“Make It Yourself”: Home Sewing, Gender, and Culture, 1890-1930

Through home sewing, Sarah A. Gordon examines domestic labor, marketing practices, changing standards of femininity, and understandings of class, gender, and race from 1890 to 1930. As ready-made garments became increasingly available due to industrialization, many women, out of necessity or choice, continued to make their own clothing. In doing so, women used a customary female skill both as a means of supporting traditional ideas and as a tool of personal agency. The shifting meanings of sewing formed a contested space in which businesses promoted sewing machines as tools for maintaining domestic harmony, women interpreted patterns to suit-or flout-definitions of appropriate appearances, and girls were taught to sew in ways that reflected beliefs about class, race, and region. Unlike studies of clothing that focus on changes in fashion, "Make it Yourself" looks at the social and cultural processes surrounding home production. Gordon examines sewing clothing as work, whether resented or enjoyed, and the function of that work for families and individuals from a range of backgrounds. Another unique element is Gordon's use of an unusually wide variety of source materials, from diaries, photographs, and government pamphlets to tissue paper patterns, dresses, sewing workbooks, and paper dolls. This "hands on" approach, combined with an accessible writing style, connects the reader to the women and girls who are at the heart of her study. Altogether, "Make it Yourself" provides a new perspective on a widespread yet often neglected form of women's work.