While I was researching my knitting in film blog post, A Bit Of A Yarn: Knitting For The Cinephile, I had to steer my attention away from sewing and darning – this was a topic that deserved its own space. Just as knitting has been used to convey messages about the characters, I wondered if sewing fulfilled a similar function – and if it did what was the message? A film itself is ‘stitched’ together at the editing stage, so it could be said that film and stitching are soul mates. Both activities transform something unfinished into a tangible object, whatever its cultural value may be. Given that costume is so important to any film, it’s interesting to consider sewing scenes in cinema. There isn’t room to think about costume in its own right here, so I’ll save that, along with tailoring and craftsmen, for another day.
In the early film industry women often found work at the editing stage, familiar as they were with methodically cutting and stitching fabric into clothing. The common threads (sorry couldn’t resist) between film and sewing are there for all to see. ‘Threading’ and ‘lacing’ are terms that apply to both film and sewing. The development of the industrial sewing machine in the mid-19th century was intimately connected with the development of moving image cameras. Lumiére solved the problem of projection (ensuring continuous movement of film) by adapting the presser foot mechanism of a sewing machine. Even as late as the 1970s, the Singer sewing machine company also made Graflex 16mm film projectors. (1)
The act of sewing involves taking an unprepossessing length of fabric, a few spools of thread, maybe a hand-made paper pattern and crafting something beautiful or useful out of those materials – it’s a kind of alchemy. Thread itself can indicate wealth (gold thread, black fabric), or poverty (darning a garment that has been worn out); fabric quality similarly implies wealth (silk or brocade) or poverty (rough serge), or creativity from discarded fabric (quilting).
When you think about it, where would the world be without stitching? This one activity is responsible for the clothing, curtains, bedding, upholstery, bags and shoes that have ever been made, add to that essentials for work or industry like sails for shipping, it is a powerful skill. In the home, making an item of clothing for someone is very personal. The effort that goes into making baby clothes, for example, demonstrates love and care for the child – even in the poorest lives, making the essentials to keep your family warm is an act of love. It takes time and skill, not to say access to light. From the 1860s, the domestic machine could be found in growing numbers of middle class homes. The difference in time required was remarkable: a man’s shirt could be made in an hour by sewing machine instead of taking a day to make one by hand. The advent of ready to use paper patterns also cut down the time (and skills needed) to create clothing at home. As machine prices fell, more women could afford one and by the end of the century many working class women took in sewing and alterations to pay the bills.
Of course sewing is a trade that has a long-standing poor reputation for terrible conditions – sweatshops are nothing new. Throughout history people have damaged their sight and health by working on intricate items in poorly lit and badly ventilated workrooms and homes. It is disgraceful and especially repellent that so-called ‘top’ brands are still involved with sweatshop labour in Asia and elsewhere.
Sewing enables women to transform themselves from dowdy/poor/immature into desirable/radiant/confident. That’s a powerful effect from such simple materials. Sewing, like knitting, can be subversive: what do those women think or talk about during long hours at the sewing table? Its mystery is what makes it a good cinematic metaphor. Back in the real world, in Singapore during World War II female prisoners in Changi gaol made innocent looking quilts to be sent to Changi Barracks’ military hospital. The prisoners contrived ways of sewing their names and coded messages into the work. Ostensibly to be passed to the Red Cross when hostilities were over, the quilts allowed a list of survivors’ to be complied and sent home to news-starved families. Although I’m not aware of this incident making its way on to celluloid, it’s a great story and I’d love to know if anyone has spotted it on screen.
My first film in this research happened by chance – I’d gone to see Hitchcock’s silent 1929 film The Manxman at the BFI. It’s a bit of an oddity and my main feeling about it was surprise that it had been made as late as 1929, it felt like a much earlier film, say around 1923-4; the storyline was much less sophisticated than many other terrific late ‘20s films that I’ve seen recently, notably Underground and A Cottage On Dartmoor (both Anthony Asquith, 1929) and The First Born (Miles Mander, 1928), which are superlative works of art. I guess I expected more of Hitch, having greatly enjoyed The Lodger and Champagne.
The story of The Manxman revolves around a love triangle between two men who had grown up together ‘as brothers’ but who both fall in love with the same woman. During the course of story, the main man Pete Quilliam a fisherman, played by Carl Brisson, is thwarted in love – his wife leaves for his best friend. Whereas she had previously looked after the baby and the house while he was away at sea, once she left the job fell to him. It’s an interesting take on single fatherhood in the late 1920s. One particularly lovely scene is of Pete standing at his cottage door chatting to the neighbours; he’s darning a sock while chatting to two nosy neighbours. My eyes lit up! A man sewing on screen? That’s pretty unusual. Of course Pete being a fisherman would have been used to mending his nets and maybe even knitting his own gansey, but this was a useful way to show the viewer that he was comfortable in the caring role (he still had the baby), or was he patching over the holes in his life? It could be that he would stitch his life back together despite his wife having left him for his oldest, most trusted friend.
Then I turned to Underground (Anthony Asquith, UK, 1928). One of my all time favourite films, it’s a lively tale of love, jealousy and madness. The story focuses on two couples, Nell, Bill, Kate and Bert. Norah Baring plays Kate, a seamstress who is in love with Bert, but he’s a wrong ‘un and no mistake; he certainly doesn’t love her. She works in the room she lives in, her sewing machine on the table and a dressmaker’s dummy standing mute witness in the corner. As her life falls apart, Norah drives her Singer at breakneck speed, mirroring her increasing instability. When she finally does crack she wanders about her room and knocks into the dummy so that it is turned to face the wall. It can no longer watch over her. She even appears to apologise to it. Her sewing machine is no longer the reliable workhorse, but has become an unbalanced, out of control wild thing, a danger to itself. It’s wonderful stuff.
So what else is out there?
Frankenstein, (many versions, but starting with James Whales’ 1931 film). Dr Frankenstein stitches together scavenged body parts to make his monster. Stitching in the cause of science?
In a montage sequence in his Man With the Movie Camera (1929), Dziga Vertov intersperses a woman sewing a piece of cloth and spools of factory weaving with his wife, Elizaveta Svilova, working at the cutting table (she edited the film).
How To Make An American Quilt (Jocelyn Moorhouse, USA, 1995) references the wisdom gathered by women over the years and shared during a sewing bee.
Gone With The Wind (Victor Fleming, USA, 1939); Melanie encourages Scarlett and her companions to ‘ keep on with your sewing ladies’ during their menfolk’s lynching raid. It’s enough to give needlework a bad name. Scarlett’s dress is created from curtains, which must have provided a timely boost to Britain’s Make Do & Mend campaign in World War II! Find out where you can see the conserved green curtain dress in Austin, Texas, www.thehistoryblog.com/archives/20974.
Pretty In Pink (Howard Deutch, USA, 1986) features a scene in which Andie (Molly Ringwald) re-fashions a 1950s prom dress into (in some people’s eyes!) the coolest-ever pink dress. The message is clear: Andie can and will adapt and change to get what she wants.
In Brief Encounter (David Lean, UK, 1946) Laura absently mindedly sews as she thinks about her recent and final separation from Alec. Here sewing is a way of hiding from her husband while she thinks through what has happened.
Brodeuses aka A Common Thread (Éléonore Faucher, France 2004), links embroidering to pregnancy and to female bonding. The main character 17-year-old Claire quits her shop job when she discovers she is pregnant. She finds work as an assistant for Madame Mélikian an embroiderer for the haute couture industry. The film is titled Sequins in the US.
Walt Disney clearly loved a bit of down-home craft: In Sleeping Beauty (1959) the fairy, Flora, decides she won’t use magic to make a dress for Briar Rose’s birthday. It isn’t a success and magic is needed to rescue a disastrous effort. This is followed the wonderful colour ‘fight’ between Flora and Merryweather. Who will win between red and blue? But the spinning wheel now, that’s a different matter – much more sinister. Why is that? Hints of witchcraft perhaps?
Bright Star (Jane Campion, UK/Australia, 2009); Fanny Brawne is an accomplished needlewoman in love with poet John Keats; she creates needlework gifts for him but while her creativity blossoms, his is stifled by depression and illness. Their creative ebbs and flows alternate throughout; it’s interesting how sewing and poetry are equal in this story. Fanny’s needlework is beautiful and individual, at least on screen.
Coco Before Chanel (Anne Fontaine, France, 2009). Inevitably a film about a fashion designer features sewing, in this case her skills and ideas lead to global fame. There are some truly gorgeous clothes in this film. Does Coco’s artistry reflect her character?
Made In Dagenham (Nigel Cole, UK, 2010). A group of women sewing machinists strike for equal pay at Ford’s Dagenham plant in the late 1960s, their achievements were the catalyst for Barbara Castle’s campaign for equal pay for women. The women work in a leaky, unheated factory sewing the fabric interiors for the cars – essential to the finished product, but apparently undeserving of equal pay with the men.
Trailer at www.paramountpicturesintl.com/intl/uk/madeindagenham
Here’s a TUC film about those determined Ford women machinists and their fight for equal pay, www.youtube.com/watch?v=AIRXTuZBGOU.
And here’s a US instructional film from 1947 on how to sew a simple seam, narrated by a man as no woman could possibly sew and speak coherently at the same time, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eqzEbFEoQqg
And here’s a special treat…
There are plenty of other cinematic sewing scenes, do let me know if you spy any!
I’m grateful to Twitter followers for suggestions and RTs: Lucie Dee; Townly Cooke; Luke McKernan; Jo Pugh; Kevin Mullen; Amran Vance; Tilly Waines; Saffron Screen; Nicky T; Bare Faced Chic; Ian Matzen; Gavin Midgley; Hannah Dunleavy; Becky Innes; Toby Miller. Thank you all.