Can we please talk about the terms Selfless/Selfish Sewing? | The Button Jar
This week I’ve been sewing Justin (my husband) some shorts. They’re a replica of his very favourite, most worn, most loved, comfiest shorts; shorts he’s worn weekly, winter and summer, for the past five, six years. He’s mountain biked, mountain climbed, sailed, walked, worked, relaxed, lived in these shorts. No other shorts have come close.
These dear shorts have started to literally disintegrate, to the point that I can no longer patch them. So it was with a heavy heart he turned them over to me, armed with my quick-unpick and scissors, for reverse-engineering into a pattern from which I can make him some new ones.
This is the first time since my garment sewing revival that I’ve made something for someone else. I’m what the sewing world might term an exclusively Selfish Sewist. And therein lies the rub.
Let’s talk about these notions of Selfish and Selfless Sewing. Please.
Now, for clarity, I am not in anyway criticising people who sew for others. Please, sew for others—joyously, with abandon and happiness, or, indeed, through gritted teeth and with reluctance—clothe your lovers and kiddos and dogs and cats and friends and family with your skill and love and time! It’s a wonderful gift to give to the people in your life! But…
Please consider the terms Selfless and Selfish Sewing.
These two terms run along a binary, signalling one as good and one as bad. And these two terms are incredibly gendered. This patriarchal and hetero-normative society, with its problematic binary-gender definitions and relatedly problematic and old-fashioned gender-roles, positions ‘women’ as caregivers. Selflessness is an expectation, a virtue, drilled into women from childhood. Women who buck certain societal expectations, like not wanting to have children, are literally termed ‘selfish’. (I know this particular one from experience.) In this straitjacket of expectations, ‘virtuous’ ‘women’ are selfless caregivers; ‘misbehaving’ ‘women’ are selfish, carefree, career-driven, ambitious, shallow, less-than, aberrations of traditional notions of ‘womanhood’.
It is no accident that a hobby like sewing, which has historically been seen as ‘a woman’s hobby’, has now been loaded with the expectation of ‘selflessness’, and the dread of its maligned sister, ‘selfishness’. It’s a form of patriarchal conditioning that wants to keep ‘women’ as ‘women’ and ‘men’ as ‘men’. It reinforces out-dated gender stereotypes, which, in turn, flattens the full range and spectrum of gender experience. Terms that uphold old-fashioned notions of gender roles for ‘men’ and ‘women’ also uphold old-fashioned notions of gender and sexuality, and exclude LGBTQI+ experience. And I’m not here for that.
I [Sew] Because…
Why do we have hobbies? To relax us. To engage us. To enrich us. To give us a break. To exercise our minds and bodies. To top us up when daily life depletes us.
Justin mountain bikes. He does so because it gives him physical release from his charged, stressful and constant-deadline-driven job as a production journalist. He does so because it gets him outside, into the green of nature. It soothes him. He’s more content as a person. But there is never, never, any sort of expectation that he ought to occasionally go for a ‘selfless mountain bike ride’, or to feel like it’s bad to mostly be doing ‘selfish mountain bike rides’. It’s just not a thing. He doesn’t—and society doesn’t expect him to—and I wouldn’t want him to—demarcate his hobby into selfless and selfish. He mountain bikes.
And it both breaks my heart and sends me into fits of rage to see this wholly problematic gender expectation of selfless/selfishness filter through to the hobby that is sewing.
Why should sewing be put under these constraints?
At the most benign level, the term Selfless Sewing, the hashtag SelflessSewing, forms a pejorative of selfishness. It often makes those who need or want to sew for themselves, or who dislike sewing for others, feel guilty and selfish; that’s kinda the nature of the structure of the binary in language. I’m not saying that if you’ve used the term Selfless Sewing you intended to make others feel guilty and selfish; what I am saying is the term has the effect of making others feel selfish. I think, as a community, we should consider if that’s how we want our fellow sewists to feel.
I’ve read on Instagram people feeling guilty and selfish about not sewing for their families—families who they love and nurture and bathe and feed and soothe and work for and would move mountains for if they could, families whom they pour their being into. Why should they feel selfish for just wanting to take the time to sew something for themselves, or, indeed, to only sew for themselves? Is it unreasonable for people to use their hobbies … for themselves? To give them what they need, in the face of everything they give to their families?
Beyond the benign, though, I’ve encountered sewists who are bemused that I don’t sew for other people in my life, and, at the most extreme ends, I’ve also seen—quite literally—comments on Instagram along the lines of, “I feel sorry for [husbands] whose [wives] don’t sew for them” [insert appropriate role in the square brackets]. This leave me speechless, aghast. I am not an in-house, on-demand seamstress.
I sew as sewing my own clothes gives me an immense satisfaction; I love scratching my clothes-loving itch through an outlet that also eases my rapid-fire thoughts and nourishes my need to make; I thrive on having a creative hobby that’s completely divorced from the highly-competitive creative industry in which I work. I am not selfish because I only sew for myself. I literally sew for My Self—my being, my mind, my resilience, my body.
No one is selfish for having a hobby that they use purely for themselves. Surely, it’s rather the point of hobbies.
So I would like us, as a community, to consider what we’re saying when we use the terms Selfless and Selfish Sewing. Do we want to load guilt onto our fellow sewists by using these terms?
Instead, how about we celebrate #SewingForOthers #SewingForMyKiddo/Partner/Parent/DogWithLove or #SewingForMySelfWithLove or #MySelfSewing? There’s so many other ways we could term this that avoids making other sewists feel ‘less-than’. Language is flexible: it can allow us to celebrate both when we sew for others AND when we sew for ourselves, without having to resort to a problematic, old-fashioned, gendered binary.
The This-Just-In Shorts
So what about my This-Just-In Shorts, as I’ve named them? (Geddit? Because he’s a journalist! And his name is Justin!! Geddit? I crack myself up…) They’re nearly finished! They seem to fit okay! Justin is delighted with their resurrection, not in the least because I managed to find the exact same fabric as a dead-stock at The Fabric Store! I’m going to send him off to Canada wearing something that I made with love and joy, like a hug from me that he can carry around on his bum!
And then I’m going to continue sewing my Persephone Pants, happy I’ve been able to give him a gift that I put love and effort into, and happy to return—without guilt—to Sewing for My Self.