Menmain_large

Readers, as a very visible man who sews, I am often asked the question, Why don’t more guys sew? We know a lot of fashion designers and nearly all tailors are male, so why aren’t there more male home sewists?

My answer is always, well, some men do sew. But even I know that the number is very small compared to the number of women who sew.

Having grown up male in the United States, it doesn’t surprise me in the least that most men don’t sew and probably would never consider it. Here are some of the reasons (in no particular order) and maybe you’ll have some of your own to add.

First, let’s define terms. I’m talking about home sewing. If you follow fashion you know that the majority of the best-known designers are men. This has been true for a long time and probably comes out of the men’s tailoring tradition. There are more and more exceptions with every passing generation, but currently, at least, women’s (and men’s) fashion is still dominated by men.

So with regard to home sewing, why are there so few men who do it (or are public about doing it)?

1. Throughout most of the last century, sewing was taught in high school home economics classes. It was part of a standardized curriculum for girls. Boys took shop. Simply put, sewing was not considered masculine.

2. Nearly every book, old or new, about sewing, is written for a female audience, including the ones written by men. I have never seen a sewing book written exclusively for men who sew (perhaps this could be an untapped niche!). Illustrations are of women’s bodies and discussion of garments focuses on a woman’s wardrobe with a few exceptions (there’s sometimes a chapter tucked in the back about sewing for men and children).

3. The marketing of the home sewing industry has exclusively targeted women. This includes everything from sewing machines ads, pattern ads, promotional ads for new fabrics, etc.

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Sewing machine companies understood who their market was. They didn’t advertise in Field & Stream, Sports Illustrated, or — Heaven forbid — Boy’s Life!

4. The big pattern companies created few commercial patterns for men and hence there was little for a man to sew if he were interested in making clothes for himself. The majority of patterns for men continue to be pajamas, boxer shorts, and bathrobes. These are items that women can sew for men (i.e., their husbands, sons, and boyfriends) relatively easily. They aren’t garments (most) men are going to be sewing for themselves; many men don’t even wear those things!

5. Due to many of the reasons listed above, there is a stigma attached to sewing for men, the same stigma that exists for any activity generally considered feminine. These include ballet, figure skating, playing with dolls…you get the idea. We still live in a society where gender roles are narrowly defined and the person who tries to experiment with them becomes an easy target of others’ ridicule. Simply put, men don’t have role models for sewing — if they did, things might be different. Of course things have changed somewhat, due in part to the success of TV shows like Project Runway and with an incremental relaxing of gender roles. Still, the stigma persists, though perhaps it’s less overt.

Inevitably we have to consider homophobia, since many highly visible men in fashion are gay. Fear of being labeled gay in our culture makes it even less likely that a man who isn’t gay (or even one who might be) is going to venture into the fabric store and rifle through the cotton shirting.

6. The sad truth is that, relative to the population, few people sew for themselves anymore, period. The home sewing machine industry has contracted dramatically and no longer advertises in mainstream publications. Clothing has become relatively cheap and home sewing has become a niche hobby, arguably growing more popular among young women (and some men), but much smaller than it was only a generation ago. Remember too: most women now work out of the home and men always have (we’re talking the last hundred years); free time for leisure activities like sewing is limited.

I attended the American Sewing Expo in Novi, Michigan in 2009. My friend Brian and I were two of only a handful of men in attendance. There was nothing offered at the Expo in the way of workshops or booths catering to the male sewer.

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On BurdaStyle there are just a handful of men who are active; same goes for sites like Pattern Review, or readers of my blog, Male Pattern Boldness. (The mechanics of sewing does seem to interest a fair number of men and so much of sewing is about measuring, cutting, and construction. It’s not all that different to carpentry!)

7. Finally, we all know that sewing takes time: time to learn and time to put into practice. How many men are willing to commit the time it takes to learn to sew when the payoff is a pair of pajamas? Let’s face it: it will always be easier, if not cheaper, to get your wardrobe needs met at the Gap than by your own hand — man or woman. Sewing is a labor of love and not many men are feeling it. That said, I’ll be teaching men’s clothing construction starting in May at Textile Arts Center in Brooklyn and while the classes I offer won’t be exclusively for men, I’m hoping to attract some men to the class. We’re starting with boxers, but we’re working our way up to jeans and shirts. Classes meet one evening per week and run for four weeks.

Readers, have I left anything out? Why do you think more men don’t sew?

What would have to happen to change things?

Jump in!

~Peter

When native New Yorker Peter Lappin bought his first sewing machine two years ago to hem a pair of thrift store jeans, little did he know he was initiating a journey that would bring him fame and fortune. While awaiting his fortune he stays busy writing “the world’s most popular men’s sewing blog,” Male Pattern Boldness, and now contributing to BurdaStyle.

“For more than twenty years I’d lived on the edge of the Garment District without even knowing what a seam ripper was. Now I rip daily!”

169 Comments

  • Meprofilebarn_large

    Mar 31, 2011, 10.38 PMby Justine of Sew Country Chick

    This is so interesting. When I was in high school I took a car maintenance class because I inherited an old clunker and I was the only girl in the class. Being a super feminine fashiony type I was very uncomfortable and ended up transferring out of the class so I can understand how a boy might feel uncomfortable in a sewing class. I also teach sewing at my kids private Catholic school and when they printed out the flyer they addressed it only to girls and I felt bad about that in case any boys wanted to learn. When I was at FIDM there were quit a few boys there but I never have seen one boy in a high school or community sewing class so I’m guessing they learned to sew at home? The sewing world needs you! Bravo!

    1 Reply
  • Me_large

    Mar 31, 2011, 09.56 PMby tracyx

    I think a truly important observation to make is that a woman’s body changes all the time. From childhood to adolescence, to adulthood, to maternity, to post maternity, etc. All of the metrics and dimensions fluctuate over time, and we have to keep finding clothes that work. Even a woman who doesn’t really care much about fashion, being able to make something comfortable is still very useful. Men on the other hand, once they’ve figured out the size and style, can stick to the same things for years (assuming comfort was the goal).

    Another thing is that if I were a guy and wearing loose jeans and tshirt is a very acceptable everyday wear, and one set of suit is the only thing you’d need in a formal setting, I wouldn’t be sewing.

    2 Replies
    • Jeans_sew_along_best_large

      Mar 31, 2011, 10.18 PMby Peter Lappin

      Those are great points , Tracy. Of course, guys bodies change too: we get taller, fatter, thinner, more stooped, etc.

      And it’s true that guys don’t HAVE to sew to look acceptable and (need less wardrobe variety), but neither do (most) women — unless they’re very hard to fit that is.

    • Me_large

      Apr 1, 2011, 02.08 AMby tracyx

      Yeah of course you are right that most women don’t have to sew. My point was that being a slightly smaller and shorter woman than average American, it’s a headache to find something that fits, whereas slightly smaller and shorter men can manage by buying teenage boys clothing (no hips or boobs to worry about there :P) or just wearing something baggy. So I guess coming from my perspective, for the percentage of the population whose size is way too small to find off the rack, women probably find sewing much more useful than men.

      But, I’m not saying I sew because I HAVE to. I started sewing because I was getting frustrated not being able to find the stuff I want in my size. But once I got started, I just enjoyed doing it. I definitely don’t think the hands-on satisfaction of something like sewing is well-advertised in my generation in general.

  • J0289485_large

    Mar 31, 2011, 09.13 PMby Jean Story

    Interestingly enough, my ex-husband is a skilled sewist. He taught himself how to sew when he was assigned to run the laundry facility for the county jail. Included in his duties were the tasks of keeping all the machines in good working order and teaching male inmates how to use them. I was quite surprised when I came home and found my (then new) husband had created one lace curtain for the entry hall and was diligently working away at the other. He never told me he could sew, but those pretty lace curtains still grace the entry of our former home, twenty years later.

    1 Reply
  • Hpim0231_large

    Mar 31, 2011, 08.12 PMby dnembhard

    Great article Peter,

    As a Home Ec teacher, I wish that boys would take my sewing class, but they are few and far between. I agree with you that pattern companies ignore men. I get a poster of patterns for students from the big pattern companies intended for my students every year, and the only thing available for men are boxers shorts, and apron, and a vest. I have yet to see a male student wearing a vest in school, so why would he sew one?

    I also think that we teachers don’t do much to encourage males to take sewing. When I taught Middle School, all students took sewing, and sewed basic gender neutral stuff like aprons and boxer shorts. They were great, and the boys were excited (I still remember one boy who was so excited about his finished shorts that he pulled off his pants in the middle of class to try them on!). However, at the high school level, we forget about them. Projects such as stuffed animals and frilly purses aren’t going to endear men to sewing.

    I’ve tried to say that students are making “bottoms” rather than skirts, and include a few male patterns in my list of pattern choices for students (hint to pattern companies: why not come up with a pattern for a cargo-style short for men?), but I know I still have far to go. Every year, I try to entice the incoming middle school males to take sewing, but I know that there is a big hurdle for them to feel comfortable enough to be a male in a sewing class. I don’t know what we can do to help address this stigma, but hopefully there will one day be a whole bunch of male sewists.

    1 Reply
    • Jeans_sew_along_best_large

      Mar 31, 2011, 10.21 PMby Peter Lappin

      Thanks so much for sharing your experiences teaching! The problem for the pattern companies, as I understand it, is that it just isn’t profitable for them to create a wide assortment of men’s patterns. It’s sort of a “chicken and the egg” phenomenon: You need the patterns to draw the men, but without more men sewing you’re not going to convince a pattern company to create a lot of men’s patterns.

  • Me_av_large

    Mar 31, 2011, 08.04 PMby freakusbzzz

    Very timely article.

    I have a date with a guy on Saturday and if all goes well he’s asked me to teach him how to sew. I can’t wait! It would be fantastic to collaborate with someone.

    My 4 yr old son also takes a huge interest in all my fabric and dresses up in my dresses (gay..? I don’t care). I’ve told him he can have my old sewing machine when he’s five and I will teach him to sew too.

    Who better to know what looks good on a lady than a man.

    1 Reply
    • Jeans_sew_along_best_large

      Mar 31, 2011, 10.23 PMby Peter Lappin

      LOL! Good luck on your date! A woman who knows how to sew is a great catch! ;)

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