The Sewing Machine and Women

The challenge for the 2015/16 Studio 21 exhibition was to research the sewing machine and what it means to each artist and then to create work reacting to these findings.

As the first domestic appliance, the sewing machine required ingenious marketing to become successful. Key to the success was to ensure that the position of the woman was not challenged. As such it was important to maintain the social pretence that women should not, indeed could not, use machines. The mechanics of using the sewing machine were wrapped up in how to sew books such as the one by Mary Brooks Picken which contain directives which are laughably inappropriate in today’s context.

I created two main pieces

L’Enigma

As the first domestic appliance, the sewing machine required ingenious marketing to become successful. It was important to maintain the social pretence that women should not, indeed could not, use machines. As such the mechanics were hidden beneath beautifully ornate casing. Many women who sew actually find the mechanics intriguing and when contemplating this, the intrigue and weight of Man Ray’s L’Enigma d’Isodore Ducasse came to mind and L’Enigma evolved.

A Beauty Ritual of Orderliness

An extract by Mary Brooks Picken’s is available as an example of 50’s sexism. Reading the original text one realises that the basic tenet is actually sound: to ensure that your sewing time is rewarding, make sure that you give it time and space. The specific directives however are laughable in today’s context. This piece is worked on a simple apron, required to protect your best dress worn so that you were not “constantly fearful that a visitor will drop in or your husband come home” finding you “not look neatly put together”.

I have had an enjoyable time looking at the wide range of images of the sewing machine and its marketing, building up a diverse Pinterest board which you can see here. The research for this project resulted in some fun images and facts which you can see here in my accompanying booklet.

I also created some smaller pieces from my reactions to the Mary Brooks Picken book.