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Sep 19, 2011

Is Sewing an Art?

Readers, today's topic is challenging, but after re-reading yesterday's comments about the resurrection of dead couturier's fashion houses (specifically, whether Balenciaga was closer to a tractor manufacturer than to an artist like Picasso), I started wondering: is sewing an art? 

Just to be clear, I am not an art historian, though I did take a few art history classes many years ago, and I have been involved in various forms of artistic production throughout my life.

It's important to be clear about what one means by the term art, and throughout history the word (in all its various translations) has meant different things to different people at different times.

When I think of art, I think of a highly trained person expressing her- or himself through a particular medium.  So a writer of fiction could be considered an artist, but not a journalist.  But it gets confusing.  Poets are artists.  How about the people who write commercial jingles?  I think most of us like to think of art as something non-commercial, but this has likely never been the case.  Art has always been commissioned by others.  The artist has to live, after all. 

I took a look at the definition of artist on Wikipedia.  One of the modern definitions is "a person who engages in an activity deemed to be art."

So the question of today is: can home sewing -- or any sewing, for that matter -- be considered art, and who gets to decide?

I visited the Alexander McQueen show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and my hunch is that 95% of the visitors to this exhibit (or more) would consider his creations to be art.  Of course, it's rather a self-selecting group!  But given the popularity -- and increasing frequency -- of fashion-related museum exhibits and the rise of fashion departments in art museums, there seems no question that today, we (meaning the majority of people who think/care about such things) consider fashion to be an art form.

The same goes for commercial photography.  Original fashion photographs are highly collectible and valued today.  Who is the artist in the photograph below: couturier Balenciaga, French model Regine Debris, or photographer Irving Penn?  Or all three?

And if you go see the revival of Follies on Broadway, who are the artists involved there?  Stephen Sondheim, the composer, certainly.  Actress Bernadette Peters (below) too -- or not?  How about the orchestra players, the set designers, the costume designers?  I don't think we often think of costume designers as artists.  Should we?

This famous Cindy Sherman photograph, one of her Untitled Film Stills, belongs to the Museum of Modern Art. 

Would you consider this Cathy photo to be art?  (Oh, my, you flatter me!)  If it is art, who's the artist?  Cathy, Michael (who took the photo), or me (who set it up and sewed the dress)?

How about the sewing you do?  Looking around at sewing blogs as I am wont to do, there are a number of people whose projects look like art to me.

To be able to call it art, however, does it have to be original?  Can you stitch up a BurdaStyle Halter Dress and call it art?  (What if you draft your own, say, pants pattern?)  Doesn't the fact that you chose the fabric, that you had the image of how it should turn out in your head, somehow make it art?  Isn't sewing a form of self-expression?

Or are home sewers in particular more wisely considered technicians, or artisans?   It's easy to get mired in semantics.

So perhaps it's best to go directly to you, wise reader, and ask:

Do you consider yourself, as a sewer, to be an artist?

NOTE: We'll skip the Daily Ditch today.


  1. Of course home sewing is art! It is the creative realization of an idea in a physical form. And wouldn't one call quilting a "folk art?" I consider art to be any creative form of expression. I try not to judge whether or not someone else gets to call what they do art, even if it is sometimes questionable. Now "good" art or "bad" art, that is in the eye of the beholder....

  2. Craft. I consider it a craft, often rising to the level of artisanal. But, since "craft" covers a whole gamut of categories and quality of manufacture, I hesitate to use that term to refer to my avocation. ("Avocation" implies far more dedication to the craft than does "hobby.") Think of honing your craft in the sense that revered actors mean when they speak of their "craft." Even oil portraitists follow formulas when they are painting: to mix colors, to arrange shapes pleasingly on canvas or paper or wood ... let's elevate the status of "craft" to its rightful place in the lexicon.

  3. It depends on your definition right?
    If for you art is anything man made than you are making art.
    Definition from @wordnik Human effort to imitate, supplement, alter, or counteract the work of nature.

  4. That's a fascinating question--I'd put home sewing somewhere between "craft" and "folk art," depending on the piece. I prefer to think of my sewing as craft, because I'm in a full-time degree program for creative writing, which means my day job essentially is producing art--which can be stressful! I need the lower stakes and technical demands of sewing to counterbalance the high-pressure nebulousness of writing a novel.

  5. Sewing is a skill. Design is an art form. I'd say that when you sew for Cathy, you re engaging in craft, but when you set up a shoot, you are engaging in art.

    I am always wary of people who refer to themselves as artists, because we are not the best judges of our own work.

  6. I think this is a really difficult question, and one that tends to be a hot topic (and also results in many circular conversations) among artists and art professionals. I have a BFA and an MFA in Painting. The art school where I got my MFA had two departments, "PDS" (Painting, Drawing and Sculpture) and "Crafts" (Ceramics, Metalworking, and, curiously, Printmaking). The Craft students always had a chip on their shoulder, feeling as if they were second class citizens, but the general consensus was that this distinction was fairly antiquated, and based on an idea of "use value". Traditionally ceramics, metalworking, printmaking, and sewing were practiced to achieve a functional end. You store food in your ceramic bowl, you wear jewelry and clothes, images are printed for mass consumption, etc. Whereas a painting or a sculpture simply sits there and is meant to be contemplated or admired. Within the last century these definitions have been rightfully blurred - the Alexander McQueen show is an example of that (although those garments are arguably more for spectacle or show than they are for traditional functionality)
    Now for my own experience - I haven't painted in two years. All my creative energy has been going to sewing. I do feel that I have a much different experience when I sew than when I paint. I'm far less likely to - ever - conceptualize my sewing. I don't feel dredged down by history, and I don't feel pressured to make something "smart". When I sew I enjoy the things that I also love about painting - refining a technique, perfecting a design, and getting lost in a process. But in the end I have something completely wearable, and that is my goal. Because of this I consider myself a craftswoman. I have an extremely high regard for crafts, and don't think it should be seen as a "lesser-than".

  7. Hmm, we were just talking about this in my Intellectual Property class the other day - the law of copyright will protect artistic works, among other things, so we need a legal definition of what an artistic work is... unfortunately, there isn't a clear cut answer! My favourite way of looking at it is looking at the amount of artistic freedom the creator had in creating the item. But, then where do you draw the line?? I guess its for each of us to decide for ourselves :)

  8. As a person that sews, it is safer to categorize myself as an "artisan". Work created by an "artist" usually has no appreciation until the person is dead. An artisan produces things that are immediately appreciated. I'd rather have my flowers while I'm still alive.

  9. Sewing is an art! I am artist , as are every sewista!

  10. What a wonderful tough question- what is art? I guess to recognize art you have to recognize someone is an artist - if he/she is more likely to be impractical than practical, if their work has an emotional impact and touches different people in different ways, these would be a few signs...

  11. @sallie - what a great distinction! i hadn't thought about it before, but i feel the same way you do about engaging in my sewing versus engaging in my photography.

  12. I think its a little of both. I agree with LinB above who said sewing is a craft. But, I think that some people (like Alexander McQueen) can take the craft to the level of art.

    All of us here I think, can agree with Erica when she stated that we are artisans which to me states that we are both crafters and artists.

  13. Art is communication of ideas. It is non verbal and can be tangible thought or pure emotional abstraction. Sewing a pair of pajamas is not art. following a pattern is not art, changing a detail does not make it art. This is craft. You are not communicating an idea, other than I needed pajamas.

    Craft is the creation of an object through a series of steps. A skilled craftsperson is a valuable member of his community. Crafts are the basis for modern industry, but all steps are performed by one person- or an intimate team. Limited production and subtle variation between items make the product desirable.

    Sewing becomes elevated when you put your soul into a project. Draft a pattern based on an idea, for a garment unlike any you have seen. Create a soft sculpture, embroider a mural, stitch the human genome in human hair. That may be considered craft as art. Perhaps even art.

  14. This is more a thought than a a definite argument, but I would see 'creating' the pattern or even 'altering' a pattern as more artistic, and the sewing as more of a craft. If I use a pattern and follow it exactly (even to matching the cover fabric) that strikes me as more crafting (even copying), not creating.

  15. sewing can be skill, craft, design, and/or art...its not what the medium is, but how the medium is it concept driven? is it innovative? is it thought-provoking? or is it just a very well made technical piece? Was the piece created under extraordinary circumstances?...I guess to answer the question, sewing skills can be used as a means to create art.

  16. my opinion:
    Is all sewing art? no.
    can sewing be art? yes.
    Who gets to decide? no one. everyone.

    as for me... sometimes my sewing is art. sometimes my sewing is purely for necessity/function. sometimes what I see as purely functional may seem like art to someone else and vice versa. I think i often shoot for a nice mix of both.

  17. We are all fiber artists, sewing just happens to be our common medium.

  18. This is one of those subjects where gender politics and social status collide. Art has been mostly male dominated and can command megabucks, partly because of it's ooak, limited edition nature. Craft was usually female (well, after all male knitting guilds and the like died out), thought of a something anyone could do, and requiring less talent or God-like inspiration.

    However, look at the hands and arms of most artists, and you will find that painters and sculptors have the hands and arms of bricklayers as there is real work involved in producing their art, not just the drawing up of ideas. It's still mostly the case that a career as an artist is more difficult to sustain and has fewer financial rewards than that of male artists. That said, we've come a long way to the point where fiber artists are recognized as artists in their own right and not simply craftspeople.

    To me, art is artistic expression regardless of the medium or the gender of the maker. Craft is skilled work with creative work having been done by someone else, eg., woodwork vs carving wood to an original design.

  19. Sewing is a craft that can rise to the status of art, i.e. Alexander McQueen. It's a craft because it requires practice to create a utilitarian object, but can be an art if you are able to create an object that can be appreciated for its beauty.

  20. This is a fascinating discussion. I have a really loose definition of art as something that is created. So in many ways, yes, I view sewing as art. I was thinking about this question when our high school shut down the fashion design/sewing classes it offered to use the space for a video conference room. As an engineer, I appreciate the need for almighty technology enhancements, but not at the expense of opportunities to create with one's hands. Why is photography or pottery considered "art" at the school, but not sewing?

  21. I have a unique perspective on this. See, I have a BA in art. And I took textile classes in which we had to not only dye our own fabric, but then make something out of it. If you couldn't sew, you were screwed, and there was no such class as "Sewing 101". So, is it an art form? I would say yes. In a lot of ways, a dying art form because the percentage of people who know how is a lot smaller than it used to be.

    Oh, and did you know that quite a few songwriters got their start in jingles?

  22. Well, apart from sewing, I also play the piano. Reproducing a piece of music IMHO is art, so I would tend to call reproducing a 'whatever brand' pattern art as well. As you rightly say: you bring in your own taste and flavours in choosing fabric, adding design details etc. Just as you give an interpretation to a piece of Mozart or Bach.

    Side note: my rotary cutting mat came in the mail today. FAN-FREAKING-TASTIC: I just cut all the pieces for a complex men's shirt (16-18 pattern pieces, of which much had to be cut in two different fabrics) in an hour or two. Normally would 've taken me 4 hours or more. Thanks for your help in picking one out. Oh: disappointment - the scales on the mat are in inches....

    Jan-Theo / Netherlands

  23. I agree with those who have said that sewing from a pattern is craft. Merely choosing your own fabric & trims doesn't necessarily elevate it to the status of art. It just does not compare with the act of inspired creation that's needed for the Alexander McQueen gown. Not in the same league.

    Design a garment from the ground up, out of your own head. Even just sketching it out, not even sewing it -- that's more of an art than simply sewing a garment from a pattern, imnsho. Bring the design to life, & that's the ultimate marriage of craft & art.

  24. Ouch Peter, I'm a costume designer and consider myself an artist! That said, I did go to art school (where the "what is art" discussion was had every week or so).

    Also I sketch designs, drape and draft my own designs and bring them into reality. The difference is that my art has purpose, even at the base level of covering the body for warmth and protection.

    People don't typically associate objects that have "use" with art. I think the fun comes from blending my art with a purpose!

  25. I do think we usually require art to be in some way original. So someone who can recreate a dead-on copy of the Mona Lisa is technically brilliant, perhaps, but (maybe) not quite an artist. Same with a brilliant dressmaker who's using commercial patterns, unless he/she is using highly unusual materials to create something highly original.

  26. Yes - I am an artist - in the traditional sense and I sew. I sew for pleasure, but there is a part of me that wants my sewing to reflect my art. I want to join the two together,

  27. As someone who has performed, created, and participated in various forms of art---drawing, painting, writing, drama, dance---(not professionally, of course) I would definitely put sewing in the same category. It exercises the same principles of creativity within a structure that is present in all the other art forms I've participated in---only the medium is different. Obviously not all sewing is particularly creative or original, but then neither is all art of any kind.

  28. I don't think sewing from a pattern is craft at all! Not in the slightest. It does take skill to sew from instruction, especially if those instructions are wrong, or off, or missing. A craft, no way!

    I have absolutely no desire to design my own clothes. I take pride in the skill I've developed constructing the clothes I make. The tricks I've learned and the processes I've created. Constructing a garment is just as laborious and creative as designing one.

    I do think there is a differential between a designer and a person who sews a garment. Often designers have no tailoring skills (more in recent times than ever, especially the ones I've worked with) so someone with that training and attention to detail beyond its prettiness is sorely needed. It is a skill.

    Like an architect and a construction builder. Two different jobs, but I find it doubtful that you would downgrade the builders importance to sup beneath the architect, especially if you want to go into the building :)

  29. I think I agree with the people who suggest that art is an attempt to communicate something. So whether or not sewing is art depends a lot on motivation. Sewing a pattern because you need pants or even because RTW doesn't fit you well = not art. Sewing because you've made a commitment not to buy retail or because you're making a statement about sustainability starts to push the "art" edge for me. Designing a garment to reflect your vision a la Alexander McQueen is definitely art.

    I like the idea of "artisan" or even craftsperson for the home seamstress, because there are definitely levels of skill to be attained and this doesn't seem to me like a lesser distinction. I can only hope to be as good of a sewist someday as some of the people whose blogs I visit.

  30. As CandaceClay responded... I too work in the field of costuming. But I consider the level of artist versus artisan versus craft person to change based on what I am doing within that field.
    As a designer I am (most of the time) an artist. I choose the line and silhouette and texture and color and detail and all the whole visual effect of a costume. And as if that weren't enough I have to sketch and paint a representation of this final design (with emotive impact) to present to the director and cast.
    As a draper/patternmaker I am (most of the time) more of an artisan. It is a skill... but there is so much intuitive knowledge and understanding built into the process that it rates closer to art than craft.
    When sewing I am (most of the time) a craftsperson. As a stitcher I rarely if ever have any say about the construction process. Much like a sewist who follows the directions in the instruction sheet. I do as I am directed. I have skills and they are advanced, but they seem to me to align with the talents of a craftsperson not an artist.
    But in particular I have to agree with the posters who have pointed out that the term "craft" is a worthy term! It does not denigrate a skill set to be called craft. Craft is a strong word and should be respected for the long history and solid skill sets it denotes.

  31. Being a card-carrying people pleaser, I would call myself a "creative" before referring to myself as an artist. That keeps me from sounding like I over-estimate myself.
    Having said that, my sense of self is so deeply intertwined with my creativity, that I suffer when I do not express it.
    That is pretty much how artists are.
    To my way of thinking, a non-artist doesn't don't have that primal need to express oneself creatively.
    They enjoy all sorts of other things to give life meaning, but this is not true for me. If I can't create, I can't enjoy life.

  32. Interesting topic. Shouldn't we mention that the discernment of the viewer/user is important in this definition and perception? More abstract art requires more effort/training on the part of the viewer/user; folk arts are universally accessible, as in rag dolls and quilts. The artist's message can be interpreted or lost either way. Since I feel drawn to textiles with and without patterns, "textile addict" doesn't sound as important as "textile artist," tho in modern times many people think "artist" is pretentious and must be a person who makes useless things. I think the highest art makes the most wonderfully useful things, either to express our times and experiences or to make our daily lives richer, more beautiful, more comfortable, more worthy of our highest selves. Kristina in Ohio

  33. Andy Warhol summed it up for me, "Art is a man's name"

  34. There is a fine line with home sewing and calling it art. I have seen some home sewers that are in my book artists, and some that, well lets just say, they should not quit their day jobs.

    After seeing the Balenciaga show in San Francisco, I would say that yes haute couture is most definitely works of art.
    But then who is the artist in that realm. Since most pieces were executed by many hands??

    My daughter is working for Marios Schwab in London at the moment, and she told me all the ins and outs of what goes on behind the scenes during fashion week. She worked on several of the pieces that were part of the collection shown this past Sunday. The designer himself was impressed with much of her technique. So, would he be the artist and my daughter be the artisan in this case? I suppose so since it is his vision. Funny to think about it in this way.

    She said that it was interesting to see the "human" side of fashion week!

  35. I've always considered art an intuitive assertion that does not always proceed with the logical happenings of said field, but often has an outcome that is not calculated in the mechanics of said field. It can be very subtle or blatant.

    The phrase, 'there's an art to it' applies to everything from moping a floor to brain surgery. I think it's arrogant of people to say only things produced solely with the intent of being 'art' have earned the right to be called art. Especially those not made by human hands?

    You can look at a sunset and call that art or find an artistic element in it when its just a series of chemical reactions. I think everything we do as humans has an artistic element because we as humans have the perception to dissect the beauty in something.

    I think a view of art only being from galleries or as non functional displays is a small view.

  36. Oooh, fascinating question! My sewing is more craft than art :-) but I do think very excellent design, perfectly executed, is art.

  37. Well, I sure didn't think my tractor analogy would so stir things up! I don't think my sewing is art, but many home sewers are creating art, making original garments by hand that push the boundaries and cause us to think or react in a new way. I just want to make fashionable clothes for myself.

    But I stick by my idea that most fashion designers are not really artists. They design things that other people mass produce to sell in a commericial market. Without doubt the old courtiers were artists, but those days are mostly gone. So I really do think the big fashion houses are like most other manufacturing corporations and if they are economically viable should continue beyond the life of the original designer.

  38. Comment, Part I:

    Fun topic. My sister is the arts major (photography) and we have the "What is art?" discussion when she is on school breaks. Basically, through her schooling and late night discussions at the frozen yogurt store, we have come to the conclusion that art is art if it is created with the intention to be art. Of course, I would add the personal caveat that the execution should live up to the artist's intent.

    The McQueen works were clearly intended to be "art," and were executed with a skill that allowed the intent to become a reality. I don't think anyone would deny the status of these garments as art. I do not think it matters if the artist had a team who helped with the construction of the piece. The designer is the artist, and the sewers were the artisans. The person who first intended for the art to exist is the artist.

    I do not think all designers are artists, however. Again, it goes back to intent. I think many designers (this includes designers who create patterns sold by pattern companies) design with the intent to sell clothes. They look at trends/fashion shows/sales results and design based on what others are doing in order to make a profit. I know with the economy many famous designers are creating low-end lines to sell at places like Target and WalMart to boost sales and keep the business going. I think the designs they send down a runway at Fashion Week have the potential to be considered as art, but the stuff they sell at Target is not. Again, the difference is the intent.

    For the home sewers - I do not think many home-sewn garments are art. I really believe for a home-sewn garment to be "art" it needs to be designed and the pattern self-drafted. The construction quality needs to be executed to a level that showcases the intent of the design. When I make clothes I use commercial patterns and alter them to fit, choose fabric, and construct to the best of my ability. My ability is not great but getting better. At present, for me it is a craft. Maybe someday I would consider myself an artisan, when my skills are much improved. I do design my own skating costumes, and mostly draft my own patterns for those, but the intent is to "look good while skating," not to create art. I think my costumes are pretty, but they are not art. I think it is possible for home sewers to create art, but since creating art is not often the intent in garment construction, the end result is not often art. There are some absolutely wonderful home sewers out there, and I would definitely consider them artisans, but there are not many home sewers I would consider artists.

  39. Comment, Part II:

    Speaking of costumes, I do think costume designers are artists. They are part of a team of artists working together to create art. They may be commissioned, but it is still art, because the intent to create art is there. The sewers who help create the garments are artisans because they help execute, but did not design the garments. In theater, everyone is working together to create art, so I would consider the musicians, singers, costume designers, directors, writers, composers as artists because they have creative input in the result. Other people (such as light and soundboard operators, the seamstresses, etc) are artisans or technicians, because they do not have creative input, but they have specialized skills that are used by the artists to create their vision.

    As for fashion photography - this is a hot button issue at home with a photographer in the house. Again, it all goes back to intent. If a photographer creates an image with the intent of being art, it is art. The photographer does not necessarily even have to be the one to press the shutter button (I was shocked at this notion, but have been assured it is common practice today). The artists have to be the ones with intent of creating a certain image. I think fashion photography can be art, but is not always art. Often, the intent is to sell product, and that comes across in the image. When I take photos of my finished projects, the goal is to show off my sewing, not to create a great image in a photograph. At the moment, my images are little more than snapshots. As with my sewing, I would like to improve my skills and improve the quality of the images, but the lack of intent (and in this case skill) prevents them from being anywhere near the level of art.

    In any case, great topic and very interesting to read all the thoughts in the discussions!

    (Also, sorry for the long ramble - couldn't even fit it in one post - and sorry if I offended home sewers who think of themselves as artists. I think it came across a bit strongly, but this is just my opinion. This topic is something I have been pondering for a while and had many discussions about with various people, so I had a lot to say.)

  40. The kind of sewing I do is not art, not by a long shot. I don't think most sewing is art, but there are rare exceptions.

    Costume designers are DEFINITELY artists! In my book, anyway. Set designers, too. Lighting people working in theater are also artists. Most people working on a theater production are artists, I believe.

    Your Cathy photo shoots are art. If you just sat at home and sewed dresses, no. But you've created a character, a story, a performance, and I think it's art.

  41. The male knitting guild has not "died out". If you have some doubt this idea, check out Word of warning, some of them are very passionate about their "craft".

  42. Hands down - one answer - it's an art...the very nature of putting together the outfit (requiring a technical ability/training), choosing the media (fabric), and putting it on canvas (assemblage) all require not only technical ability, but experience and expertise (we do get better at it the more we practice it!) But I think so many home sewists believe they aren't artists, just technicians...who picked out the fabric, and for that matter who picked out the pattern and why? Even w/o alteration making a pattern can be said to be very similar to a pianist playing Beethoven..Ashkenazy didn't compose the Emperor's Concerto, but he's still considered an artist when he plays it.

    There one answer here....YES!

  43. Similarly to Sallie Forrer, two years ago I received my MFA in Studio Arts (focused in painting). There were two programs; studio and social practice. Basically, in the contemporary art world, anything is now considered art if there is an intent for it to be. An artist no longer has to paint, but could simply walk down the street with someone and call it art. I have had trouble with accepting this concept as an art form, but it does exist.
    In my art school, there were never any sewing classes available. I didn't start sewing till after graduating and now am more interested in this process than painting. I had a show this past year where I tried to combine my history with painting with my new found interest in sewing. I focused on researching women's role during WWII. I created some garments and had them on display next to the paintings that depicted the history. I posted images from the show on my blog.
    By using garments in a show, I am calling them art. I wear the garments outside of this and don't call it art. A few artist use garments as part of their work: Yinka Shonibare, J.Morgan Puett, and Andrea Zittel. These people had already chosen their artistic path before incorporating sewing into their practice.
    The question of art vs. simply sewing has been really difficult for me. I feel guilty for wanting to sew instead of paint, but I should just follow what I find the most fascinating. In the end, the best work comes from what interests you the most.

  44. Excellent topic, well done, it puts me in mind of the grate ARTS & CRAFTS movement, philosophy and all the debates that followed 1860-1910.

  45. My definition is more expansive. I think politics is an art and therefore, so is government. There is a lot of technicality in it and a lot of grunt work. But those contrivute to the art. So following that example, yes, sewing is an art.

  46. It feels like art when I am doing it. Whether I am retrofitting an existing piece of clothing or following a pattern. I am taking a nebulous idea, using skill and techniques, and making it reality. The artist puts a part of himself into the canvas, whatever the medium.


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