Monday, March 3, 2008

The Fine Art of Being a Balabusta--Part #1

A commenter on the Gemach thread made the following comment. I think the comment deserves more space and I'd like to reply here. My answer is in two parts.

d said...
"That brings a thought to mind here that I would be interested to hear others comment on.Maybe part of the problem is that many of those who are involved with getting such garments these days are not adept at sewing and altering. The older generation of balabustas were perhaps better at that. Those who are not good at it, have to hire someone to do it, so that makes things more difficult, complicated and expensive. So they look to a 'gemach' instead. Even if you do not think this point is relevant here, however, I would like to also raise the question, in general, if the newer generations of bnos Yisroel are as adequately trained in domestic arts such as sewing, cooking, and baking, as their forebears were. I understand that those who will work outside the home in modern careers are busy learning other skills to earn a nice income, so they have less time for the domestic arts, as opposed to e.g. Satmar girls. They might also say that they will be lacking time to practice them and they could easily hire someone to do such things for them if they make a nice salary.Nevertheless, I wonder if it still is something that those who deal with such things should give thought to.In the past, I would sometimes hear of balabustas who made clothes for their children. Nowadays I get the impression that it is quite rare to nonexistent. Is it because people are too busy, it doesn't pay, they don't know how to, are not comfortable doing so, or what?"

Sewing. As d refers to it it has to do with making clothes. He asks if women today are being adequately trained in domestic arts, sewing among those arts. What he should be asking is if the generations that came before this one were so trained. We take it as a given that our immediate ancestresses were all accomplished makers of clothing. They weren't. Whether or not they sewed clothing for their families had a lot to do with where they lived and what strata of society they were in. And yes, it depended also on their ability, skill and interest in sewing.

Pre--WWII Europe. Personal sewing machines had not yet come into vogue. Tailors and perhaps some few women who did sewing for parnoseh had the machines. Everyone else was limited to needle, thread, material and two hands. Did all women sew clothing for their family? No. Those who came from families that had a comfortable parnoseh had their clothes made by those in the business of making clothes. They did not own as many pieces of clothing as we seem to consider necessary today, but what they did have was not made by the women of the house.Those who did not have economic means had even less clothing, and much of it was hand me downs or donations of used clothing from families with more means.

Most women could take up a hem or repair a fairly small tear. Some might even be able to alter clothing from one child to fit another child. Many were not very good at sewing--it's a skill that can be taught, but you can't teach aptitude, and some women had no aptitude for dressmaking.

Some items were made by most women at home, although these,too, could be ordered. Bed linens were one such item. European comforters, whether feathers, down or straw, were covered. These covers were made by the women of the house--sometimes by the balabustas themselves, sometimes by their maids, sometimes by their daughters. Aprons were another such item, as were tichlach.

But European women were encouraged in a different area of needlework--the decorative arts. Girls were taught in school and at home the basics of embroidery. They were taught the different types of needlepoint. They embroidered tablecloths for Shabbos and Yom Tov. They embroidered pillow covers for the seder. They embroidered challah covers. They provided the finishing embroidery touches for many a parochet in their shuls. They embroidered their clothing to add a special touch. They created beautiful needlepoint pictures for their walls, many on Jewish themes.

Some of these needlepoint pictures survived the war and are treasured pieces in my mother's house, my house and my sibling's houses. The needlepoint picture my mother made for me as a wedding present holds pride of place in our living room. As do the embroidered pieces she made for me at various times throughout my marriage. When I walk into someone's home I can tell who had European parents when I spot the "goblein"--needlepoint pictures.

My mom taught me to embroider and to do needlepoint. I did not learn to knit from my mother, because in her area of Europe knitting was like sewing clothes--you ordered what you needed from the women who made parnoseh doing knitting. Ditto with crocheting, with the exception of some fine lace. I picked up knitting and crocheting on my own.

I crocheted and knitted baby blankets for all my children along with sweaters and booties and hats and scarves. I needle pointed pictures throughout each pregnancy to put into the rooms of the expected children. I did not ever sew baby clothes for them. Oh I fixed a rip or a tear, but I didn't sew their clothes. And I knew how to use a sewing machine. We had home economics classes in grade school that taught machine sewing. My mother also taught me the basics. But it was just plain cheaper to buy the ready made clothing then to make it by myself. And it took a lot less time as well. Except, of course, for bed linens, which are still homemade in our family.

By the time the youngest of my mom's kids came along somehow the importance of needlework had diminished. My youngest sister doesn't do embroidery or needlepoint. Neither do her girls. My daughters all picked up the idea of needlework as art and added hooked rugs to the mix as well.

So to answer d, are the girls of today adequately trained in sewing, the answer is no, but why do they need to be? Beyond a simple sewing up of a tear, clothing can be purchased for the same price and far lower then it would cost to sew at home, for the smart shopper. Time is also money, and working women--and all Jewish women are working women--have judged sewing clothing as taking up more time then it is worth to them. Having said that, I do know of a few women who regularly sew their own clothes and who sew for their children--female children. They are skilled at sewing, have an aptitude for it and get enjoyment out of it. But they aren't sewing those clothes because they have to; they are sewing because they want to.

Everyone, male and female, should know how to sew on a button. After that sewing is a matter of choice. But me, personally, I would love it if the decorative needle crafts were given more attention. No purchased tablecloth, no purchased scarf or hat can ever equal the value of the one that was made by a mother or grandmother--the secret ingredient is the love sewn in with every stitch.

To be continued


Looking Forward said...

my parents taught us sewing, and I can, by hand sew simply garments and other objects.

My mother has always ment one day to teach me to sew with a machine. (if I weren't so afraid of putting the needle through my finger.)

But I'm not a girl. I sewed the fake strymel that i use on purim, and i've many times fixed tears, or even missing parts on my jackets.

But with girls clothes, at least outside of new york (and maybe even in new york) being able to sew things like skirts and jumpers is a major advantage. So little properly tznius clothing, and generaly I'm not so sure that its at all common for it to be cheaper to buy, and certainly with askirt its simple enough that copying it and doing a better job than one might get in a store is not that difficult.

But I'm a boy.

(and no, I never learned needlepoint. I want to some day though, but I don't have much paitence. Maybe its something I could sit down with my besheret when I find her and do together while having a conversation.)(I seem to relegate far too many of my interests to that...)

(and I seriously doubt that most jewish girls around know as much about washing laundry as I've found in the old better home and garden's book. It tells you exactly how to get all kinds of stains out of clothing... its rather scary the amount of effort people must have put in to figuring out these things.)

Anonymous said...

There were plenty of things that people had to know how to do in the far past because it was a matter of survival and necessity. Balabustas milked cows, gathered eggs, plowed fields, drew water from wells, spun wool into thread and sewed what their families needed to wear. A balabusta doesn't have to do these things anymore. Why include sewing today as something that a balabusta has to know? Plenty of our great great great grandmothers who would have been overjoyed not to have to do the sewing for a whole family. I can sew on a button and that is about it. I can also change a flat tire, something more useful in the age I live in.

Anonymous said...

I think Rochele is right. What a balabusta needs to know depends on where and when she lives. Today sewing is not something people have to know but can if they choose to. It's a matter of how much time a woman has and what the cost is in time and money.

Anonymous said...

I would agree that it's not worth the time to sew up things that you can purchase cheaper but for the really expensive items like wedding outfits sewing yourself could save a lot of money. But profk is also right that just being taught how to sew won't make you an expert at it or give you a talent in it. (My grandmother tried for years and even she gave up with me) So that is a conflict. The things which sewing would be a savings on are just those things which most people wouldn't be able to sew.

Anonymous said...

perhaps the ability to do small electrical and plumbing repairs is more important for a modern householder. Plumbers and electricians charge far more than seamstresses

Anonymous said...

Not to be sexist here, but shouldn't plumbing and electrical work be one of those things that the baal ha'bayis should know how to take care of? Lots of discussion about what the girls aren't being taught to do but aren't there things that men were taught to do that they aren't being taught today? Like hammering in a nail without leaving a 5 foot hole?

mother in israel said...

You may be right about a specific historical period, but in general I disagree with you. Sure, the very rich could order clothes and the poor might get hand-me-downs. (But hand-me-downs were probably much harder to come by in those days, when people had fewer clothes and repaired them more frequently--I imagine they would just wear out.) But before the onset of the industrial age the vast majority of clothes were handmade by the family. Yes, some people are better at sewing, but it is a skill that most people can learn. Especially if they start young, which they did. They might not sew well enough to make a wedding gown, but knowing how to sew one's clothing was a very basic skill. It's similar to cooking. Some people are better than others, a few are hopeless, but most people can learn how to make basic meals if they are inclined to. It's not so hard to make a skirt or dress, even by hand, especially if it's not fitted. If they couldn't design the outfit they could still help stitch, or vice versa. If you look at novels from before the industrial age, women spent a large amount of their time sewing.

I think that children should know how to use a needle and thread and the sewing machine to do repairs and make basic outfits. I learned in high school and I occasionally sew for myself and my daughters. I got a good book and retaught myself. My friend recently made herself a skirt--by hand.

Anonymous said...

Mother in Israel--
The point is that we aren't in that pre-industrial age any more and being able to sew your own clothing is not a survival skill any more for those in the US and I would imagine for those in Israel as well. Being able to fix a small tear is something else. And no not everyone can get the skill of sewing and be able to use it. And the money also figures in here. If I can buy a skirt for $20 ready made then what am I saving if I have to buy material and thread and a pattern and then take hours to sew the skirt by hand? And if you need a sewing machine, figure in the cost of the machine across how many clothes you will sew on it. I have a job that pays me about $32 an hour. It's poor economics on my part to make a $20 skirt while costing myself $128 and up.

mother in israel said...

Ariella, I didn't say that everyone should own a sewing machine. Especially if someone is planning to sew only one skirt with it. But I still think that basic sewing is a skill that most people (not all) can acquire with a little effort, especially if they learn as children. Look at how many people use computers nowadays. Sewing used to be like using a computer is today. Whether or not everyone should be taught nowadays is arguable, but I want my children to have that skill. I still find it useful and enjoyable, even though I will never excel at it.

mother in israel said...

Does the love in every stitch not apply to handmade clothing or other sewn items, like a Purim costume? Why is decorative stitching in a different category?

Anonymous said...


I think any adult, or either gender, should be able to sew on a button, repair a hem, change a washer, replace a fuse or reset a breaker. Anyone with enough sense to be trusted raising children should probably also be able to snake a toilet or replace a light switch or plug.

ProfK said...

Mother in Israel,
Of course the love counts when you are making clothing for your children. When mine were young I sewed their purim costumes. I did not, however, sew clothing for myself. The time on the costumes was with my children and they got to get in on the act. Also, no one was going to look funny at a purim costume where the stitches might not be completely even or the fit was not exact.

My point in this posting is that sewing today is optional as far as making clothing goes. If you enjoy it then that is your "hobby." Being able to sew for small repairs should be known. Beyond that, no, knowing how to sew clothing is not a basic requirement for being a balabusta. Nor is it analagous to computers today. Sewing requires physical skill to produce, something that not everyone will possess in equal measures. Not everyone has the "talent" to sew. Computers require mental ability, far different then physical aptitude.

I am not against sewing, only it's inclusion as one of those things a woman must do, and do well, in order to qualify for "balabusta-shaft."

mother in israel said...

Thanks for your response. I still don't see why crocheting is more important than sewing; include either both, neither, or at least one. I could make a case that knowing how to alter clothes, hem pants, and mend is much more practical than crocheting a sweater. Taking things to the tailor takes time; I can hem a pair of pants in 5 minutes. My son is grateful because his friends have to wait a week for new pants to be hemmed.

Computers and sewing do require different abilities. But sewing doesn't require physical strength, only a minimal amount of fine motor ability that most people possess (similar to writing, which most people master by age 6 or 7). Following or altering a pattern requires mental ability, and is harder than stitching, but can still be mastered by most. My point about computers is that although there are very intelligent people who can't manage a computer, most people, even many of below average intelligence, can manage them well enough on a user's level. Same with sewing--anyone who can use a pen has the agility to sew.

ProfK said...

MOI, it's not that crochetting is more important then sewing but that when women were/are freed of having to make clothing they can turn to the needle arts that are seen as more artistic. Crochetting is something that you choose to do rather than something you must do. The same for embroidery.

There is also this. Today, in the world we live in now, computers and knowing how to work with them are a necessity. It is almost impossible here in the states to get a job if you cannot at least basically work a computer. Not only is this unlikely to change, but it will only grow in importance.

Scraps said...

My mother taught me how to hand sew small tears and buttons and such when I was a small child. It's saved me a lot of annoyance and gained me a few friends when I've taken care of little sewing jobs for friends. It's a useful skill.