Susan Sews a Skirt: slideshow

Launch SlideshowI understand that many readers do not sew nor have they seen anyone else make a garment. While it is not necessary to be familiar with the specifics of sewing to appreciate my arguments, I decided to take advantage of the electronic publishing format and provide a photographic essay of the steps entailed in making a basic garment. My friend Susan Shaw, an artist and avid seamstress, agreed to make a skirt while I took photographs.

This exercise is not a historical reenactment. Susan made a contemporary garment with modern materials and tools. She used a sewing machine that dates from the 1960s, an efficient electric iron and modern components such as fusible interfacing. The point was not to re-create a sewing experience from another era but instead to show what the process of home sewing entails. Nevertheless many of the fundamental steps are the same as they would have been in the early twentieth century. Even the pattern that Susan used did not look dramatically different than the printed patterns sold by McCall’s by the early 1920s. The most significant change has been in the styles of the garments, not the basic skills of sewing.

Watching Susan make the skirt underscored a number of ideas that I pursue in my book. For example, choosing to sew is a calculation of how we spend time, energy, and money. The skirt cost about $35 in materials and took about five hours to make, including shopping. Skirts are available for less than $35, so is it worth the time to sew? For Susan, it is in indeed worth the effort, at least some of the time. It is doubtful that an inexpensive ready-made skirt would be made of such a high quality material, and unlikely that such a skirt would fit her as well as the one she made. She was able to choose the colors and details that she wanted. Furthermore, while this particular design is conservative, Susan often sews to make things that are more unusual – see her cowgirl dress in the last frame of the essay for an example. Most important, this exercise reinforced that sewing is work and requires time, effort, money, and skill – but it can also be a pleasurable process with a gratifying result.