Cupboards, cubbyholes & corners: Finding space to sew

Sewing spaces blog - Alice at her sewing machine

This week the #SewOver50 movement on Instagram celebrated its second birthday. Congratulations to @judithrosalind and her colleagues in creating what’s become an international movement of thousands. They’ve helped their followers to become not only visible, but proudly so, and connected with each other too.

Sharing sewing spaces

To celebrate, #SewOver50 have invited their followers to post pictures of themselves in their sewing spaces, rather than posing in their creations. A stream of postings of people with their sewing machines has ensued; these are touchingly personal and give a real sense of the personalities behind the scenes.

Some are fortunate enough to have dedicated studios; others sew in multifunctional spaces but whatever their situation there’s a sense that when the sewing machine comes out, the user is very definitely in their ‘happy place’.

Sewing spaces I’ve known and loved

This got us thinking about how our sewing spaces have changed over the years. I spent my childhood and early teens in the cupboard under the stairs (no relation to Harry Potter) thundering away on my Nanna’s treadle Singer machine. At some point in the mid-70s we had central heating installed and a boiler took over my space. Consequently I was allowed to book time on my mother’s sky-blue Pinnock machine on the table in the spare bedroom (term-times only, when my Nanna wasn’t staying).

That was eventually the machine I took with me to university where I set up shop on a cupboard in my room, charging £1 a time to replace zips in jeans. (What can I say? This was 1981; times were hard, jeans were tight and it was an excellent way to meet people 😆)

My machine then sat on various bedsit tables and cupboards over many years. It wasn’t until our current house that it had a table all of its own and only then after the children started to leave home.

My sewing space is now a table at one end of the ClothSpot workroom. It’s very much a multi-functional space – the table is a temporary desk on some days and it’s prone to becoming a dumping ground for fabrics, samples, the stock folder, magazines, I could go on…

This end of the room is also where I meet suppliers, do our fabric photography, stack boxes when we’re assembling kits…you can imagine. But on weekends, I can tidy up, create a calm space, put a Nora Ephron film on Netflix and….breathe.

This is my sense of a sewing room as a retreat; a space where I can gather myself and focus mindfully on an activity that engages hands and brain. I know I’m not alone in this; there have been many articles written about the mental health benefits of sewing as an activity, especially in recent months. My conversations with many of you reveal the depth of attachment that we have to our sewing spaces. For one customer, preparing her sewing space and using it was almost the first thing she chose to do after major surgery. Another who now lives alone described her sewing room as a ‘sanctuary’ despite having the house to herself.

How sewing spaces have evolved

Our sewing spaces are often vulnerable to take-over bids! The reason you’re not seeing a picture of Judy here has (on this occasion) less to do with being camera-shy and more to do with sacks of grass seed (don’t ask) and her space being used as a decanting area during building work.

As we discussed the subject though, we thought it might be interesting to take a look at how sewing spaces have evolved. We trawled through our collections of books and magazines and we came up with the following chronology – and a theory as to how and why sewing spaces have changed over the years.

1930s

I’ve inherited a bound book with hundreds of interiors advertisements from the 1930s. Not a single one of them shows a sewing machine. The closest we get is this ad for a room with a sewing table, intended for use in a living room.

The ‘Brief Encounter’ approach to sewing

Given that sewing machines were a valued asset in any household that could afford one, where were they hiding? The answer is of course that many of them temporarily took over the dining room or kitchen table and were then packed away for mealtimes. Interior designers clearly thought that kind of mess wasn’t going to sell their furnishings.

1950s

Judy has a collection of bound volumes of ‘Practical Housekeeping’, now on eBay as she’s having a bit of a clear-out. We managed to sneak in there before they sell (let us know if you want the link 😉) and found this 1956 article on how to build a sewing cupboard.

Practical Householder, February 1956

Our seamstress is still based in a fireside chair – this is all about practicality and organisation.

The following year however, we have an actual sewing machine – exactly like the one from my cupboard under the stairs. It features in an article all about…how to hide your sewing machine. Sewing is still being cast as a necessary ‘evil’ if you like – it has to be done but let’s not be reminded of the mess.

Practical Householder, November 1957

1960s

By the 1960s – ta-da! We have the appearance of a sewing machine in use (although the placement of that potted chrysanthemum is to be wondered at). This is an image from an interiors book of 1968. It’s a suggestion of how to decorate a room: ‘…which is the centre of family activities – like television, dressmaking, reading and general relaxation’.

The Book of Home Decoration, Crown, 1968.

Here, there’s an acknowledgement that sewing is a real activity. Although we might not describe it as a ‘family activity’ today (‘not on your life!‘ I hear you say), this is a time before fast fashion, when many clothes were made at home and people needed to be present for trying-on.

1970s

In this image we still have the notion of sewing as a utilitarian activity, albeit one that has finally earned the right to a dedicated space. All part of selling the dream of a big house with endless space, this is the first time we see an established area for sewing on a par with a toolshed or workshop that might have been claimed by the man of the house. (We’re obviously dealing with some pretty outmoded ways of thinking here, but you’ll get the point).

The Complete Homemaker, 1976

1980s

By the 1980s sewing has claimed an entire room for itself, albeit a spare bedroom that might have to be reclaimed on occasion. The sewing space is becoming a highly personalised space and there’s a suggestion that this is a place where you’d go out of choice, rather than necessity. There are plants, a pretty window, much more storage and even a mirror for trying on clothes.

Reader’s Digest New DIY Manual

1990s

For reasons known only to herself, Judy has collected every IKEA catalogue ever published in the UK. From this collection (not available on eBay, sadly), we have this image from the 1996 catalogue.

IKEA Catalogue, 1996

Here we see the beginnings of sewing spaces as we now know them, across Instagram. White melanine-coated particle board, adaptable storage and clean lines. In keeping with IKEA’s philosophy, this is an arrangement that makes a lot out of a little. Even if your sewing area is a corner of a bedroom, it’s your space; your sanctuary. Add a cutting board under the bed and a pair of noise-cancelling headphones and you can transport yourself to your happy place whenever you have the time to do so.

Where have you sewn?

For many of us, we sew because we choose to, not because we have to – and our sewing spaces reflect that transition. Is that an accurate reflection of where we are now? Do you have a picture of a sewing space from your past or present that you’d like to share? Please do! We’d love to do an update of this post based on your images – so email us your pictures or tag us on Instagram @ClothSpot and let us know!

6 thoughts on “Cupboards, cubbyholes & corners: Finding space to sew

  1. Jacqueline Curtis says:

    The garden office was renamed the sewing shack last year. Actually also the sowing shack as I sow seed there as well on wet days! I’ll send you a photo as soon as I have sorted out the product placement.

    • aliceclothspot says:

      There’s obviously something going on here with seed, sewing and sowing – maybe the grass seed that took over Judy’s space is a ‘thing’ after all…🤔 Please do send a pic – and you never know, the product placement might reap rewards. On the other hand, I’m still waiting for my lifetime supply of Smints…🤨

  2. Allison Graden says:

    I’ve gone from hiding the sewing machine under the kitchen table and storing fabric in the linen closet to having a dedicated sewing room and back again lol! I do have a spare bedroom that I keep all my supplies but I sew on the kitchen table.

    • aliceclothspot says:

      I think it’s interesting that we have the capacity to establish our creative space wherever is available! Once you start a project you’re ‘in the zone’ and whatever the space is, becomes yours. Here’s to kitchen tables! 😁

  3. Sue Martin says:

    My Special Sewing Place is a 1/3 of my bedroom, I found a 1990’s large filing cabinet with 3 pull out shelves which actually come out to 3 times their length!
    I paid £45 for this from Heart Foundation charity shop as it has a set of runners missing.
    I fitted shelves to middle 2 and a fixed shelf to the top 1, so that gave me 3 shelves for storage us the top extending 1 for sewing machine.
    I got a lovely black velvet swivel chair (sort of egg shaped) for £12 on local Facebook (which I’m going to recover in a beautiful teal velvet, so doesn’t show sewing threads and fluff so much!
    Now I can sit at my sewing machine with shelf extended and sew with ease and beauty is at end if day I can just shut doors on it all!
    I have also put electrics in so has a light and points… No trailing wires.
    Got kids book rack for storing mags etc and ikea peg boards, 1 of my single robes stores my fabric… So all neat and tidy and lounge stays clutter free, now just got get new carpet and vinyl on sewing third of floor and all finished!

    How do you add photos?

    • aliceclothspot says:

      Hello Sue – thank you so much for this description of your sewing room – it sounds as if you’ve really thought hard about all the different elements of your workspace – and it’s full of personal touches. I’m so sorry but there isn’t a way of adding pictures to a comment on here (unless someone wants to correct me!) but if you wanted to email one to alice [at] clothspot.co.uk, then I’d be delighted to include it at the end of my blog post – it’d be lovely to have an up-to-date sewing sanctuary to finish the piece off! Thanks again 😃

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