Natalie Chanin: Sewing for Humankind

ColumnNatalie Chanin’s bi-weekly column, Material Witness, offers a seasoned designer’s perspective on the fashion industry, textile history and what happens when love for community trumps all.

There was a time not so long ago on humanity’s calendar that sewing was not considered “women’s work,” but rather a tool for survival.
Hunter/gatherers looking for food on a cold winter’s day, some miles from their camp, might have a shoe wear through and break, and their ability to sew that shoe back together in a simple repair stitch might have meant the difference between safe return to the camp, the loss of a foot to frostbite – or an even worse fate, death.
It is thought that healers began to sew human wounds back together in ancient Egypt – formed as a unified state around 3150 BC, and most likely before.  Over 5000 years ago, sewing was taught, not as craft, but as a survival skill necessary to human life. In fact, a heavy-duty needle and thread for repairing clothing and equipment (and sewing one’s own flesh) is still included in first aid and survival kits today.
Sewing was an invention that greatly aided our advancement as a people and it is believed that needle and thread existed as early as 15,000 years ago.

History World writes:

A long slow sequence of invention and discovery has made possible the familiar details of our everyday lives. Mankind’s programme of improvements has been erratic and unpredictable. But good ideas are rarely forgotten. They are borrowed and copied and spread more widely, in an accelerating process which makes the luxuries of one age the necessities of the next.”

In districts where warm clothing is necessary, Stone Age people stitch skins together with threads of tendon or leather thongs. For each stitch they bore a hole and then hook the thread through it.

The development of a bone or ivory needle with an eye speeds up the process immeasurably. The hole is now created by the same implement which then pulls the thread through, in an almost continuous movement. Needles of this kind have been found in caves in Europe from the late palaeolithic period, about 15,000 years ago. Several are so thin as to imply the use of materials such as horsehair for the thread.

How is it that 15,000 years later, a survival skill of the highest order and an important invention for humanity has come to be classified as “women’s work” and, at the same time, declassified as a life skill? In our Alabama Chanin sewing workshops and group or corporate meetings around a sewing table, it is ALWAYS the men and boys that seem to enjoy the sewing the most.  Perhaps it feels like they have been given permission to try something that they have been culturally banned from, without fear of judgment.

A friend recently sent me an email that her son’s math teacher was using sewing in math class to demonstrate themes of geometry and symmetry.  What a great lesson for life: Life Skill (Math) + Life Skill (Sewing) = Sustainable Life + Learning. Although the students most likely do not recognize this at this point in their lives, they will most certainly look back one day with understanding.

Neuroscientists today agree that using our hands also affects the way our brains function. More proof is uncovered every year that simple survival skills like gardening, cooking, and sewing cause the neurotransmitters in our brains to send out signals of happiness.  (I understand that this is a grossly over-simplified explanation of the brain’s complex workings, but research like Kelly Lambert’s Lifting Depression are changing the way the neuroscience community thinks about action and happiness and the power of the brain.)

I say we as the greater humankind (women AND men) take back our skills and our happiness. I say that we occupy our hands; we democratize sewing (cooking, gardening, making) and restore these useful, and sustainable, life skills back to their honored place in our everyday lives. Through reestablishing these abilities to create our food, clothing, and shelter, we will begin to intimately connect with  our beloved communities and, in the process, begin sewing this beautiful nation of ours back together again – one simple stitch at a time.


Natalie Chanin is owner and designer of the American couture line Alabama Chanin and author of three books including Alabama Stitch Book  (2008), Alabama Studio Style (2010) and the upcoming Alabama Studio Sewing + Design which comes out spring 2012. Look for her bi-weekly column, Material Witness here and follow her on Facebook and her own blog at Alabama Chanin.

Natalie Chanin

Natalie “Alabama” Chanin is owner and designer of the American couture line Alabama Chanin and author of Alabama Stitch Book (STC – February 2008), Alabama Studio Style (STC – March 2010) and Alabama Studio Sewing + Design (STC – Spring 2012).