Sewing machines on NPR

You can listen to a story about home sewing on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition discussing the strategies of machine manufacturers to reverse the decline in home sewing since the 1950’s.

Fifty years ago, most American households had sewing machines. But sewing machine sales began to decline as more and more women left to work outside the home. In recent years, however, sewing machine companies have tried to reverse the decline by reaching out to a new market.

Over the past several years, machine manufacturers have developed simpler yet far more expensive machines -over $5,000- for home use (you could buy two new industrials for that price). To some degree, this strategy has been successful judging from scattered news reports reporting that home sewing is actually on the upswing.

Speaking of home sewing machines, I’m reading an interesting book called From the American System to Mass Production 1800-1932 which says that home sewing machines were the first mass produced product in the world designed for consumer consumption. Technically, guns were the first mass manufactured product but there was only one customer; the US government. According to the book, the strategy of expensive machines is nothing new. Even in the 1860’s, Singer produced expensive machines which ranged in price from $110 to $135.

And speaking of NPR and the US government, you should be aware that the Bush administration has proposed budget cuts amounting to 200 million dollars for fiscal 2006. I can only hope you’ll register your disapproval; start by visiting the website of your local affiliate.

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8 comments

  1. Rebecca says:

    Actually, the biggest thing keeping me from sewing at home is not lack of a machine, but frustration with the availability of decent fabric. It winds up being far more practical and economical to buy used clothing in most cases.

    Still, I’m hoping to employ my adequate equipment and less-than skills this summer to make a dress. There are some things it’s very hard to buy …

  2. Jan says:

    Check out sewing machine sales on eBay, especially older machines – pages and pages! Also the yahoo groups wefixit, vintagesinger and others for some insight on what is happening with sewing machine collecting. And read Carol Kimball’s comments on the Singer 401a and 411g in the Discussion Forum for a review of one of the best sewing machines ever made.

  3. marilyn says:

    The $5,000 model machines you mention are the machines that are combination embroidery/sewing machines and are targeted to hobbyists. Brother makes an excellent all-around computerized machine that runs in the $700-1000 range. It has an automatic needle threader that never fails and an automatic buttonhole feature that is near-perfect. I used to sell these and after demonstrating these 2 features alone, I could make a sale. It also has a powerful motor that will stitch through lightweight leather. It’s the NX-Series. As for sewing being on the upswing — it is, but many of the machine sales are to quilters and if you study the machines you can see they are designed for those interests. I credit the DIY shows and the Project Runways for increasing creative interests, but those shows do not give a realistic picture of the prep and skill needed to complete the projects as perfectly as they do in the show. That’s what makes it so hard to teach newbies. Thanks!

  4. Gigi says:

    Rebecca, my husband will attest to the fact that there is no shortage of high quality fabric on the market – check the internet! My closets overfloweth! I am now buying nearly all of my fabric online. Top quality stuff at very reasonable prices. And I get to shop in my PJs.

    I do remember the days when every household had a sewing machine. My mother (aka the worst sewer in the world) even had one. She dutifully used it to mend our clothes and make the occasional throw pillow. The majority of women who sew today do so not to save money but for the creative outlet, better fit, finer fabrics, etc. This type of sewer surely existed decades ago but I think (I’m guessing, I could be wrong)she was probably outnumbered by those who sewed for economy’s sake. My DFIL bought my DMIL a top of the line Singer in the 1970s. By the time she could afford such a machine she could afford expensive ready to wear. And so the machine sat unused until I married into the family. My DMIL has no interest in taking up sewing again while I can’t imagine life without it. I often wonder if the lack of Home Ec. classes in the schools is preventing kids from discovering the joy of sewing in the first place. The first time I sat in front of a machine in 8th grade I knew I was hooked for life. I wonder if my poor husband imagined his house and life filled with fabric, patterns and machines?

  5. sandra says:

    I’ve been teaching sewing for 5 years now. At first it was mostly retirees, then a few new mums, and now I get lots of enquiries from young women – post studying, early career, no kids yet, They often say they took the academic route through school and now want a creative hobby. They also often say that the clothing choices in the shops don’t suit them – they want fashionable and attractive, but not in your face sexy a la “desperate housewives”.

  6. Specterjenny says:

    I grew up sewing. I cannot imagine life without sewing. My mother and grandmother started me off with beading as soon as I was able to sit and focus, by age 5 I remember sitting under my mother’s machine begging her to let me on- I haven’t stopped since! I buy alot of my fabrics online now too. the fashions of today arent always appealing so I make a good amount of my own clothes, which lead to custom jobs sometimes! As a woman of 24 I have many friends who also love their machines and who are into DIY! There is an underground subculture of girls who makes their own stuff-even some guys too!

    Most of my family on my mother’s side had their own machines, but not so much on my father’s side. I inherited one from my grandmother ( a 1940’s kenmore) that poor machine had the origional cord ripped right out by a frustrated great aunt, but I am fixing it up right now it purrs like a kitten.In fact 3 out of 4 of my friends who have machines are old singers that have been given a new chance :)

  7. LizPf says:

    I was quite happy to see a young woman in our local fabric store last time I went in … buying fabric and a pattern for an elastic-waist tiered skirt, her very first attempt at sewing. All of us “old ladies” (I was the youngest) gave her advice to help her be successful. I didn’t tell her a pattern was unnecessary …

    As Marilyn said, it is hard to find a decent home sewing machine (all-purpose, light duty) that has a set of features that work for garment work. The sewing machine companies are pushing embroidery units (buy a CD of designs, plug your PC (not Macintosh) into your sewing machine, press Go, and do what the machine tells you. The lower cost machines are geared to quilters. I looked long and hard before I found a machine aimed at garment work — on most new machines, you can’t even adjust the presser foot pressure!

    And please don’t get me started on local fabric stores! All we have is JoAnns … the manager tries to keep good garment fabric in stock, but between the Dreaded Fleece, the miles of quilting cotton, the “sparkly princess” synthetics (ooh, shiny!) and the aisle upon aisle of craft supplies, finding the 2 bolts of bottom-weight linen isn’t easy! And mail order isn’t the solution if you have tactile sensitivities.

    Sigh.

  8. Erin says:

    You read my mind, Kathleen. Actually, you read it 5 years before I have even developed the thought! That’s why you’re my favorite blogger ever. I’ve been doing tons of research into the history of sewing machines, the home sewing industry, RTW, etc. and this book looks like it will be a big help (+ super interesting!). Thanks! You are more helpful than you know.

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