An essential skill
Hand sewing (‘needlework’) was an essential skill for early 19th-century women settlers. Settlers brought clothing, furnishings and other domestic items with them, but they still needed to be able to mend and make things anew. Haberdashery (sewing materials) like needles, thread and fabric were some of the staple items available at the Church Missionary Society store in Kerikeri, in the Bay of Islands, in the 1820s.
After 1840 women and men set up shop as dressmakers and tailors respectively but many people could not afford to have clothing made by professionals, and sewing remained a necessary skill for women and girls. While ready-to-wear men’s and young children’s clothing was available from shops, the intricate design and shaping of women’s clothing did not lend itself to mass production. Women unable to patronise dressmakers made their own.
By the 1920s contemporary women’s clothing was radically different to what was worn only 10 or 20 years before. It was simple and less structured and much easier to sew at home than the complicated garments of the recent past. This also lent itself to factory production, but commercially made garments were often more expensive than home-made.
This only changed in the 1980s, when tariffs on imports were first reduced. Clothing and other textile items became cheaper to buy than make. Sewing was no longer an essential skill, though many women continued to sew for interest’s sake. Along with other handcrafts, sewing experienced a modest revival in the early 2000s.
Boys’ work too?
One Canterbury teacher at work in the early 1900s thought boys as well as girls should learn needlework. She reported to a teachers’ association meeting in 1902 that: ‘I have at present on sewing day over thirty girls who are learning to sew.… I am teaching the upper Primer boys to sew in order to have one less class to attend to, and also, I must confess, in order to put into practice a favourite theory of mine – that boys should be taught to use their needle to a certain extent.’1
Learning to sew
Most girls were taught to sew by their mothers or women relations well into the late 20th century.
Outside the home, schools and training institutions were the main sites of sewing instruction. Though Māori sewing predated European settlement, Māori girls were taught to sew at missionary schools. The pupils at the Paihia school sewed the wedding dress of missionary Mary Ann Williams, which she wore when she married fellow missionary James Preece in 1833.
After school became compulsory in 1877 schoolgirls learned needlework. From 1899 all girls attending public primary schools with women teachers had to learn the subject.
At times boys were also taught to sew. At some schools in the 1970s girls and boys all studied sewing (along with cooking, metalwork and woodwork). This became more widespread in the 1980s.
From the late 19th century post-school-age women could hone their sewing skills at technical schools or private training institutions. While many went on to sew professionally, some would have applied this training at home, particularly after marriage.
Make do and mend
From the 19th century, people of limited means and frugal habits, women and men alike, mended worn or torn items by hand. Clothes were also unpicked and remade in up-to-date fashion. These practices were widespread during the economic depression of the 1930s, and the Second World War, developing into the habits of a lifetime for some who lived through these years.
Something for the curious
While sewing machines were in New Zealand in the mid-1850s they were rare and thus a novelty. In 1855 Thomas Chapman, a commission agent and proprietor of a circulating library, advertised that ‘The American Sewing Machine can now be seen by the curious, at the shop of GEO. T. CHAPMAN, Commission Agent, West Queen Street.’2
Sewing by hand was a time-consuming business, so the arrival of sewing machines in New Zealand in the mid-1850s would have been a welcome development. They were more widely used in homes by the early 1880s. The earliest sewing machines were powered by a hand-propelled wheel on the side, but by the time sewing machines arrived in New Zealand foot-powered treadles were in use.
Electric machines were available from the 1920s and machines have since become increasingly sophisticated.