Sewing – A Lost Skill?

I remember we used to have very basic sewing lessons in my secondary school education. Those lessons belonged to the girly subject called Home Economics. The other major component in the subject was cooking. I aced at sewing but fared poorly at cooking.

I attribute my sewing success to my mom.

My mother is a seamstress. It was common for young women of her generation to attend sewing classes and hence acquire some sewing skills to make or alter their own clothes. As history would have it, my mom met my dad and they got married. One day, a Malay neighbour asked my mom whether she could help sew a baju kurung (traditional Malay costume) for her and she agreed. The neighbour liked the baju kurung so much as it was well tailored. It was a small community and word got around. Soon enough, my mom started a small business in sewing baju kurung for the Malay folks. From her humble beginning, the business grew and thrived so well that my mom had to hire other homemakers with good sewing skills to manage her large orders.

Now, here’s where I came into the picture.

My mom began to rope in the family to help run the business. She trained me to stitch edges of cloths with a sewing machine called a serger. This is the fastest and easiest method to prevent cut edges of fabric from unravelling. But mind you, that serger was of the industrial kind and ran at high speeds. I learned how to feed each piece cloth into the serger where there was a sharp cutter to trim away the rough edges quickly and at the same time some needles would run through the edges to create a finished seam. I was nine years old then.

A cloth that has been seamed by a serger

During peak seasons, e.g. months leading up to Hari Raya Puasa, I also helped out in sewing up entire baju kurungs by using the standard sewing machine and hand-stitching for buttons and hems. I didn’t always enjoy the process as a kid but parents kept reminding us that it was all about survival and improving our standard of living. By the way too, my two younger brothers also picked up some sewing skills in their growing up years. My dad’s role was mainly to buy back lunches and dinners and also to do special deliveries when my mom couldn’t meet her deadlines for some of her customers.

After about 20 years into the business, the Malay community in Singapore has relied less on tailors for their traditional costumes as it has become easier and cheaper to buy off the rack. It was about time for my mom to slow down for retirement as well. She still takes in some customers to keep herself occupied – which I think is a good thing as this will keep her brain active in her senior years.

The Home Economics curriculum in secondary schools has seen modifications throughout the years. One significant change is the great reduction or total removal of sewing lessons while cookery lessons survived. This is a pity because sewing is such a useful skill to acquire. I notice that garment alteration services are quite costly nowadays. A simple shortening of the hem for a pair of pants can cost $6-10. Sigh, we do go for such services occasionally because of the lack of a sewing machine at home. Certain fabric such as denim should be machine sewn as it is a tough material. If it is a soft fabric, then I could get the alteration done by hand-stitching. I wish I could inherit my mom’s sewing machines but they are too bulky for storage purposes. Hmm, perhaps it’s time to shop around for small, portable one? :)

7 Comments to Sewing – A Lost Skill?

  1. Doreen says:

    Haha, this post brought back interesting memories! I was terribly bad at sewing! When I was given any sewing assignment to do in Sec 1 and 2, it was either my mum or Liping (my classmate), who would do it for me. Therefore, till now, I don’t know how to sew properly using a sewing machine, especially if the thread is stuck/ tangled at the machine. Then, I would be stuck as well. ;) As for cooking, I didn’t dare to clear and clean the internal parts of the fish or chicken, and Liping would help me again. We always partnered each other, so I have never learnt. Nowadays, I would just buy fish and chicken that have been cleaned by the people in the supermarket or the sellers at the market. :p

  2. Wendi says:

    Yeah! I’ve always enjoyed my Home Economics class last time. It’s a pity that current Home Economics do lesser sewing. But it’s definitely not a dying trade coz the dressmaking class I’m attending currently is always full!

  3. Ling says:

    @ Doreen: Ya, those were the days! BTW, Wendi who commented after you also attended the same secondary school as ours! Small world :)

    @ Wendi: I find that there are more blogs on cooking than sewing and generally people I came across could cook better than sew. I think it could be due to the nature of sewing as compared to cooking. Sewing requires time, patience, care and dedication. Cooking, on the other hand, is less intensive and can produce quick, satisfying results.

    The no. of shops that sell fabrics, threads, buttons, etc, are disappearing from the neighbourhood. Sewing is definitely not a dying trade (as we still need skilled people to make our garments beautiful) but it was no longer viewed as an essential skill for the average household.

    BTW, heard that you were on MC too. Rest well and recover soon! Hannah has been telling me about your dog dog and that it doesn’t bite and only sniff her out. :)

  4. Wendi says:

    Ya, usually I only go to People’s Park to get my sewing supplies. Haha! Hannah loves playing with my dog! When the first time she sees him she’s kinda scare and don’t know what to expect so I have to explain to her that he needs to sniff her to get to know her and to make friend with her. Since then, everytime when I called home, she will ask my mum for the phone and repeatedly tells me “jie jie, I like your dog dog!” So cute! I told her that she has a dog dog too (Pluto) but she says “but my dog dog cannot move”. Hahaha…

  5. Ling says:

    We just hope that she won’t be asking for a real dog! No energy left for a high maintenance pet when the kids are young. :P

    My mom goes to Jalan sultan area to get her supplies of threads, buttons, zips, etc. Her customers will buy their own fabric for tailoring. I think the Malay folks usually buy their fabric from Joo Chiat area. People’s Park is mostly catered for the Chinese crowd I guess.

  6. Theresa says:

    Thanks for the sharing. Yes, I remembered my Sec 1/2 days when I did my home economics. We did some simple pieces like small bag, skirt, shorts and even a tissue box holder. And a confession: I was really bad in sewing and it was either my mum or my aunt who helped me to complete my homework!!! ha ha!!!!

  7. Ling says:

    Hi Theresa,

    You’re not alone in this. I’m sure many parents have stepped in to help their children in their school projects and homework :) Ha ha.