stitches associated with embroidery helped to spread the way of the trade routes which were predominant during the Middle Ages. Chinese embroidery techniques were brought to Western Asia and Eastern Europe by the Silk Road.
The Industrial Revolution saw a shift in the production of textiles from the household to the mills. The world’s first sewing machine was patented by Thomas Saint in 1790 and by the early 1840s other sewing machines began to appear. By the 1850s Issac Singer developed sewing machines that could operate quickly and accurately that could surpass the productivity of a seamstress or tailor who would be sewing by hand.
Ready-made clothes for the middle classes were being produced with sewing machines, although a lot of clothing was still produced at home by female members of the family. In large cities like London and New York, textile sweatshops full of sewing machine operators was growing by the day. Needlework was one of the few occupations considered acceptable for women although it did not pay a living wage.
During this period, tailors became associated with higher-end clothing. Savile Row built its name in the early 19th century, developing a reputation for sewing high-quality handmade clothing.
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