Home Sewn: Three Centuries Of Stitching History

November 18, 2003
April 18, 2004

"A woman who does not know how to sew is as deficient in her education as a man who cannot write," was the critical advice given in 1838 to the readers of The Young Lady's Friend by author Eliza Farrar. Over the course of history, sewing has played a fundamental role in the lives of countless women. The exhibition Home Sewn explores sewing as a means to understanding and appreciating the lives of the women who plied their needle and thread at home in and around New York City from the 18th century to the present. Needlework not only served utilitarian purposes in the home, but also allowed women to communicate and assert their individual identities, beliefs, and aspirations.

Home Sewn will focus primarily on sewing in the domestic setting where women did most of their needlework and discusses the versatile environment, tools, and training that shaped and even inspired their work. In addition to displaying the equipment inherent to the trade, the exhibition will address the technological advancements and cultural trends that affected domestic sewing, such as the invention of the sewing machine and the influence of the ready-to-wear clothing industry, while emphasizing the continuity in the use of needle and thread to express individuality, relate to others and communicate ideas.

Our exhibit will be a wide array of textiles, including schoolgirl needlework, handmade clothing, quilts and household linens drawn from the Historical Society's extensive collection and supplemented by loans from area institutions. To provide a rich contextual backdrop, Home Sewn also incorporates photographs, paintings, books and documents.

Organized into six thematic sections, enhanced by interactive and evocative settings, Home Sewn explores the social and cultural meanings of sewing, tracing its evolution from an essential female activity to a craft embraced by impassioned hobbyists. The opening section, "Sewing ABCs," introduces the many arenas in which girls and women have been instructed in the use of needle and thread, including home economics classes in New York City public schools, sewing classes offered by reform organizations a century ago, and innovative craft classes and on-line instruction available to today's beginning sewers.

"Outfitting Family and Home," explores the household duties that kept most 18th and 19th century women tethered to their sewing baskets-making, altering, mending and marking the family's clothing and other household textiles. Items on display will range from darned undergarments and patched work shirts to petticoats and party dresses. Sewing manuals, pattern books, workboxes and other items essential to keeping one's family clothed will help to illuminate household sewing before the rise of the ready-to-wear industry. "The Fabric of Life" demonstrates how life's passages have long served as the inspiration for women to take up needle and thread to celebrate or commemorate loved ones. Then as now, the anticipation of weddings and births fueled creative energy and inspired impressive handiwork. Sewing has also provided solace for those mourning the death of loved ones.

Whether sewing as a necessity or as a pastime, women have always found ways to employ their needle and thread as a means of self-expression. "Identity and Expression," showcases items asserting ethnic, religious, and political identity, as well as expressions of pure individuality. The social aspect of needlework, as well as New York's long history of charitable sewing groups, are addressed in "The Sewing Circle." Sewing at home has also provided many women, particularly recent immigrants, a much-needed source of income. "Stitching a Living" investigates the garment industry's reach into the domestic sphere, as well as reformers' efforts to end the practice of homework.

Creative: Tronvig Group