Have you ever wondered what has been the role of women in sewing? Let's start first with the history of sewing.
Hand sewing began more than 25,000 years ago. The first needles were made with animal bones or horns and the thread with animal tendons. The tanned skins of the animals were attached to each other with bone and sinew or leather strips. Animal wool and cotton were also used. The purpose of the clothing was to protect against the cold. In ancient Egypt, clothing was considered a luxury item intended for the wealthy. Linen tunics tied to the body and with very few seams were used. In Ancient Greece, work was part of the domestic chores of women who produced wool and silk joined in a cylinder and then on a loom.
In the Middle Age, clothing began to become more elaborate with sleeves and embroidery. The aesthetic was beginning to be valued more. It is at that moment that more demand for seamstresses and tailors begins to be generated. The colors and fabrics differentiated the social classes. The poor classes mended clothes. The women dedicated themselves to repairing and adjusting them. It was a job that could be done from home. From the beginning it was considered a woman’s task. Hand sewing, along with the loom and embroidery were passed down from generation to generation.
It was not until the 18th century that the first drawings and patents for what would become sewing machines were made. The history of the sewing machine is full of some unknowns and disputes. But that is a story for another time! With the advent of the sewing machine and the industrial revolution, sewing went from being a household activity to one of high demand and large-scale production. This is how women go to work in factories earning low wages and working long hours. Many of them invested the little they earned in renting sewing machines so they could sew clothes from home. This way, the poor and middle class had more access to better clothes. Then haute couture was born as an alternative for more luxurious clothing and exclusive designs for the rich.
In Puerto Rico there are several stages of the needle industry and the participation of women in it. The industry was established in 1917. Immersionists came from New York in search of cheap labor. The materials were brought from there and made by Puerto Rican women and then exported to the northeast of the United States. American women residing on the Island identified the potential in PR and served as intermediaries with the Puerto Ricans. Puerto Rican seamstresses became known for producing very delicate pieces with embroidery and lace made by hand and then exported. The needle industry was concentrated mainly in the western area of PR.
These data are documented in our history. I have known the story since I was a child, and it touches me very close because my mother told it to me. In Camuy, my mother and my grandmother were part of that history. They brought the raw material, already cut and marked, and the women transformed it. She told me that she sewed and embroidered baby shirts using “Estopilla”. My grandmother was the one who machine-sewn other types of clothing. They got paid very little, and it was per piece made. The clothes were sold at high prices in the United States.
The proportion of women who worked in Puerto Rico sewing from home was triple that of those who sewed in workshops. Possibly because in the workshops the working conditions were horrible and because at home, they felt that they were their own boss and could also take care of their children. On August 30, 1933, it was women who organized and carried out a strike in the needlework industry demanding better wages and working conditions. The strike turned into a riot, where a woman and a girl were killed.
At the end of the 1940s, with “Operación manos a la Obra” a 15-year tax exemption plan was created. Garment factories were established in urban areas in the 1950s. Thousands of low-educated women who had worked in the early stage of the needlepoint industry were recruited. By 1960 this changed and they hired women who had more education. These factories moved to rural areas. When making the zone movement, many women became unemployed.
In Camuy, my town and neighboring towns, clothing and shoe factories were established. I was a teenager in the 70s and 80s and I was able to see how many women once they graduated from their high school went to work in those factories looking for economic independence. Many knew how to sew since they were little, so they quickly accepted the routine of working sewing in the factory. After work hours, many came home to take care of their children and then do housework, including sewing to earn extra money. In the public schools there were industrial sewing programs where they were prepared to later work in the needlework industry. Interesting fact is that women were the ones who carried out the main task that moved the industry, however, the executives were always men. I always admired those women, many of them single mothers who got ahead and raised their family thanks to sewing.
The needle industry slowly shifted and other industries emerged. Later the economic incentives ended, and the factories were closed. In recent years there has been a revival of the needle industry. Hurricane Maria and later the pandemic had a direct impact on the resurgence of this profession. In the case of COVID, being at home 24 hours a day had negative but also positive impacts. Many women dusted off their sewing machines and began to sew face masks at a time when there were shortages. Many of those hands made and distributed masks to health and food industry workers, families and friends. This movement not only occurred in PR but worldwide. Others who became unemployed were able to use sewing as income to get ahead. Those who did not know how to sew began to do so using YouTube and Facebook tutorials. In PR, the work of Tommie Hernández, founder of Sirena Patterns, stands out with her Monday tutorials on Facebook.
Currently in PR there are several projects who help women using sewing for entrepreneurship. To mention a few, “MUMAS” in Hatillo, ‘Cooperativa Industrial Creación de la Montana” in Utuado and Connecting Paths PR, with several projects around the Island.
Sirena Patterns has been an important part of the resurgence of this art and profession, educating women, helping them to undertake and move forward despite the circumstances. Sewing is not only an activity that contributes to entrepreneurship, providing for many women and their families, but also contributes to emotional health.