HISTORY PROJECT: The Immoral Rhythms of the Early Sewing Machine

Sewing Factory in Late Victorian England

 

It’s Spring in the northern hemisphere and, for many, that marks the beginning of sewing season (#memademay, for reference). So this week, a salty little sewing tale…

In the 1860s, a small but impassioned debate broke out in both England, France, and the U.S. regarding the potentially “exciting” effects of the sewing machine. That’s right—doctors worried that the rhythmic pumping of the thighs resulted in sexual arousal and that women workers were using the machines to stimulate themselves. Equal parts hilarious and infuriating, it is a story that brings up questions of the industrial use of women’s bodies, their unanswered complaints of fatigue and ailment, masculine control of female sexual processes, and the threat of a working woman enjoying a private pleasure. In short, it’s a juicy one. (Pun most definitely intended.) Continue reading HISTORY PROJECT: The Immoral Rhythms of the Early Sewing Machine

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HISTORY PROJECT: The Legend of the Aran Sweater

Jean Seberg Aran Fishermans Sweater

I know, I know. There is already SO MUCH out there about Aran sweaters. There is, for example, a fantastic slideshow and timeline of the rise of this famous knitting style. There are articles about its morbid history as an identifier of drowned sailors; articles debunking that history as pure fiction; articles explicating the stitch motifs, like hieroglyphs, according to their folk meanings; articles upholding the sweater as symbolic of both national identity and transnational migration. Regardless of the angle, it is clear in all of these instances that the Aran sweater (also called a fisherman sweater*) is much more than just clothing: it is a legend.

As a scholar, I want to understand this legend. As a knitter, I want to be part of it. This week’s post is my effort to do both. Wading through the myriad definitions, explanations, and myths, it became clear that in order to understand the Aran’s mystique, we need to consider its historical and literary roots. Continue reading HISTORY PROJECT: The Legend of the Aran Sweater

HISTORY PROJECT: A Brief History of Long Underwear

Ladies Sanitary Woolen Drawers in Jaeger Catalog 1887

I admit it: I’ve been wanting an excuse to make Dianna Walla’s Aspen leg warmers since I first saw them on Instagram. I initially schemed about doing a post on the history of long underwear just so I could feel justified in adding the Aspens to my to-knit list. As soon as I started digging, though, the leg warmers became a bonus on top of a fascinating history lesson about a fertile moment in fashion history. Emerging in the early 1880s, the Sanitary Woolen System and the Rational Dress Movement both called for practicality and health in everyday dress. Variously rooted in the vagaries of pseudoscience on the one hand and radical feminism on the other, their joint legacy includes such a seemingly mundane garment as long underwear.

Gustav_Jäger_portraitFirst, the Woolen System. Those of us who are spinners, weavers, knitters, and crocheters are well versed in the wonders of wool. But it was news to me that, more than a century ago, there arose an influential school of thought that wool is not only a practical material but also a supremely healthful one. In 1880, Dr. Gustav Jaeger (sometimes Jäger) published Standardized Apparel For Health Protection on the health benefits of wearing wool, and he followed it up with Health-Culture (<– how great/vague is that title?!) in 1887.

Continue reading HISTORY PROJECT: A Brief History of Long Underwear

HISTORY PROJECT: Toklas X Picasso Petit Point

Alice B. Toklas (1877–1967)—wife of literary avant-gardist Gertrude Stein (1874–1946) and subject of Stein’s tongue-in-cheek Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas—is not much celebrated in her own right. To literary scholars, she is the wifely support system that made Stein’s genius possible; to the broader public, she is the author of a cookbook once famous for its “hashish fudge” recipe. We think Toklas should be touted far and wide as a needlework goddess with a taste for whimsy (beyond just the fudge).

You’ll definitely see Toklas’s name pop up again here at the Fiber Archive—she was a prolific crafter —but today we’ll focus on the real showstopper of her oeuvre: her embroidery collaborations with cubist artist Pablo Picasso (1881–1973).

Continue reading HISTORY PROJECT: Toklas X Picasso Petit Point