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Trivia not Trivial: Women in the Sewn Products Industry

Updated: Mar 17, 2021


The SPESA team loves trivia. We have incorporated trivia games into our events, aggressively competed against one another in industry scavenger hunts, we’ve even been known to bribe bartenders into switching the channel to Jeopardy! during happy hour (pre-pandemic of course). So, it understandably drives us crazy that a key piece of our own industry trivia is so hard to pin down: Who invented the sewing machine?

Elias Howe is the Jeopardy! favorite, but arguments can also be made for Thomas Saint, Isaac Singer, Barthélemy Thimonnier, Josef Madersperger, and others. In our search to find an answer, we dug up several historic documents and stories explaining the history and purpose of the invention that jump-started our industry, including an 1860 New York Times article on the sewing machine’s industrial, commercial, and social importance. The author states “No one invention has brought with it so great a relief for our mothers and daughters as these iron needle-women. Indeed, it is the only invention that can be claimed chiefly for woman's benefit.”

While the inventor is hotly debated (by the nerdiest among us), the industry generally agrees that sewing machines were originally intended to be used by women. The Times article is just one example. The first sewing machines were often marketed as revolutionary “liberators of women,” given that, throughout history, sewing was usually considered to be “women’s work.” Which leads us to another important unanswered question: Why then are today’s sewn products industry executives primarily men?

A study by PricewaterhouseCoopers found that, despite women making up the majority of fashion students and entry-level employees at apparel brands and retailers (not to mention the majority of apparel customers), only 12.5% of apparel and retail apparel companies in the Fortune 1000 were led by women in 2019. Furthermore, women represented only 26% of those companies’ Board members.

In full transparency for our readers, women are also the minority in the SPESA Board of Directors. It’s something we hope to improve in the future. (Although Michael is woefully outnumbered on the SPESA staff.)

And we know the industry is making efforts to improve in this area as well, not just increasing female representation in leadership, but also supporting female workers in factories and at all workforce levels. We are seeing more and more industry efforts to achieve gender parity and equality across the global supply chain. These efforts are increasingly vital now as Covid-19 threatens to roll back the last 30 years of economic progress for women.

Rather than re-hash the topic ourselves, we encourage you to read up on what the experts have to say. In honor of Women’s History Month in the U.S., we will share various perspectives in this month’s Behind the Seams issues as we hope to find some answers to our questions right along with you.

Don't miss this month's thought leadership features:

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