Influential Women in Sewing | Celebrate International Women’s Day 2018
Celebrate International Women's Day with some lesser-known influential women sewers from history.
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This year, the theme for International Women’s Day on March 8 is “Press for Progress.” The United Nations-recognized event focuses on activism and the growing demand for equality among women of all walks of life. It comes just after the 2017 Global Gender Gap Report published by the World Economic Forum that notes gender equality will not happen for another 200 years, based on its current progression.
History includes people who have used women for their own purposes, but it is also filled with lesser-known women who pushed back against discrimination of all kinds. For some of them, a talent for sewing inspired their activism.
- Clara Lemlich Shavelson was a young Russian-Jewish immigrant who came to the United States in 1903 at age 17. She had grown up reading revolutionary books in secret and was therefore poised to rebel against unsafe and unfair social standards in the workplace. After six years of laboring in clothing factories where employees had to toil long hours seven days a week and carry their machines to and from work on their backs, Lemlich had enough. Through her work and speeches, she helped the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union gain traction and incited the 1909 uprising in the garment industry.
Although she was not a scheduled speaker at a momentous garment workers union meeting, she insisted on being heard, taking over the podium to state: “I am one of those who suffers from the abuses described here, and I move that we go on a general strike.”These words were spoken in Yiddish as a nod to her heritage and the heritage of many of the garment workers in the union. Twenty-thousand workers rose up in agreement with her words. They dubbed her the “Joan of Arc” of the movement, later called the “Uprising of the 20,000.” While the strike did not have immediate effect on working conditions, it laid the groundwork for future progress.
Lemlich was blacklisted from New York City garment factories for her work but continued to speak for the women’s suffrage movement happening at the same time. She remained a staunch supporter of labor, suffragist, socialist, and Jewish rights movements, stating in a 1965 letter, “In so far as I am concerned, I am still at it.” She died in 1982 at age 96.
- Elizabeth Keckley (also spelled Keckly) was born a slave in 1818 in Virginia. She learned to sew to spare her mother, when it was suggested that she would be lent out to work for other families, as their owner’s family was not monetarily well off. Keckley supported the 17 members of her owner’s family almost entirely by herself. She worked tirelessly to save enough to buy freedom for herself and her son, whom she gave birth to in 1839 after being raped repeatedly. After many hardships under brutal owners, she bought her freedom in 1855 with borrowed money, which she paid back quickly, and moved to Washington, D.C., in 1860.
Keckley, at that point, had a wealth of sewing experience that allowed her to get a job in the household of Jefferson Davis after almost a year of working for $2.50 a week. In 1861, the Davis family moved south, leaving Keckley in Washington to find a new job. Through her contacts and her association with the ladies of St. Louis, where she lived before she freed herself, she caught the attention of Mary Lincoln. The new First Lady needed a dressmaker and was immediately taken with Keckley, admiring her ability to fit garments perfectly and her willingness to work long hours to finish a garment. Keckley’s style was much more subdued than the typical Victorian; she preferred garments with clean lines to the frilly and fancy styles of the time. Few pieces exist today that can be attributed to her with certainty, because clothing then did not have labels, and dresses were often recut and redesigned to save fabric.
In addition to her influence on fashion in the United States capital, Keckley performed humanitarian work for freed slaves who flocked to the city in search of promised freedom and success. When they arrived and realized that everything was not easier, she commented that some of them truly missed the ease of having no say in matters, for though slavery was horrible, it did not carry the same stresses as poverty. Keckley encouraged the creation of the “Contraband Relief Association,” which helped freed slaves find their place in society and ease their suffering from poverty.
She published her autobiography, Behind the Scenes: 30 Years a Slave and 4 Years in the White House, in 1868. The tell-all book revealed much about Mary Lincoln’s life, including many correspondences from her. Publishing Behind the Scenes caused a rift between the First Lady and Keckley. They never spoke again after it was published. Keckley died in 1907 at age 89.
- Ellen Louise Demorest was born in Schuylerville, New York, on November 15, 1824, the second of eight children. She was interested in fashion from an early age, watching fashion shows in nearby Saratoga Springs. She worked as a milliner, through which she eventually met her husband. In 1854, rumor says that she saw her African-American maid cut a pattern out of thick brown paper before making a dress, which gave her the idea for tissue paper patterns.
The story is likely false, because the same claim was made by Butterick patterns as well. However, she and her sister had been working on simplifying the dressmaking process for some time and the idea was a stroke of genius. With her husband, they developed thin paper patterns that could be mass-produced for home sewers who wanted to be able to look as glamorous as the rich. Paper patterns were perfectly timed with the invention of the sewing machine in 1846, which further allowed women to create fashionable garments in their homes.
In 1860, Demorest started the magazine, Mme. Demorest’s Mirror of Fashions, which featured sewing and fashion advice and a pattern stapled into every issue. Mme. Demorest’s Mirror of Fashions eventually became incorporated in a magazine her husband bought and named Demorest’s Illustrated Monthly, to further promote their patterns. In 1876, their most successful year, they sold more than 3 million patterns.
In addition to her inventions, Demorest had a keen interest in employing and providing for women. By the mid-1870s, more than 1500 women worked for Demorest. She also hired African-American women in an attempt to encourage racial integration. All workers, regardless of gender or race, received the same pay. If customers complained, Demorest told them to take their business elsewhere. Her magazine had the dedicated monthly column, “What Women are Doing,” which detailed accomplishments of women of different occupations across the country. She was focused on providing services by women for women at a time when business was largely a man’s world.
Orleck, Annelise. Clara Lemlich Shavelson. (Jewish Women’s Archive, 20 Mar. 2009), http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/shavelson-clara-lemlich.
Shavelson, Clara Lemlich. Remembering the Waistmakers General Strike. (AIMS Newsletter. March-April 1965). http://jewishcurrents.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/02/Lemlich1.pdf
Scheier, Paula. Clara Lemlich Shavelson: Fifty Years in Labor’s Front Line. (November, 1954). http://jewishcurrents.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/Clara-Lemlich-Shavelson-Paula-Scheier.pdf
Keckley, Elizabeth. Behind the Scenes: 30 Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House. (UNC Chapel Hill. 1868). http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/keckley/keckley.html
Spivak, Emily. The Story of Elizabeth Keckley, Former-Slave-Turned-Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker. (Smithsonian. 24 April, 2013). http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/the-story-of-elizabeth-keckley-former-slave-turned-mrs-lincolns-dressmaker-41112782/
Drachman, Virginia G. Enterprising Women: 250 Years of American Business. (UNC Press Books. 2002). GoogleBooks.
Radcliffe College. Notable American Women, 1607-1950: Volume 1. (Harvard University Press. 1971.) GoogleBooks.