Sewing is undervalued. Sewing has been undervalued for centuries. We often talk amongst ourselves about why that is, and how frustrating it is, and then we start trading juicy horror stories about what the most unappreciative members of the public have said to us. But I never noticed before how the seemingly kind comment “You’re so talented!” is one more instance in which sewing, or any other creative work, can be unconsciously undervalued.
“Seamstresses aren’t talented, they’re SKILLED,” @lauren_stowell said on Instagram this week, “and that is worth paying for… you would never say to a doctor or a lawyer that they’re so talented!”
I’ve written before about how I don’t believe in “talent”, but Lauren took my thoughts one step further. She’s right – have you ever told your clever physician how talented she is to diagnose your health issue? Does your lawyer attract gushing praise about her talent at drawing up that will?
“Talent” is a mythical gift bestowed at birth upon a limited number of lucky craftspeople, causing them to exit the womb setting in perfect sleeve heads from day one. “Talent” is the excuse that gets the observer off the hook for the latent guilt of not having put the same work into something that you have done.
A skill, meanwhile, is built with effort over time. It involves expensive training – whether that’s formal schooling or private study – and dedication over the long haul. It’s practice and love and commitment. And understand me – I’m not saying this so that you can agree and mentally give the finger to all those who don’t get it. I’m saying it to convince you… and to ask you this: how can you demonstrate this skill in your work, and stop giving the impression of divinely bestowed “talent”?
Let me make a suggestion: Your audience don’t understand because they don’t see what goes into the final piece. It’s not because they’re idiots, or because they’re unkind or selfish or spoilt by cheap mass production. It’s because they just don’t see the work. So this is what I suggest:
Show your working. Show the progress photos. Show the beginner photos. Show the trials as well as the triumphs. So often we share the result and hide the process – well, STOP making it look so easy, folks.
Understand me – I’m not talking about letting it all hang out. If you’re a pro, you can’t show the crying-and-throwing-it-in-a-corner moments. I’m not advocating over-sharing; that’s not going to attract admirers or clients who trust you.
What I mean is, tell the story of each piece, from conception to completion. Glamourise the process, as well as the result. Make THOSE photos look good too. Show a pretty close-up of the tools of your trade. Show your hands setting in that sleeve – again. Do as Bernadette Banner does on YouTube – share the journey, the joy, the passion, the re-thinks and the part where you cut all your beautiful hand hemming off.
Enjoy building stories over the long term. Sure, people “like” the end result most of all, but people also love to get wrapped up in a story. Even if the pictures of the pattern drafting aren’t that interesting, and you end up posting six hundred photos of the same piece of lace for three weeks, with only incremental differences as the work slowly comes together, it’s worth the investment. At the end of the story, the audience will feel the satisfaction with you. They see how long it takes and how much it takes, and believe me, in my experience, they do love the slow build as well as the result.
People out there are used to purchasing a static, lifeless object; they’re not used to buying a process, carefully played out over weeks or months. You can’t expect them to appreciate something they can’t see. If you want them to see the love, and thought, and skill that goes into your work, then show them – on your website as well as on Instagram. People are fascinated by seeing the craftsman’s workbench, and all its funny little tools. That’s what sets you apart – and perhaps that can play some small part in telling your story a little more effectively.
I don’t pretend that this is the Ultimate Answer to the undervalue issue, but perhaps it could be a piece of the puzzle. SHOW your working, SHOW your skill, make it look as beautiful and stylised as the fabulous final glory shots… and don’t be afraid to (gently) correct those who accuse you of being anointed with the holy talent stick!
So much of this is purely technical, and I completely agree that superficial observations devalue us (as mostly women doing this) and diminish the expertise required. Thanks for another great reflection.
I’m always a little worried if I show the same item that takes very long to make over and over again, people will be bored. “Is she still not finished with that thing?” And that it will prevent them from ordering with me, because they want it *fast*
That’s a valid worry Annet, and one I’ve been testing myself lately as my insertion lace monster very gradually takes shape on Instagram. It doesn’t seem to matter how many different angles I shoot that piece of lace from. People still like and comment to tell me how pretty it is – and in the case of the Oak Leaf dress pictured in this post, I was plugging away at those embroidered oak leaves for a full three months, and people seemed riveted as I just kept going and didn’t slow down or give up. When I showed up in it at Costume College ten years ago, I had people coming up to me to tell me proudly how they’d been there throughout the whole story. They had experienced it with me, and that built emotional connection and appreciation that could not have happened without sharing the process. Give it a try!
It seems like a good thing to manage expectations! If the customer knows it isn’t fast to make, they are willing to pay more, right?
I’m a bit of a lurker on Instagram ???? in that I don’t have the time, money, motivation or confidence to work on hand sewing projects myself. I really appreciate the skill of people that work using these difficult and ultimately beautiful techniques and no matter how slow I love seeing the real skill and hard work that goes into it. Just need to get over my creative block and have a good myself! Thanks Cathy (and Bernadette) for keeping it real. ????
You’re so right! I hadn’t thought of showing the process before. I mean, I explain it all- but most people really need that visual, photos and/or video, to really understand.
I’ve had this very rant more than once!
I do agree with you that sewing is undervalued. I think that is due mainly to the abundance of cheap ready to wear filling most closets.
But I think there is a distinction to be made between skill and talent. A ‘skilled’ sewer can f.ex. take a commercial pattern and assemble the garment with a level of competance, which likely has been gained through effort and practice. The result will b e acceptable to many people/clients.
But truly inspired – talented- sewing goes beyond skill. Not everyone has an aesthetic eye when it comes to color, design, balance, etc. That, in combination with advanced technique, is what sets the exquisite apart from the workmanlike, in my opinion.
Totally agree, there is skill a d then there is talent, I’m in the medical profession and yes there are those with take t and sheer genius in the field
*screaming from the rooftops*
There is no word in the English language that sets me off more than that dreaded ‘talent’. Especially when used to imply that my work is only the result of privileged genetic alignment (“where does she get that *talent* from?!???”). As if the hundreds of thousands of hours of labor, self-discipline, sacrificed social life (and no small amount of blood) involved in getting here are irrelevant; but it’s fine. Needless to say I am so here for this Skilled Revolution. 🙂
To prove your point though, I’ve had a number of comments from folks expressing visceral secondhand devastation watching me cut off those hems. People really do appreciate time and effort, it seems.
(I’m definitely still grieving a bit though.)
If you are griefing about bloodstains on white cloth: Don’t.
There ‘ s a simple and natural solution: If you stab yourself and spill blood on your work, don’t put your wounded finger in your mouth, spit on the bloodstains first!
The pure saliva will cause the haemoglobines to fade after a short while.
No joke! I succesfully employed it more than once.
Anyway,I know you haven’t been griefing about a needleprick in your finger.
It’s just what popped up in my mind when I read your comment.
I learned this at the Academie de Couture from my old very skilled teacher. if you have a drop of blood, immediatly chew on a blob of bastingthread and dip on the bloodspot. Take new thread and repeat. Never start with normal water, it will make the stain bigger. Just yesterday I found a bloodstain of a day old on my white old cotton blouse. I chewed a bit on it adding enough spit……..it worked! I also do plantdyeing, love the chemical magic in nature! Ow and I love this post and will post more on the process too!
hey petra…just learned that your own saliva works best on your blood stains. of course who else would drool on a blood stain for you? you might follow up with a little hydrogen peroxide …depending on fabric
If I could offer you a lifetime supply of delicious jaffa cakes and strong good tea I would. This is what I’ve been trying to tell people about my work for a while now. I’ve gotten better with posting progress shots to allow others to see the time, effort and skills involved in making something. Even something as simple as making a bunch of crocheted coasters. I’m definitely linking other sewing/creative types to this blog post.
Superb. Well said, and a discussion I too have often had.
My grandmother had the ability to know how a garment was constructed by just watching it being worn. She didn’t know pattern drafting- she basically just put scissors to fabric, and she started doing that for her doll’s clothes when she was a very small child. That, I believe, was a talent, just like some people are being born with a perfect pitch. BUT. She also spent a lifetime sewing and constantly improving, testing and learning new techniques. Without an interest in sewing and a wish to improve, her talent for construction clothes would never have developed.
Comment Generalmente estoy tan atareada tratando de concluir el trabajo, que olvido tomar las fotos del proceso. A duras penas tomo una foto del trabajo terminado antes de entregarlo….. es una falla!!
¡He hecho eso también! Comencé a tomar una foto cada día cuando terminaba el trabajo, ¡eso ayudó mucho!
You know, I think the other thing the ‘talent’ thing does is it stops people from trying to pick up whatever thing it is. They see the finished result of years of hard work and think “welp, I can’t do that and I’ll never be able to do that” so they just don’t start. Showing the work, the false starts, the beginning steps isn’t just a part of making people appreciate the work that goes into sewing, it’s also the best way to make it accessible to the masses.
YES!! This! This! This! I taught myself how to knit and embroider and now I’m working on learning to sew.
But that’s just it, it’s work, not a natural thing(as much as I love it). I have to give it some oomph and dedication. How many times have I had to rip out a section because it just wasn’t doing what it should do or I’ve had to go back to my math to rework it(ugh math why did I choose to do things that require math)? So many times.
And then everyone will say “oh you’re so talented!” As nice as it is to be validated, it drives me a bit nuts like “you can do this too! It’s not some mysterious gift from the universe. Let me show you!” And then they demure because “oh I just don’t have a creative TALENT”
Argh!!!*claws at face in frustration and despair*
I agree…our audience does not understand because they do not see. I do believe that talent honed by work, education and experience is the recipe. Some journeys are easier because of the God given talent, many times generational, to gravitate toward fiber art. Music is another example of talent and hard work coming together. Sometimes the hard work unearths the talent. Such is my story. I was taught to sew, knit, and crochet. The sewing slowing started taking on it’s own joy and left the realm of duty.
Thank you for helping us and others appreciate excellence!
I’m currently developing an outfit for a friend, for which I’m not being paid. It’s a labour of love and, in this case, I don’t mind a bit. She’s worth it. I have posted progress shots throughout the mock up stage and her reactions have been wonderful. They’ve actually kept me going. As an admin of an amateur seamstresses group, I find progress shots are also of great help to our members.
I am so grateful a friend posted your article this morning. I remember following along your progress on the Worth gown, and loved every update. When I left LJ I lost track of many of my favorite costumers, and now that I found you again I can’t wait to see what you are working on these days.
We are living in a culture that devalues people and dismisses their worth, and as Stella mentioned above, our closets full of cheap clothing only reinforces that mindset. I struggle to value my own work, but I have been building my skill set for twenty five years, and just as any other professional that deserves recognition not dismissal from the Talent Fairy.
Nothing makes me see red as fast are hearing “you’re so talented”. It completely disregards the time, determination, and actual money one might have spent at getting better at their craft. And not only at the technical part – designing is a skill, too (like, there are actually schools that teach that…). Creativity has to be trained, like a muscle. You don’t just sit around and wait for the magical inspiration to come (or not come), you get to your workspace and churn out ideas and tweak them until it is right. “Inspiration is for amateurs – the rest of us just show up and get to work.”
The same goes for calling musicians “talented”, or people who speak several languages “gifted”. I really enjoy learning new skills. Recently I made about 10 pinwheel blocks, all of them with perfectly matched points in the centre. I jumped for joy and told my husband “I’ve got skillz!” When I play the clarinet (I’m still a beginner, though I’ve been playing for 7 years now) most people who play a musical instrument themselves will comment that my level is good and ask how much I practice a day, how I fit in practice with my professional and family life. Non-musicians are generally not impressed concluding either that I have no talent and wondering why I bother to keep playing, or that the clarinet must be a pretty easy instrument to learn.
For my sewing I usually get “I wish I could do that” or “will you make one for me?” Yes, I will make you a quilt, if you are willing to pay me a hundred times more than what you think it’s worth.
You are so right! Don’t know why I’ve never thought if it in those terms before. I enjoy seeing the “in progress “ pictures on the blogs I follow, I’ll definitely be doing more documentation on my projects. I do remember a time another artist said to me “You are so talented” . I replied that talent is what the other person does that you wish you could go. This lady was first viola in a major symphony orchestra. I’m sure her “talent” was honed with hours upon hours of practice, not just sprung full blown out of a flower!
I felt this article deeply while reading it and here’s why: this past weekend my husband and I attended a festival to help someone we truly admire get the word out about a new adventure that is near and dear to a lot of our hearts. I was not able to complete my outfit before hand so took it with me to complete the jacket. Sewing the jacket by hand ended up taking me most all day but I was able to show many people who came through our tent the work I was doing while discussing the material, etc. That evening going home I began to feel bad that maybe the friends we were there helping may have felt I was paying too much attention to my sewing and not helping them. Hopefully it was looked at more like your article.
Let’s bring back Dress Diaries to prominence, then, shall we?
Via blog or journal we shared ideas and research and post after post, comment after comment and brought each other — readers and writers alike — through a project from concept to completion?
Dress diaries seem to have faded somewhat in the 2000-teens.
Perhaps it’s time for their return in whatever medium/media people are comfortable with.
ZipZip/Natalie in Kentucky, USA
I’m a long-time custom/bespoke maker of fine quality, historically faithful reproductions (as well as patterns), and you make a very valid argument. However, I’d like to reproduce here the comments I made on another forum. This problem of undervaluation of skilled, expert handwork is, I think, as old as human personal decoration. People will always marvel at it, but paying for it is another matter. I’m afraid I’m not terribly optimistic that this will change.
“In my many years of experience (over 20 now) attempting to attain reasonable value for not only the many hours of labour but the expertise, acquired skills, research, design and — yes, probably innate artistic talent — that go into my reproduction creations, I’ve realized there is a “tolerance ceiling” where price is concerned. Perhaps it is partly an “ignorance ceiling”, in the sense of buyers being mostly unaware of what goes into such a creation, but I think it’s more than that.
Modern buyers have clearly been conditioned by the throwaway, factory garment industry (which has its own dirty secrets in its exploitative use of labour). When a customer can buy a decent-looking dress made in China for under $50, how can they not expect to pay under $200 for a reproduction gown? A friend recently bought her wedding dress online (Chinese-made I believe) for $99 US. Aside from being polyester satin and lace, I had to admit it was an impressive mass-market achievement.
Clothing and all decorative hand work associated with it, even the most magnificent, has always been considered part of the decorative arts rather than the fine arts. Even mediocre artists painting in oils can ask prices for a small item completed in a day that I wouldn’t dare ask for a replica historical garment that took 2 or 3 weeks to complete. The reality is, if you partly or wholly depend on creating historical reproductions as a livelihood, it’s a difficult choice: make some sort of living by selling yourself short, or price an item realistically and make nothing.
One last anecdote. Several years ago I recreated a 1911 bridal gown in pure silk satin and fine French lace, exactly as it would have been at the time, with a boned silk taffeta underbodice and full silk underskirt. I listed it for sale in my online shop at $1200 US, which I determined was a fair value to reflect my expertise and time, as well as the many metres of costly fabrics involved. In fact that seemed a very reasonable price, given that it was truly one of a kind in the world. The gown did get an enormous amount of attention and “hits”, along with a number of compliments on my talent(!). People enjoyed looking at it. But it sat for over 4 years, more or less as window-dressing, as I reduced, and reduced, and reduced the price. Finally, someone offered me $300 and I took it.
This hasn’t been the only such experience I’ve had. Despite all my ceaseless attempts to show my customers the intricacies of the work that goes into my replicas, through photos and explanations of the processes, and to illuminate them about the true costs (in labour and materials) involved in a bespoke or hand-made creation, it’s made virtually no difference in over 20 years. Women will pay thousands for a couture gown that may be worn once, but not for an historic reproduction that might be enjoyed over and over again.
I do applaud you and others for the valiant attempt to change this mindset, but I think it’s unfortunately in vain. I’m not being pessimistic, but simply a realist from having spent more than two decades in the trade. In the final analysis, I think only someone who has the background, skills and artistic ability to re-create beautiful things by hand can fully appreciate their monetary value, a sad irony, since those are not the people who will be paying to have it done.
It’s a very, very old problem, that much is certainly true.
Thank you for your very detailed argument, Patricia. I think you already know I’m going to respectfully disagree with your prognosis. 🙂
The interesting thing about limiting beliefs is that they don’t show up as limiting beliefs. They show up as “the way it is”. When someone tells me that something is impossible because it hasn’t been done before, I tend to take that as a challenge.
I only covered one small aspect here of a bigger issue. What dressmakers need on the meta level is not more understanding customers; it’s more time spent on learning business skills… and a bigger vision.
All the best.
YES, and it doesn’t just bloody well apply to sewing. I’m an equestrian and I kid you not, there is at least one person who tells me at (at least) one competition (and I don’t go to many seeing as I’m disabled) that, “My, you’re so talented on a horse!”
…Excuse me? “Talented?” Do you know exactly how many hours of practice in the arena I spent the past I don’t know how many months practicing? How many hours I drive to and from my barn? How long I spend with my horse so we are connected? “Talented” is a word for when a baby walks out of the womb and says, “Mommy.” I do not win medals because I slack off; it’s because when I do get to my lessons, I work insanely hard.
I’m a novice with sewing. My tension is sloppy as are my lengths, but I am working at it. Just like with crochet or anything else, practice makes better (not perfect, never perfect.)
Not really something to do with the topic but I love that you used ‘she’ as the impersonal pronoun in ‘ have you ever told your clever physician how talented she is to diagnose your health issue? Does your lawyer attract gushing praise about her talent at drawing up that will?’. It drives me nuts that even a lot of women always just use ‘he’… It’s nice seeing somebody do the opposite for once 🙂
I love, love, LOVE this.
I found you through Bernadette’s V-Log. While I do not sew often, I have several other artistic endeavors that often have that “T” word put to them, including musical skills that I developed over the bulk of my life through lessons and practice, practice, practice. In turn, I am now teaching students. Talent is a natural inclination toward something, and a slight advantage in an ability to learn something. Skill is something you develop through training and effort. Talent helps, but it is only effort that creates the true skill and art.
When I say “you’re so talented” I mean it as a compliment not a way to dismiss of all the hard work one has spent honing one’ skills. I feel it implies that you have mastered the skills nessacery to create a work of art. Many say DaVinci was so talented but I’m sure he started drawing stick men. If I say you’re so talented, please don’t take it as an insult.
This is an interesting discussion, and triggers some thoughts I have had over the years. I do many creative things that are considered artistic. The “talent” comment has been somewhat routine coming from people who don’t participate in the same activities. My reply is often an analogy about playing the piano. People may have talent, such as an interest in and and ear for music. But without study, and regular practice, and pushing to improve, talent for music alone is not enough. An interest in sewing, painting or knitting may be an entryway, but it has to be nourished and developed to find improvement. Sometimes I hear that I have an “eye” for color. Perhaps I find color studies interesting, and that has led to me doing many projects, trial and error, in various media, to find the color combinations that I prefer. The descriptor of “talent” should have a substitute word that better describes the person trying to recognize the value they see in work done by others without negating the time, energy, study and practice that has gone before to hone the “skills” that are exemplifying the “talent” that is being noted. To say, “You are so … skilled, dedicated, perceptive, creative … ” instead of “talented” is not something that comes readily to mind for many people. So I say to them, “Thank You” and make my piano analogy, and hope they understand that I hear the recognition behind their thoughts more than the words they are using. Because I enjoy a compliment as much as the next person!