Sewing in 1900: Mary Cassatt's Take

Sewing in 1900: Mary Cassatt’s Take

One of my regrets in life is that I never majored in art history. Ever since my high school humanities teacher introduced me to the world of architecture, painting, and sculpture, I’ve had a hard time shaking the interest in the subject. Sure, I majored in history, but the focus was more on rulers and wars than painters and art masterpieces. Shame, right?

Art can be a window into society that allows a distinctive look into the world it was created for, and it can be so arbitrary and open to interpretation that two people can garner two completely different meanings from the same piece. Regardless though, it’s still that window, and it’s still a peek into a time past if you look at the most historic works.

This looks familiar!

This post's painting of choice: Mary Cassatt’s Young Mother Sewing.

This post’s painting of choice: Mary Cassatt’s Young Mother Sewing.

I hadn’t realized until recently that sewing was such a theme in art from the last centuries. Apparently, painting an image of sewing — which, in itself, can be art — has been a goal in more than one artistic work. This concept intrigues me so much, guys! I’m interested in looking into these works and examining them with an artistic eye and historic mindset. What are the differences in these paintings, and what can be inferred from each concerning sewing in that historic context?

So, you might have guessed, I plan to explore some of these works on this blog! Those explorations won’t be every post since I think more of a mixture of post angles creates for a more engaging set-up, but here and there, look for a sewing-related work of art to surface — complete with analysis and description.

This post’s painting of choice: Mary Cassatt’s Young Mother Sewing

This oil on canvas painting is from 1900, and it’s a part of Cassatt’s exploration of the dynamic between women and children that reportedly began a decade before the completion of this painting. Given that the people in this painting are, in fact, a woman and a child, the connection is clear, but what does the delivery say about the circumstance and, specifically, sewing at the time?

Take a pencil & draw a triangle around the main focal point of the work. That targeted area can draw attention directly to the focal point.

Take a pencil & draw a triangle around the main focal point of the work. That targeted area can draw attention directly to the focal point.

Well, first we can identify what the focal point is for this work, and that’s obviously the woman and child — both, as if they’re actually one object and inseparable. There is literally no part of this child that exists outside of the woman’s space if you include the dress she’s wearing. Attention is drawn directly to the pair because of the composition of the work, which incorporates the pyramid look that has so often surfaced in the art world. With this approach, basically, you could take a pencil and draw a triangle around the main focal point of the work, and that targeted area can draw attention directly to the point the artist wants you to notice.

Because this painting was from a period that explores the woman-and-child relationship, there’s really no surprise in the detail that the woman and child are the focal area. In fact, the overall imagery of the woman and child dominate the painting so strongly that the detail that the woman’s sewing is almost background material within the focal pyramid.

More than meets the eye

Unbalanced section.

Unbalanced section.

So what does this background trait say about the importance of sewing in the work?

I think it shows sewing as something that was simply a part of the taking-care-of-children theme rather than something that was being done out of love for the pastime, and if you consider the balance of the painting, that theory gains merit. Everything outside of the pyramid is more or less balanced, from the trees outside to the windows, except for the fact that there’s a series of items that show up on the same side of the painting as the child. The table, vase, and flowers are variations of that balance, and they tip the importance scale more in favor of the child — which happens to be away from the sewing.

She’s tunnel-focused on that sewing project as the child leans over her & stares outward.

She’s tunnel-focused on that sewing project as the child leans over her & stares outward.

Hidden messages

Still, even if sewing is only being shown as a means to care for the child, it’s worth noting that the woman doesn’t look unhappy while sewing. Her brow isn’t crinkled in any way that shows frustration, and her lips aren’t overly drooping in a frown. Rather, she’s tunnel-focused on that sewing project as the child leans over her and stares outward. Perhaps then the sewing message to be inferred from this work is that sewing was just another piece of the puzzle, and the woman in the painting is capable of seeing to that task perfectly — and without visible frustration — while still keeping the child as the primary priority.

This would fall in line with the notion that Cassatt was exploring that woman-and-child relationship, and it’s a tactical outlook on sewing that doesn’t include any sort of negative expression from the woman. All in all, it was a part of life for the historic time frame, and the woman is committed to seeing to the task — for the sake of her child, but not with any real disgust for the job.

But, as I said, art is open to interpretation! What do you guys think can be inferred about sewing in 1900 from this painting?

The Safety Pin

The Safety Pin

I try to collect them all in one drawer, but they escaping & disburse themselves all about the apartment.

I try to collect them all in one drawer, but they escaping & disburse themselves all about the apartment.

Almost every pocket in every article of clothing I own, there are a couple of safety pins. I can also usually find at least three of four of the little buggers on the bedroom floor. Sometimes they end up outside my apartment door because I reached for my keys and pulled out a fistful of safety pins instead. I try to collect them all together in one drawer but seem intent on escaping and disbursing themselves all about the apartment.

I use safety pins for fitting clothing, for hanging patterns, to attaching notes to things. Of course, there are different sizes and flavors of safety pins.

Size matters

I use the tiny gold ones when I’m fitting something very delicate like silk or gauze so that they don’t make an unsightly pin hole.

I use the tiny gold ones when I’m fitting something very delicate like silk or gauze so that they don’t make an unsightly pin hole.

I use the tiny gold ones when I’m fitting something very delicate like silk or gauze so that they don’t make an unsightly pin hole. For some reason, someone thought that gold pins without the end spiral were good idea. I suspect because sometimes things snag on the little coil but, without that coil, the pin is free to slide about so it’s hard to know exactly where/what the mark is.

I use the big number 3s for the majority of my fitting needs. And the number 2s if I need a thinner pin.

History Hunt

Walter Hunt invented the safety pin in 1849. He was the first one to create a pin with the coiled spring on one end and the clasp or catch on the other end to keep the pointy bit safe from tender fingers. Hunt sold his idea outright for $400.00 so never collected any royalties or anything from it. Legend has it that he needed to pay off a debt and thus invented the safety pin and sold the rights within a few hours.

I use safety pins for fitting clothing, for hanging patterns, to attaching notes to things.

I use safety pins for fitting clothing, for hanging patterns, to attaching notes to things.

Selling his safety pin idea wasn’t Hunt’s only unfortunate business decision though. He was also the first one to invent many of the significant parts of the sewing machine, including a curved needle and a shuttle. Hunt created the first sewing machine prototype in wood, which didn’t work all that well so he ended up selling his idea to Elias Howe and Isaac Singer.

Hunt invented a plethora of other things including a streetcar bell, a knife sharpener, paper collars, and an antipodean walking device – or suction cup shoes!

Alas, Hunt didn’t seem to have much business savvy or any true idea of what his inventions could be worth, and just how wide spread and common place they would become.

A modern twist

The safety pin has found its way onto the catwalk and into high fashion with decorated, embellished safety pin broaches and large dangling safety pin earrings.

The safety pin returns as punk becomes more relevant than ever – via Independent.

The humble safety pin also has a rich symbolic history and significance. Punk culture has long used the safety pin as an expression of individual freedom and DIY culture. In the wake of the UK’s Brexit and the US presidential election it has come to symbolize tolerance and unity with all people.

Wonder what Walter Hunt would have sold his idea for back in 1849 if he had been able to foresee even a small fraction of what his pin would become.

Pojagi - The Art Form of Korean Quilting

Pojagi – The Art Form of Korean Quilting

I have always had a fascination with brightly colored things. The beauty of the sun shining through the trees, through the clouds, and even through the window gives such a warm feeling and the appreciation of nature and our surroundings. I especially love the beauty of stained glass windows in the ancient churches and buildings in Germany and Italy. The sun shining through the color seemed to draw me into the grace of the house built so long ago and so carefully maintained as to not disrupt the aura it was intended to project.

One time, not so long ago, I was intrigued by some pictures that were like stained glass, but made with mostly irregular blocks and random shapes of fabric.

Pojagi

Sometimes referred to as “Bojagi”, this is a highly improvisational project to do what you feel!

Sometimes referred to as “Bojagi”, this is a highly improvisational project to do what you feel!

Light can be seen through the block which shows outlines of the seams around them, as well as diffused color of the fabric in each block. The interesting part is some were made with one color or neutral colors, and as I researched, I found many others were pleasing to the eye with multiple colors.

The art form I was seeing was called “Pojagi”, which was started about 2000 years ago in Ancient Korea. Pojagi was made by hand stitching fabrics like ramie (which is similar to hemp or (linen), cotton, and silk formed into 14” squares to wrap and carry things. Even today, it is said the Korean parliament uses Pojagi to transport documents.

Tools of the trade

Women took old clothes and repurposed them into these wrapping cloths. It was a highly creative way to do improvisational designs from old clothes, scraps, and multiple fabrics, using only what was available to them. They would turn down the fabric from the top ¼ inch and crease it with a Clover Hera Tool.

I was interested to learn that a Hera tool was a sharp piece of hard plastic, that when pressed on fabric, makes a visible crease on both front and back of the fabric. How convenient would that be rather than measuring with a ruler and ironing that edge?

The left side is machine stitched with an Overcast stitch. The right side is hand stitched. Both have no raw edges showing on either side.

The left side is machine stitched with an Overcast stitch. The right side is hand stitched. Both have no raw edges showing on either side.

This example is a “work in progress” of mine. I started making panels to cover a closet opening, and quickly decided I needed more fabric than I have. So it is one more thing I have on my project list to complete.

This example is a “work in progress” of mine. I started making panels to cover a closet opening, and quickly decided I needed more fabric than I have. So it is one more thing I have on my project list to complete.

When the crease was made all the way across the fabric piece, the top is picked up folded inward and hand stitched. Then hand-stitching is done along that fold. From the side, the seam is folded down toward each other. The result is what we call “Flat Fell Seams”. The best way to describe them is they are a row of 2 seams with no fraying edges, finished both inside and outside. (Like the seams on your jeans!)

Although it was used by all economic classes in Korean history, Pojagi had categories based on the fabric and who the recipient of the cloth would be. For instance, a princess would receive a lined Pojagi possibly made with silk, where as a commoner may be something coarser like ramie or hemp. They were called different names by type as well.

Modern use

This is a portion of my closet screen hung in the window. I love that you can see the flat fell seams like outlines around the fabric, and the soft colors showing the fiber. There is lace behind that panel so it is makes it interesting!

This is a portion of my closet screen hung in the window. I love that you can see the flat fell seams like outlines around the fabric, and the soft colors showing the fiber. There is lace behind that panel so it is makes it interesting!

Today, pojagi is used as screens, curtains, wall hangings, or sometimes fabric sewn on top of each other, irregular shapes and sizes, even repurposed clothing. Pojagi is a great improv project to do whatever design appeals to you.

No measuring and using scraps, even sometimes fabric sewn on top of each other, irregular shapes and sizes, pojagi truly brings out your creativity.

No measuring and using scraps, even sometimes fabric sewn on top of each other, irregular shapes and sizes, pojagi truly brings out your creativity. It takes time to sew by hand, however, sewing by machine made me feel that I was cheating myself of the real Korean experience. I did complete this one panel for my closet, however. It is lined at the back with cotton duck type material for strength.

I hope you will be inspired to research this unusual art form and make a square or two. You may decide the freedom of expression is something you were missing all along.

I would love to hear your comments or see your designs in Pogaji!