The Lost Art of Hand Sewing

hand sewingConsidered as one of the oldest kinds of textile arts, hand sewing started during the Paleolithic Age, when Stone Age people made clothes out of fur and skin.  We published an article recently tracing the origins of sewing back over 25,000 years to the very beginning.  In another of our recent articles examined the sewing revolution and how sewing has changed since the invention of the sewing machine and the ready-to-wear clothing market to the present day.

In this article we look at the time in between, when complex and beautiful garments we constructed by hand often over weeks and months of painstaking effort and what of that art still exists today in the form of the Haute Couture fashion industry.

hand sewingHand sewing became a popular art and craft for thousands of years largely until the invention of the sewing machine in the 1900’s.  The late part of the 20th century witnessed the mass production of machine sewn objects and consequently there was a decline in the production of hand sewn garments.  Today, hand sewing is mostly done only for high-quality tailoring and Haute Couture fashion. It is also still alive among textile artists and hobbyists who express their art through hand sewing.  And it is Haute Couture that is considered as a truly fine art.

Haute Couture

Literally, Haute Couture in French translates to “sewing at a high level”.  Charles Frederick Worth, the Father of Haute Couture lived during the reign of Napoleon III in the 19th Century, and the Empress Eugenie was one of his high end clients.  He used only the finest fabrics like muslin or toile, which are mostly made of natural fiber.  Tailored fit to individual customers, Worth’s garments used fabrics pieced for design and they were mostly sewn by hand.

hand sewing

Everett Historical /
Imagine sewing a 19th Century gown completely by your own hands!  Think of the time and effort it would take.  Hand sewing, however, was the standard then because there was still no sewing machine at that time.  And today, couture artists still prefer hand sewing because of its precision and delicacy as opposed to sewing by machine.  Using historical stitches and fine fabrics, couture artists hand sew and piece together garments to create that special historical or exclusive look.

Because fabrics were prohibitively expensive in the old days, garments were pieced together to economize.  Labor, on the other hand was cheap, so every bit of fabric was used and practically nothing was wasted.  Collars for gentlemen’s coats were pieced at the corner and sleeves and trims were pieced to the ladies’ gowns.  The construction of garments also involved piecing where stripes were cut, rearranged or re-seamed, and small pieces added to produce a new look.  The result is a unique and pleasing aesthetic that is characteristic of the Old World fashion style.

Although hand sewing garments is no where near as popular as ages ago, a select group of fashion designers invite fashion editors, celebrities and members of the super-rich to a week-long fashion show in Paris to showcase their Haute Couture collections.  These clothes cost from $25,000 to a million and can take as long as 700 hours of hand sewing, embellishing, bedecking and embroidering to create.  Characterized by lavish fabrics, historic dressmaking and precise tailoring, the presentation of Haute Couture collections are important events in the fashion industry. And it is the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture in Paris that gives permission to label collections as such.

hand sewingHaute Couture, however, suffers from a diminishing clientele largely because of its exorbitant prices.  Over the past century, the number of couture houses has already declined significantly. Does this mean that we are losing the art of hand sewing?  There is a small group of hand sewists who are giving the art a revival of sorts and hopefully, their tribe will increase.  And because of them, we cannot definitely say that hand sewing is a lost art.

Do you still practice hand sewing?  Please share your experiences in the comments below.

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17 Responses to The Lost Art of Hand Sewing

  1. Sandy Wilburn says:

    Thanks, for your article. It is good to know the importance of sewing things by hand. I had learned machine sewing from my mom in the 60’s and made a lot of my own clothes through the 80’s. I did not know the satisfaction of hand sewing until I started learning hand quilting in 2001 while living in Oklahoma. Today I belong to a quilt guild and enjoy both hand and machine quilting. Of lately, I have been doing patchwork soft jewelry broaches with hand sewn beading…..and to my surprise, have currently won ribbons at my county fair. So I would like to encourage anyone thinking about hand sewing to go for it. I am at 66 years and enjoying what I do.

    • Mayra at So Sew Easy says:

      Hi Sandy, thanks for sharing. I too enjoy hand sewing although I certainly end up doing most by machine these days.

  2. Vilna Bashi Treitler says:

    I’ve completely hand-sewn a few garments with Natalie Chanin’s designs. ( I can’t afford her hand-sewn fashions, which can cost $1000s but she wrote a few books about how to make those designs yourself. I took her class on and purchased her first three books. I mix fabric paint, stencil the fabrics, and embroider/construct as I sew on my long commute to work, on airplanes, when a passenger on a long car ride, or when I get to the wine-drinking-and-dessert course at dinner parties. It’s sloooow sewing, but I love the garments when I’m done. At this rate, I’ll have a wardrobe when I’m 85. 🙂

  3. Marty says:

    Did lots of embellishments by hand about 20 years ago and this past year did hand-sewing for grand-daughter’s christening gown and a few special garments. Currently making yo-yos (Suffolk puffs) whenever I’m riding in a car and plan several projects after I get hundreds of them made.

  4. Joanne says:

    When my grandmother taught me to sew (more than 50 yrs ago) I had to be able to sew a blouse by hand, to her standards, before she would even let me even sit at her machine, which was a treadle machine then. I was 8. I have always been glad that I learned this fine art. I still hand stitch lots of things, like the linings of garments. I find hand stitching to be very relaxing and just gives me a sense of having a well finished item. Even if I machine quilt, I will sew the bindings on by hand. I wish more of the newer sewing crowd would take the time to learn how hand stitch.

  5. misha says:

    I sometimes use hand sewing for the finishing touches in a garment but being short of time i tend to use my machine for the seams and darts etc

  6. I do embroidery, have just started stumpwork and finish off garments that I made with my sewing machine.

  7. Judy O'Casey says:

    I hand quilt all of my quilts. So relaxing and satisfying.

    • Mayra at So Sew Easy says:

      Wow! You are amazing! Keeping true to the art form of quilting. I admire your determination.

  8. Wynona says:

    I still do a lot of hand sewing, both construction and embellishments. As a retired seamstress, hand sewing relaxes me and gives great satisfaction.

  9. Genesis says:

    My mother taught me how to hand sew, and I still sew small things. I don’t have much experience using sewing machines since the last time I used one was almost 10 years ago, and it was an old Singer that was still human powered, so those really modern ones that are being sold now would probably confuse me too much.
    Mostly I just fix things, but I’m planning on making a small doll once summer vacation starts.

  10. Linda Gonyer says:

    I started hand sewing with a friend that wanted me to hand sew a the same quilt she was sewing by hand.Once I started I just loved sewing by hand. I have a hard time siting at a sewing machine because of a bad back. I finished the quilt. It was my first quilt and I got 2nd place ribbon at our quilt guild show. I am teaching my granddaughters to sew by hand.

What do you think?