It's not just sewing, it's algorithmic thinking

I'm still admiring and thinking about Cheryl Buckley's article on sewing, "On the Margins", as per the thoughts I started last night.  Buckley talks about the skill in designing that the women she interviewed exhibited, with nary a pattern in sight.  She notes that women across different classes made clothes (England c.1920s - 1980s), but in that this activity was consistently marginalised.

Before we pull out the standard line of women just not having enough time any more, what with paid work and running a household and all, I think it's worth noting that Buckley's women sewists were very busy women, women who put in long days in their paid jobs, raising families and assisting in family businesses, before sitting down of an evening and sewing at the machine which was on the corner of the kitchen table or squashed in the front room.  What is different is that clothes were much more expensive to buy then, relative to making them at home (particularly 1950s and 1960s for this point).  What is similar is that what you could buy was mostly shoddily made.

Buckley observes the long and special memories which clothes which women made held.  I've noticed this, and have enjoyed hearing Mary K (now 85) talk about dresses she made for particular occasions.  I've sat with her and looked at photo albums and wished they were in colour and close up.  Before Mary K married in 1948, she worked for a local firm which made couches and other furniture, sewing the upholstery.  When she got engaged, she was allowed to make the curtains and other soft furnishings for her new home, using the equipment at work.  I'd like to make a kind of personal exhibition of all the clothing my Mum had made over the years, both for herself and for us children (and more recently her grandchildren).  Mum has photos of herself modelling the clothes she entered into sewing competitions before she married.  Looking back through her knitting pattern box last year, I realised that somehow, in the 1980s, Mum held down a part time paid job, worked outside in the small berry garden business we had, worked inside running the home, made about a zillion cakes for community fundraising cake stalls each month and knitted each of us three children a new jersey each every winter.  I remember when we played euchre at night that we had to wait until she finished her row before she had her turn.

Buckley writes about the difficulties of tracing what these items of clothing meant to the makers of them through historical records, and of the ways in which these items which had specific meaning within the communities in which they were produced (sometimes used as barter for vegetables, other skills or locally available items).  This is where I think modern blogs are fantastic as a way of sewists sharing their projects, thoughts and journeys as they sew, not just within current communities, but also as a historical record for ther families and for the wider public.  This post by Tilly and the Buttons about her research on sewing bloggers as cultural leaders is so interesting and I haven't even gotten half way through reading the responses (found in linked blogs as well as the comments section).  Adrienne at All Style and All Substance is writing her gender studies thesis on the online sewing community, no less.  I loved reading about her feminist sewing workshops.

One of my favourite memories of studying history at Otago was when my friend Catherine (featured here) talked about assumptions about women and technology.  If you've ever tried making sponges in any oven, let alone in an untried (to you) oven, you will know that there is a lot of technological knowledge involved in making it light and fluffy.  But that was women's work and was never talked about as technology in the way that fixing a car was.

So in that light, I was fascinated to find this article on the way in which young women are taking on sewing.and using computer technology to create some very modern effects, such as using electronic pieces to sew a dress which has LED lights running through it.  I learnt that:

"“Algorithmic thinking” is the term computer scientist—and sewer—Leah Buechley uses to describe what it takes to translate a two-D paper pattern into a three-D soft object."

My journey to develop my algorithmic thinking now has a name.  The project, to get clothes to fit properly across a bust which is much bigger than clothing companies design for, seems rather frippery at times, but algorithmic thinking gives it a gravitas that I certainly appreciate.  It is a new kind of thinking language for me, this 2-d into 3-d, and I'm quietly proud of my small incremental gains in understanding something which had never interested me at school.


Heather said…
thank you for sharing those links - I especially enjoyed the one on the feminist sewing meetings :-)
Sandra said…
My pleasure Heather. I liked the feminist sewing meetings also.

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