Sew,Papa,Sew!: Thoughts on Fatherhood, Sewing + Gender Expectations

on July 23 | in Interviews + Profiles, Sewing With Kids | by | with 17 Comments

Thomas Knauer is back with his second post in a new series here on the blog: Sew,Papa,Sew! Find the first post here. We hope the series is springboard for discussion about gender and sewing, both in the world of sewing and at home. The images in this post are screenshots Thomas took when he did Google image searches for “fabric for girls,” “fabric for boys,” “fabric for women,” and “fabric for men.” Take a look, read about Thomas and his quilt guild and let us know what you think about how we see boys, girls, men, and women in relation to fabric and sewing. What do these images and experiences say about our expectations?

Learn more about Thomas and his work at Thomas Knauer Sews. Thomas launched his second and third fabric collections with Andover Fabrics, Flock and Savanna Bop. (We have Savanna Bop!) Savanna Bop Flannels arrive later this summer (just in time for cozy fall pajamas!), and a fourth collection, Frippery, is also set to debut.

I walked into my first meeting of the local quilt guild and I could feel the room change. A few heads were on a proverbial swivel, but most eyes just took a surreptitious glance. No one spoke to me; I nodded a few shy hellos, but conversation seemed to falter wherever I went. I found a seat and after a few minutes someone with an official-looking name badge came over to ask if I knew this was a quilt club meeting. When I replied in the affirmative, she shuffled back to report and I sat there in silence.

So, why am I telling this story? I think it illustrates how deeply ingrained our stereotypes about sewing really are, for me and for the women at the quilt guild. Let’s face it, men around here are anomalies; there aren’t a lot of us in the industry, and there aren’t a lot of us in the community at large. We all know the reasons: at some point in childhood boys and girls get treated differently, are expected to want different things; schools, the media, family, and life in general perpetually reinforce this. It is nobody’s and everybody’s fault.

Google Image Search: “Fabric for Girls”

That said, we do a lot around here to reinforce it too. When I walked into that guild meeting I was a man first and a quilter second. Actually, my being a quilter was in question. I’m sure I exuded awkwardness, which only exacerbated the situation. I am happy to say that by my second meeting that awkwardness was gone, but first impressions matter. I know that in the quilting world, I will often be a man first.

The industry has made that abundantly clear; in marketing conversations I regularly hear the phrase, “and then you’re a man, which helps.” It pains me every time, but the industry is often all about defining differences. Heck, I wouldn’t be here writing this if I weren’t a man.

Google Image Search: “Fabric for Boys”

For the most part gender assumptions present themselves in utterly benign ways, like at my first guild meeting. It is the nature of encountering something out of the norm. I do not believe people would want to work with me if the my efforts did not have merit. My gender is just a detail, but it is always there as part of the conversation.

That said, there are times when the divide does trouble me. At this past Quilt Market, while I attended various schoolhouse sessions, I noticed just how often gender stereotypes are bandied about. Far too often I heard the phrase, “You know what we’re like, ladies,” which left me doubly troubled: are all women alike? Are men not allowed to be like that? It seemed a concept so casually used, so ingrained as to be taken as an assumption: yes indeed, we do all know what we are like.

The parallel phrase was also used regularly: “You know what guys are like.” Again, lumping all men together, and positing them as inherently different than women. Women like color and design, are attuned to details, love beautiful things while men are essentially clueless; they need to be educated and changed. Since men don’t always like what the women in their lives like (primarily due to a lifetime of being expected not to) they are cast as ignorant, as not liking the “right” things.

Google Image Search: “Fabric for Men”

Of course we all know the differences between men and women: women like shopping, pretty stuff, fine work and all things natural. They are nurturing, caring and compassionate. Men are tough and solid, they don’t care about design and fear color, they like machines and explosions and action. Men are never contemplative or soft.

And of course all of this is crap.

But unfortunately that is still largely how we operate here in the sewing world. We make fabric for girls, and occasionally for boys, and they are resolutely different. They reinforce the stereotypes that so many of us abhor. When we talk about sewing for men it is as though we are trying to learn a new language– invent something entirely unheard of– because they probably won’t like the same things women like.

I love Parson Grey. I’m not sure if I will ever use David’s fabric, but that doesn’t matter. The fabric isn’t about being fabric for men, but it responds to the lifetime of color conditioning men go through; it accepts it and then pushes those boundaries. It isn’t fabric for men; it is just good fabric that happens to be readily usable in projects for men.

But even that is only a single approach. Some men love color and others don’t. Sewing for men is like sewing for anyone– Learn what they like and sew for them, not for yourself, and hope that they like it. It is that easy, and that is the way we can really begin moving past the stereotypes. It isn’t about ignoring difference; instead it is about recognizing the real differences and commonalities. Listening to our loved ones and moving past the expectations. Our sewing lives, whether we are men or women, are full of endless rich details and we need to learn from them.

Google Image Search: “Fabric for Women”

For my daughter Bee my sewing is perfectly ordinary, though I know it is unusual in the larger world. Some day she is going to realize that, and that is okay. The trick is to keep her from accepting the stereotype, to ensure that it, and I, never become strange. In fact, I think that is the task facing all of us: to move beyond those first impressions and cursory assumptions to the things that bring us all together through our craft. That applies to us as a community, but also extends to the people we sew for.

I no longer feel awkward visiting a new guild or checking out a new quilt shop, but that is because I’ve now had a lot of practice. I’ve been lucky enough to be given lots of opportunities to unlearn a lot of my assumptions. And that’s what it takes: practice. Habits are hard to unlearn, which is why I hope Bee somehow never picks them up.

What are your thoughts? What you think about how we see boys, girls, men, and women in relation to fabric and/or sewing? How are you influenced by cultural stereotypes? What do these images and your experiences make you think about in relation to sewing?

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17 Responses to Sew,Papa,Sew!: Thoughts on Fatherhood, Sewing + Gender Expectations

  1. Renee says:

    my son is almost 5 and has been helping me sew since he could walk. He is facinated by the pins. We are sewing his back pack for kindergarden. I just wish there were more patterns and fabric for boys. Boys are more satisfying to sew for because they will wear it. Girls are so fickle that often the things I make my daughter just collect dust.

  2. Fawn says:

    I learned how to quilt from a man who used to be my gen chem professor in college. He and his wife own the local Quilt Works near my home and I love their store. I have vivid memories of the one break he took from lecturing on gen chem to talk about quilting. Being the notetaker that I am, I took extensive notes. I no longer have them, sadly, but I got rid of all my college paperwork about 3 yrs ago and that was back in 1998! I still enjoy chatting with him about projects, he has such an eye for color combinations and tips and tricks, love quilting around him. I’m no stranger to exceptions to the standard stereotypes so I think nothing of it; he’s a quilter 2nd (but only because he was my professor first!).

  3. Terry Kessinger says:

    I remember my dad making curtains for our motor home and other things. It was never odd as we – me, my sister and brother, thought my dad could do anything! My mom sewed anything and everything as well.

    It’s hard when people stereotype anyone for any reason. Me? I’m not a feminist, I’m an older woman (50s) who is just learning to quilt, rides a motorcycle, loves new adventures, and has only been married once. I’m not a stereotypical anything and love others who stir up the mix. Kudos and I hope to find you in a quilt store someday. :)

  4. As a male quilter, I enjoyed your post a lot.

    I’m one of two men in my local guild, but I”m also active online via QuiltGuy, and we’ve started organizing twice a year all-male quilting retreats in the Northeast.

    And, just fyi, one of the favorite photos of my wife and I is a photo of my son sitting on my lap learning how to quilt.

  5. kate C. says:

    Yes, good post. This is why feminism is so important in the world – as it advocates that men and women should be equals and not put into ‘boxes’ just based on gender. This applies to women in science and tech fields, and men in quilting/crafting fields, and many other examples!

    We are all individuals!

  6. Jamie says:

    Thank you for the post. This is something I often think about. My husband sews on occasion, and my son is an avid sewer. My grandfather was a tailor. So, I am lucky to come from a family where men are also crafters. This notion of fabric choice is so fascinating. It is unfortunate that people try so hard to make little boxes to define what is and what isn’t appropriate for a person. I hope we can move past this as well.

  7. Amy says:

    I am so grateful that you wrote this. I’m working very hard to teach my children NOT to buy into the gender stereotypes that are so common. My daughter does not like dresses or skirts… or anything with ruffles… or princesses. It would be fine if she did, but it’s also fine that she doesn’t. What bothers me is that so many others assume that, because she’s a girl, she likes those things. My son likes to sew, and can now use my sewing machine with a minimum amount of help. He loves sewing and has a very good eye for color. Right now, they are both proud of their abilities and confident in who they are. They are also 5 and 8 years old. What will happen as they get older, I wonder. I only hope their pride and confidence stays strong, and they are not too influenced by cultural gender “norms.” Oh, and I, too, love the Parson Grey fabrics. The muted, earthy colors are refreshing. And I’m a woman. Anyway, thank you, sincerely, for a wonderful article.

  8. Bob says:

    I am a male quilter and sewer and know exactly what you are talking about. My first guild meeting years ago, I felt very similar to what you describe. After a while I felt very accepted and even missed when I didn’t attend. It became sort of a joke with some visiting teachers when they would say “ladies…and Bob” But for the most part I really was accepted and appreciated.
    As far as shopping, it is the opposite of car shopping, when some salespeople would talk around my wife and address the answers to me, we both would deflect them to her. In Fabric shops, when I am with her, I have gotten used to the “you’re the quilter?!” I have to say that I do find it happens less and less.
    I have taught both my son and duaghter to sew, and also my niece and nephew.
    I think people need to be reminded that a hundrred years ago, a tailor was mainly a man’s job.
    There aremany male quilters out there, even a yahoo group with hundreds of members.
    Accept people for who they are and what they like to do.

    Not that it is necessary to prove anything to other quitlers, but it is amazing when I get a suprised reaction that I have ribbons from the WI State fair and Quilt Shows for both quilting and for items I have sewed for my wife. People seem to think that is vindicaiton or something. I don’t usually mention it anymore, as I used to feel like I was then treated as some unusual, instead of a person just doing what I enjoy.
    I think I have stopped entering shows just because I begant o feel like I was entering to prove myself. (By the way, I enjoy many artistic pursuits and working with tools and happen to be a professional musician and teacher.)

  9. Catherine Eddleman says:

    I loved reading this article. I come from a family of male crafters. My mother, her mother, and so on have not ONE single crafting little smidgen in them. It’s kind of funny and sad because there ARE so many stereotypes out there that do make it hard to be yourself regardless of gender. You like/love what you like/love. I really enjoyed reading the above comments on how some of the sons sew with thier parent, how wonderful is that! My dad didn’t teach me how to sew but he did teach me cross stitch, painting, macrame, and all other sorts of things. And my future husband and I make all our gifts for our family members. Last year we made aprons for everyone and I’ll tell you what…. he did a better job! =) I think someone mentioned above that it’s a machine, and that’s how my fiance looks at it too. It’s a means to a goal and how fun it is. Thank you for this great read, very mind opening.

  10. Sarah says:

    Out of all of my family, the people that comment on and are most interested in my projects are male. My dh, because he is so sweet, and my dad- because he learned how to knit, crochet, embroider, and sew when he was young. He actually taught my mom how to use a sewing machine! He is otherwise, your average guy. Tough, engineer, farmer. I just love that he has that side to him. My parents raised us girls in the same way- there wasn’t much that was off limits because of gender.

  11. MarciaW says:

    Yes, there are stereotypes for quilting yet many of my favorite fabrics and quilt designs are from males …. Joel Dewberry, Kaffe Fassett, Thomas of course, John Adams Quilt Dad, Ryan of I’m Just a Guy Who Quilts, Blue Nickel Studios, Gene Black, etc.
    There exist stereotypes many places, as I found when was in technology and told decades ago “I don’t know why I’m interviewing you because I’ve never hired anyone who was in their 20s much less a woman.” Just need to keep telling myself that quilting is EEO too.

  12. anna says:

    wow! great article. It’s interesting to hear your take on quilt market and the quotes that ‘you know how we’re like ladies’, that’s crazy. Like you said Thomas, women don’t all like the same thing, and men don’t all like the same thing, we’re all different women and men alike.

  13. Lindsey says:

    My husband can sew. Years ago there were kits for down clothing made by Frostline. He made a vest, a parka, and down bootie/slippers. For Christmas that year he surprised me by having sewn a couple of dresses for me. He thinks of the sewing machine as a machine, a tool, to use for a goal. I’m not sure he would have gone out to buy a sewing machine, but since I already had one, it was a tool to be used. That’s pretty much how I view the sewing machine – a tool to be used to get to the goal of a finished product. We also have a drill press, various saws, hammers, wrenches, etc. that we both use when appropriate. They are all just tools – fabulous tools to use for our creative energy.

  14. You are fabulous! And I love hearing your thoughts on what it is like to be a man in the sewing world. For me…I struggle with raising my daughter. She doesn’t really fit easily into the gender stereotypes so she stands out a bit. We have constant conversations on why its okay that she likes superheroes, why its okay she wanted super short hair, why its okay she picked out superhero underwear marketed to boy, and so on to infinity. And while I sometimes want to just put my head down…I know that these constant conversations are essential if we want to see a world where a gal can like superheroes without having to explain herself and a man can walk into a quilt shop without having to explain that yes, indeed he is aware its a quilt shop and yes, he knows how to and enjoys sewing. Let’s hope it gets better and easier for our little ones when they are our age. <3 ~Robin

  15. Renae says:

    Great post. I love to sew and am in the process of teaching my own children (ages 16- 6) to sew–both my girls and boys. My 11 yr. old son wanted to sew so bad and so I let him. And I let him make whatever he wants to create. He uses my scraps and comes up with something fun. We’re working on sewing straight lines at this point. So far he hasn’t felt any pressure not to sew, and I hope that it continues. In fact, another of his friends, a 13 yr. old boy, decided to help his own mother make himself a quilt for his birthday. Happy day for everyone. It is a great skill to have regardless of who you are.

    In contrast my friend Kevin, who does sew beautifully, was discouraged all the way by his own mother to not sew and therefore is still left with that feeling of he shouldn’t be doing this. I’d love for him to come and sew with our group, but he can’t quite bring himself to do it just yet. Maybe one of these days. I personally like the different perspective and view that others bring.

  16. sharmie says:

    i like to see this sort of conversation coming from the male side. I find that often it’s women who talk about gender stereotyping in terms of this type of craft, and it’s interesting to see it from a male perspective.

    i’m also a knitter and you get a similar reaction from groups of knitters when a man enters a knit & chat, though that does depend on its location. personally i knit with a group that already has a few regular male members, so it’s not so strange.

    while i don’t want to diminish the importance of quilting and knitting groups as female-led spaces, the outcast atmosphere that arises for men is disappointing. and gender binaries, especially ones based on stereotypes, are pretty annoying no matter what you’re into.

    i notice in knitting that sometimes men like to get together in male-only knitting spaces where they don’t have to be as self-conscious as they may be in other spaces. but i think this is part of the problem. we should be happily integrating men into our quilting (and other) groups, because we already share a common interest. i know it’s hard to kick the inital shock, but with more exposure we can integrate ourselves and start to leave behind the lifetime of conditioning that has led us to be skeptical that a man can sew.

    basically, thanks for sharing, and i hope that this post inspires more men to go to quilt guild meetings and not feel too self-conscious, and inspires women to welcome them into the midst without hesitation.

  17. Mhairi says:

    My son is four and he loves to help me sew. He will sit on my lap and guide the fabric under the needle. Lift the foot and turn corners and he loves to push the pedal to make the machine go – this is fine for long straight (fast!!!!) sections.
    He also loves to go fabric shopping and when I get fabric delivered to the house he wants to know if he can look through it and choose some for his latest quilt etc.
    I will never discourage this interest as I love the fact that my children enjoy my hobby and that they are learning the essential skills to create the most amazing craftworks.
    Thanks for this amazing insight into the female dominated world of craft – hopefully more men become interested and involved in the craft world. After all, the more the merrier (and the more fabric ranges that will be released!!)

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