Thursday, July 21, 2016

Handmade History: Fabric

by Kate McCreight, guest blogger

My husband discovered a beautiful antique (functioning!) Singer 15-91 electric sewing machine at a garage sale. We brought her home, cleaned her up, discovered a bit about her history ('born' in early 1932!), and I started sewing with her.

Singer 15-91, 1932, photograph courtesy of the author
Normally a knitter, and someone who hasn't sewn a garment in almost 10 years, I am now sewing daily. Using such a historic machine, my mind often wanders to what sewing would have been like for someone in the 1930s. What would the selection of materials look like? What sort of fabrics would be available? Since I'm a history geek, my thoughts wander back even further than the 1930s, and thus the inspiration for this installment of Handmade History.

Woven fabrics have been in existence for thousands of years, but the availability, value, and variety of these fabrics have changed drastically through time.

Today fabrics are available in a wide range of styles and prices - with the ability to order via the web or even create and print your own designs on sites like Spoonflower, the possibilities are endless.
Cindy Lindgren, Minneapolis Lake Names fat quarter

Of course, prior to the innovations in textile production during the 18th and 19th century, and the onset of the Industrial Revolution, this was hardly the case. Cotton, linen, and flax were the earliest fibers cultivated for weaving fabrics (although the earliest clothing was made from leather and felted wool). Cloth was expensive, and the draped fabrics that made up the clothing of ancient Greeks and Romans were styled by draping rather than cutting shapes because it was wasteful to cut away at lengths of valuable fabric. After all, the entire production of the fabric - growing and harvesting the crops, spinning the threads, and weaving the fabric - was done by hand. Wool fabrics were popular in the colder climates of northern Europe, both as felted and woven garments.

TC Witchcraft Factory, vintage organdy fabric

Three main types of textiles evolved: plain weave, twill weave, and satin. Plain weave is the most basic of the three, with the warp and weft forming a simple criss-cross pattern, and both sides of the fabric look the same. In plain weave, the warp and weft are the same weight of thread; warp and weft are of different weights to create and basketweave pattern.  Twill weave is more durable and creates a pattern of diagonal ribs, were there is a clear front and back to the fabric. One example of a twill weave is the weft crossing over one warp thread, the under two warp threads, and alternating that pattern across the surface of the fabric. Satin weave also has a clear front and back, with the fabric front appearing glossy and the back matte. In satin weaving, the warp thread goes over multiple wefts at a time, giving it a very soft hand.
mini mushrooms, Bukhara ribbon trim

Silk gained popularity in the Western world as trade routes between east and west opened up.
Beginning in Middle Ages Europe, and onwards through the Renaissance, the production of luxury  woven-patterned fabrics was a multi-person affair, requiring two people to operate a single loom, and often done through small cottage industries.

Fabric became a valuable trading commodity the world over, and was often included in bridal dowries. Elizabethan sumptuary laws in the 16th century dictated who was allowed to wear certain colors, fabrics, and styles of clothing. Purple, ermine trims, and certain silks were reserved for royal family members, as were woolen goods made "outside the realm." The laws also included appropriate wear for one's horse. These laws were enacted not only to distinguish social classes, but also out of concern that men would be "allured by the vain show those things, do not only consume themselves, their goods, and lands which their parents left unto them, but also run into such debts and shifts as they cannot live out of danger of laws without attempting unlawful acts, whereby they are not any ways serviceable to their country as otherwise they might be." [Greenwich, June 15, 1574, Elizabeth I] Simply put, there was great concern of the populace falling into ruin in trying to keep up with the latest court trends. Actual legal enforcement was scant - with the biggest punishment being a fine - but the social repercussions of dressing above your station were dire.

The first weaving factories were built in 1785. Introduced around 1800, the invention of the cotton gin, which mechanically separated the seeds from the fiber, made milling (and therefore, weaving) cotton a more profitable endeavor. Synthetic dyes introduced in 1850s, combined with roller printing  (mechanized fabric printing) and the Jacquard loom (patented 1805, and enabled complicated color patterns to be easily woven) revolutionized fabric production. The Industrial Revolution made it possible to create goods on a large scale at reduced prices, and for the first time in history, conspicuous consumption moved beyond the upper classes.

Light Reading, fabric drum lamp shade
The Industrial Revolution's effects trickled down from the factory floor. Home sewists now had access to sewing machines and a range of affordable fabrics. In 1851, the Singer Manufacturing Company introduced the world's first sewing machine for domestic use, and the company quickly grew. In 1932, the year my Singer was made, a woman (advertising of the time was geared solely towards women) could have bought the machine from a door-to-door salesman, with the possibility of using a rent-to-own plan to finance the purchase.

In the 21st century, fabric is used for far more than just the clothing on our backs and the sheets on our beds - and artists continue to find new and inventive uses for fabrics, taking full advantage of the wide selection of modern day textiles.

relaine, fortune cookie

Further reading:
History of Clothing
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Costume Institute,


Kelly Newcomer said...

I love it! Also great selections of custom and vintage fabrics from HandmadeMN on etsy.
Good luck with your new sewing machine. What do you like to sew?

Cindy said...

Fascinating read! Thank you for sharing my textile design. It truly is amazing to create fabric thru digital printing.

Brenda Irwin said...

Nice job!