The Dawn of DIY: When it Was Hip to Stitch

When I was a kid in the 1960s, I embroidered a tea towel to give to my grandmother every year for Christmas. By the time I got to high school, I found I could make decent money embroidering designs and scenes on other people's clothing, because few of my peers knew how to do it. Not many crafters practice the art anymore, although at one time it was almost required for young ladies.  

In today’s Etsy Era, in which everyone aspires to be an artisan (or at least shop like one), embroidery is an exotic handicraft, as incomprehensible to most consumers as blowing glass or brewing beer. But from the 16th century on, girls were schooled in the mysteries of needles and thread by creating samplers, which taught them simple stitches as well as their ABCs.

By the end of the 19th century, the ways of embroidery were virtually encoded in every woman’s DNA. Coincidental to embroidery’s ubiquity were improvements in printing technologies, which spawned a proliferation of women’s magazines and catalogs published by thread companies, each packed with embroidery patterns for throw pillows, table runners, and decorative panels. Through embroidery, the first modern do-it-yourself movement was born.

Laura Euler, the author of Arts and Crafts Embroidery, explains the rise and fall of the craft of embroidery, and what to look for in collecting antique examples of the art, at Collectors Weekly.

(Image credit: Laura Euler)


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When I was 12 and in Boy Scouts, my Mom taught me to hand-sew so I could sew on my patches. I hated it, with a passion I now reserve for grammatical errors and Star Wars sequels. It didn't help that my Mom was a perfectionist and she would rip out my work if it was just a little bit crooked. But I persevered and got my patches on my uniform. 9 years later, I made about $500 in a week or so sewing patches on my fellow sailor's uniforms before a huge inspection, a requirement for us to go on liberty. Once I went on liberty myself, I bought my Mom a really nice present.

(Oh, and I still do some sewing but I now help run a knitting shop. Yay threadwork.)
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My mother-in-law mention that especially during the 60s and 70s that a lot of women abandon anything associated with "traditional women" crafts like sewing and knitting as an attempt to separate themselves during the women's movement, which meant that, indeed, there was a whole generation that never learned these skills or gave them up. At the time it probably seemed a reasonable reaction, but I suspect it was a real loss to a lot of their own mothers' connection with their daughters. Subsequently, a second generation never learned the skills either and rediscovered them all and how to use them to assert individuality over the last 15 years.
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