The Art of Sewing: from Caveman to Couture

Sewing is the craft of fastening or attaching objects or parts of a garment by making stitches with a needle and thread, either by hand or with a sewing machine. It is the fundamental process underlying a variety of arts and crafts, including embroidery, tapestry, quilting, appliqué, patchwork, and couture techniques.  Sewing is also one of the world’s oldest art forms.


Vintage Singer Sewing Machine

Before the advent of yarn and weaving techniques, garments were constructed out of animal skin with needles fashioned from bone, antler and ivory using   sinew (animal tendon) as ‘thread’. For millennia, sewing was done completely by hand, but when the sewing machine was invented in the 19th century, there was a boom in garment production which lead to the mass production and fast fashion we see today. The many different types of sewing machines and sewing machine attachments have made garment manufacturing faster and cheaper than constructing garments by hand.

Between the 1930s and 1950s, the home sewing industry, dominated by women, flourished. But, after World War II and into the 1980s, the home sewing market began to wane as women found that buying clothes, instead of making them, satisfied their needs.

In 1988, Patagonia’s founder Yvon Chouinard exposed the environmental impact of cotton grown with pesticides and as a result, promoted organic cotton farming. He pioneered the term “corporate responsibility” by creating “The Footprint Chronicles” which dealt


Organic Cotton

with “transparency” in his company’s supply chain. Patagonia and the textile company Dyersburg, were both pivotal in the recycling of plastic bottles to make fleece jackets. It was through these initiatives that the environmental and social responsibility movement was borne. Other designers and manufacturers joined the effort. Designers Eileen Fisher and Donna Karan began designing their collection using a holistic design approach while corporate giant Gap got on board with their Code of Vendor Conduct report, detailing the brand’s commitment to the environment, supply chain and Fair Trade practices.

By the 1990s, a new market emerged known as DIY or Do It Yourself, inspired by the Fair Trade movement. Consumers concerned about environmental issues, sustainability, fair labor practices and transparency in garment manufacturing, took ownership of the creative process by creating their own clothes using organically produced fabrics, yarns and dyes. Others fashioned clothing by recycling and upcycling used and vintage clothing.

Thankfully, hand sewing, machine techniques, and Haute couture techniques are still practiced and amazing artisans can still be found around the world.

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Francesca Sterlacci is the CEO of University of Fashion (UoF) which she founded in 2008 as the first on-demand online fashion video library bringing the art and craft of fashion design and business to schools, libraries, organizations and the general public. As owner of her eponymous label for ten years, her collection sold in fine stores such as Bergdorf Goodman, Saks, Barneys and Nordstrom. As a professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology for 11 years, she became Chair of the Fashion Design Department where she initiated the complete revision of their AAS and BFA degree programs, as well as wrote three certificate programs: Leather Fashion Design, Outerwear and Haute Couture. Francesca has also taught graduate level fashion design at the Academy of Art University San Francisco for six years, both on site and online. Her publishing accomplishments include: Leather Apparel Design, the Historical Dictionary of the Fashion Industry (First and Second Editions), the A-Z of the Fashion Industry, Leather Fashion Design and a 3-volume beginner series on Draping, Pattern Making and Sewing designed to complement the UoF lessons. She has also made literary contributions to both the Encyclopedia of Clothing & Fashion and You Can Do It! The Merit Badge Handbook for Women. Francesca holds an AAS, BA and an MSEd (master’s degree in higher education).