Sewing the future

This extract is a chapter from the women in STEM anthology, A Passion For Science: Tales of Discovery and Inventionavailable as an ebook for £1.99 from Amazon.

by Helen Czerski

There seems to be a very annoying perception in society that women don’t “do” technology. If you see a picture of an app designer, a welder, an aircraft engineer or a rocket scientist, you’re probably also looking at someone who owns a Y chromosome. That’s irritating, but I think it’s only half the problem. I think that women traditionally do “do” technology, and lots of it. The problem is that we don’t think of women’s activities in this way, even when that’s exactly what they are.

Here’s how the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “technology”:

  • 1a: the practical application of knowledge especially in a particular area.
  • 1b: a capability given by the practical application of knowledge.
  • 2: a manner of accomplishing a task especially using technical processes, methods, or knowledge.
  • 3: the specialized aspects of a particular field of endeavor

Just reading those words makes me excited. I love making things, and a lot of the fun is in working out how to use the tools available to get something practical done. Men don’t have a monopoly on this, either in current society or historically. Technology is done by people, not specifically men or women, just people.

Babcia and Dziadek

Let me tell you about Babcia’s sewing machine.

“Babcia” is the Polish word for grandmother, pronounced “bab-cha”. I remember seeing the sewing machine in her flat when she was still alive. It fascinated me, because it was both alien and familiar at the same time. It was a Singer treadle-powered machine, built into a small wooden table with decorative wooden legs. The table was fantastic because it just looked like any other table until you lifted the flap in the centre and the black iron sewing machine rotated into place from where it had been hiding underneath.

Once you had connected up the belt, the way it worked and the way it looked were very similar to the modern electric sewing machine that my Mum had taught me to use, as long as you kept your foot moving on the treadle. I loved it because it was mechanical and you could see how it worked. I have it now, and I like it for the same reasons that I like massive steam engines. It’s ingenious. And I know how to sew and I like making things out of fabric. That’s ingenious too.

It never occurred to me that most of society put loving the mechanics and loving the sewing in different categories. I just saw it all as part of one continuous process. And when Babcia was alive, I had no idea of the part that her machine had played in family life. This machine opened the door to technological solutions to everyday problems. And the person that worked out the way to solve those problems, to use the available technology to make life better, was Babcia.

My Dad, Jan, was born in Poland in 1941. Dziadek (“grandfather”) had been conscripted to fight for the German army, forced into it along with many other Poles from the region of Silesia. This meant the family was split up during the war. Like many other Polish families at that time, they were just flotsam on the massive currents of international war. But they were lucky — Dziadek escaped from the German army, the family were reunited in Italy, and they travelled to Britain. Dziadek then fought for the British.

In 1947, after much debate, the British government under Winston Churchill decided to permanently take in nearly a quarter of a million Polish war refugees. They were housed in recently vacated army camps, and given some money for schools and a basic camp structure. These Polish resettlement camps were spread all over Britain, and many of them only closed in the 1960s.

The camp structure was basic. The Poles lived in Nissan huts, shared between families at first. There might be agricultural work in the local community but, after that, it was up to the new immigrants to scrape a living however they could. Babcia and Dziadek had been teachers in Poland, a highly-respected profession. Now they had a stable home, but no stable income, and they had to start from scratch in a foreign country.

I’ve always been impressed at how much effort the Poles put in to build a community. They set up a school, they had a church and community events, and they worked hard. But life was tough. My Dad remembers that there were two major purchases, almost impossible to afford, but considered essential practical tools. There was a typewriter for Dziadek, and a sewing machine for Babcia.

The technology of clothes

When we envisage past civilizations, the mental image always has something in plain sight that we rarely consider consciously: clothes. Humans are physically frail compared with other mammals, and need the extra protection that clothes provide. We use our brains and manual dexterity to compensate for our physiological weaknesses. And it seems that as long as there have been clothes, those clothes have also been an outward representation of the person within and their place in society. Emperors wore purple. School children wear school uniform. Papua New Guinea warriors wear feathers from birds of paradise. These are badges of society, part of the glue that binds communities together. Just think about all those clothes… they all came from somewhere. A person had to make them.

For most of modern history, everything was sewed by hand. Sewing machines were invented the early 1800s, but they were not universally popular. In 1841, one of the first factories using sewing machines (to make French army uniforms) was destroyed by tailors worried about losing their jobs. Clothes have mostly been made by women, and the invention of the sewing machine sped up this essential household task significantly.

Next time you’re doing your laundry or tidying your coat rack, have a proper look at how your clothes are made. There is no question that this is technology in action. The cloth must be cut in the right orientation relative to its threads, so that it hangs and stretches correctly. Two-dimensional pieces of cloth must be fitted together to make an object that fits a three-dimensional moving person. Fabric can be joined together with different stitches that do different jobs. And then all that construction work is hidden away, so that it’s never the first thing you notice.

My Mum taught me to sew, and there were also a few classes at school. My problem with it was that I never quite had the patience for all the details. I liked making snazzy cushion covers and theatre props, but when it came to the time-consuming details of how to sew a collar so that it sat flat, I was usually to be found on the hockey pitch or climbing a tree. But I loved making stuff that I could use — bags and mats and a waistcoat.

As a technology, it can be pretty similar to Airfix kits for making model planes. Someone else has made a pattern, but you have to get all the construction details right, and do it all in the right order. Making something without a pattern is a bit more like building a working model aeroplane from whatever you have lying around in the garage – you need both the creativity and the technical skill to use the tools available to do the job.

Babcia did not know how to sew. Someone of her social status in Poland would not have had to learn. My Dad says that she was not enthusiastic about the new challenge. But it was understood in the camp that sewing was an essential skill. If you could do it, you could earn money, you could make clothes for your family, and that meant you had some economic independence. Many other women were in the same situation, and sewing classes were organized in the camp to teach the women this skill. Babcia had an advantage. They were the only family in the camp to have made the economic sacrifices necessary to buy a sewing machine. And almost immediately, there was a test.

The first challenge

The Poles valued education above all else. My Dad was one of the first to go to an English-speaking school, and he was nine or ten when the sewing machine was acquired. Dad passed the eleven-plus, and was given a place at the local grammar school. Babcia and Dziadek were very proud, although they would have expected nothing less. But there was a requirement. For Dad to go to the grammar school, he had to have a blazer and trousers. There was no money to buy such expensive items. Babcia would have to make them.

The funny thing about our society putting labels like “male” or “female” next to certain technological activities is that those labels are purely cultural. If you were to list the skills needed to do any particular task, it’s unlikely you’d be able to distinguish them. For a TV programme about the Sun that I presented in early 2013, I had to talk to the camera while arc-welding. So I had to learn how to arc-weld. We filmed it in America, and I was taught by an old-school professional welder, who had a slow southern drawl and a proper handlebar moustache. He was astonished that I learned so quickly, and even more astonished when I explained that this was because it was almost exactly like icing a cake. I’m certain that anyone who has ever done both would agree with me.

It turns out that I was mostly taught to arc-weld by my mum when I was five years old, and I practiced with wobbly letters on a fairy cake. The pose you adopt is the same (left hand closer to the nozzle, right elbow high up in the air), and the method of controlling the speed of either icing or welding metal is the same (squeezing). One might involve slightly more molten metal at 3000° C and slightly less sugar, but they’re essentially indistinguishable.

Don’t tell me that women don’t “do” technology. Babcia had to solve a three-dimensional construction puzzle, with limited tools and almost no spare material to practice on. Remember the definition of “technology”? “A manner of accomplishing a task especially using technical processes, methods, or knowledge”. Sewing is a highly specialized task, involving spatial reasoning, manual dexterity, and attention to detail. This IS technology.

After a very stressful learning curve, Babcia succeeded. She was thrilled that the uniform was accepted by the school, and that acceptance was seen as a major accolade. My Dad was one of the first Polish children from the camp to go to the local grammar school, and he could go dressed as the other boys were. His blazer was a different colour to the others, because cloth was so expensive and they couldn’t afford the right colour. It makes it easy to identify him on the school photograph. But he was set on the path to a good education.

After that, the sewing machine had a central place in their hut. Once Babcia had run the gauntlet of the blazer test, she did dress-making, and taught other women to sew. My Dad and his sister were also taught to use the machine. And Babcia was still sewing on that sewing machine when I first saw it, 30 years later. She died when I was seven, so I never got to ask her about it. But even as a young child, it was clear to me that this technology was a part of Babcia’s life.

From sewing to experimental physics

The cultural gender split of technologies is most interesting when “the rules” are stretched. Did anyone else notice that once the age of the male celebrity chef came along, kitchen mixers and blenders suddenly started to be made of brushed steel? I’m sure that’s not a coincidence. The machine is the same, but when you make it out of an industrial-looking material, it’s suddenly easier for a man to own the kitchen. This is about appearance, not substance. We all eat food. There’s no reason why one gender should be better than the other when it comes to preparing it. It’s just that we’ve got ourselves stuck in this weird reality where half the population aren’t “supposed” to do some things.

I’m told that the mining industry tries hard to recruit female drivers for their gigantic mining trucks, because they drive more carefully and so the phenomenally expensive trucks don’t have to be repaired as often. The men are perfectly capable of driving more carefully, but culturally, they apparently don’t feel able to. Culture is the obstacle here, not ability or will.

When I was a PhD student, I brought Babcia’s sewing machine to my house in Cambridge. I cleaned up the iron and the wood, replaced the needles and the spools, oiled the mechanism and teased the machine into action. It wasn’t that far from what I spent my days doing as an experimental physicist. I did a particularly mechanical PhD project, and I spent a lot of time in the student workshop, constructing experimental components. Lathes, bandsaws and milling machines were the tools of the experimental trade for me. Once I thought the sewing machine was working again, I bought some fabric and hemmed a tablecloth. The machine was a bit tricky to use – the foot (the bit holding down the fabric where the next stitch will go) was slightly loose, and I think that age prevented it from tightening properly. But the machine worked.

I cannot pick a single general skill, like spatial reasoning, needed to renovate that machine that is not also needed to sew a piece of clothing, and vice versa. It’s all construction. The distinction is just what you’ve had experience in. At the time, it never occurred to me that the tasks were different. I had a fascinating piece of mechanical equipment, and I wanted the challenge of getting it working again and of sewing something by pedal power.

My mum taught me to sew, but she also taught me to program a computer and to renovate wooden furniture. I have always liked making things, and that includes splicing rope, baking cakes, building hydrophone arrays, making theatre props, knitting hats, and the large-scale construction of an 11-metre buoy to deploy in storms at sea. All it takes is an interest in solving physical problems, and a willingness to learn. I’ve failed far more than I’ve succeeded, but I don’t mind because that’s how you learn. Learning is fun. Technology is fun.

The hidden history of domestic technology

Culture is a fabulous human invention, at its best when it gives us the framework to cooperate as a society on massive projects. The skeleton of society, the structure holding up our civilisation, is made of things like libraries, cities, healthcare, international travel and global trade, and they’re all vast cooperative enterprises. But the downside is that sometimes, culture holds us back. It’s nurture and not nature that is preventing women from welding and men from icing cakes. The tasks are demonstrably similar in terms of the basic skills needed.

I believe that both women and men should feel able to participate in all the wonderful types of technology that we’ve created, from programming a Raspberry Pi to making a raspberry pie. Let’s not restrict anyone. We should encourage everyone to use their creativity and manual skills to construct whatever we need or want, and to have all the fun and freedom that involves.

If you look back through history, you’ll see that many of the tasks traditionally done by women are technological. We don’t have such a large barrier to overcome here – we’ve got the track record to prove that we can do this. We just haven’t seen it that way. History is full of examples hidden in plain sight, just like Babcia. Women have been solving technological problems just as long as men have. It’s not just the female “computers” who did the calculations that helped break the Enigma code, or the seamstresses who made NASA’s first spacesuits. Sewing, knitting, food gathering and preparation, cleaning and running a household also involve technology.

This might come across as a bit of a weird idea. If you’re not quite with me on this point yet, go back and read the definition of technology. Think of the list of technological skills that are generally considered “male”. And ask yourself how many of those are needed to do tasks that are traditionally female. I think you’ll find it’s all of them. And just for good measure, do the same thing the other way around. Baking a cake suddenly seems awfully similar to grouting tiles. Anyone who can do one can probably do the other.

It’s time to be honest about what technology is, and to give everyone the credit they deserve for working on all sorts of technological problems. To build the future, we need everyone to do their bit. We can’t afford to exclude either half the population from the tasks needed to make the world a better place. But it’s ok, because we don’t have to. Both women and men are brilliant at technology. So let’s all celebrate that, preferably by lifting a 3D printed cup filled with homemade elderberry wine. Cheers!

Further reading

Polish Resettlement Camps in the UK,

About the author

Helen is a physicist, oceanographer and broadcaster with a passion for science, sport, books, creativity, hot chocolate and investigating the interesting things in life. She currently works at the Institute for Sound and Vibration Research in Southampton, and is a science presenter for the BBC.

Helen graduated from Cambridge University in 2001 with a first in Natural Sciences (Physics), and then was awarded a PhD in experimental explosives physics at Cambridge in 2006. During this time she also worked at the University of Toronto in Canada and Los Alamos National Laboratory in the USA. A continuing fascination with the world of very fast small-scale phenomena led her from explosives to the study of ocean bubble formation.

The next four years were spent working in the USA at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego and the Graduate School of Oceanography in Rhode Island. She returned to the UK in October 2010 to begin her own research project at Southampton University. Her research interests are the optics and acoustics of ocean bubbles, the structure of the bubble plumes caused by breaking waves, and the influence of ocean bubbles on the atmosphere.

Helen is an enthusiastic supporter of the ScienceGrrl Calendar which showcases real women doing great science. She is featured in the 2013 calendar as a Bubble Physicist.

We’re surrounded by fascinating science all the time, but we don’t notice most of it. Helen loves playing with everyday science, and she writes a monthly column for Focus magazine called Hidden Treasures. They let her write about things like why wet paper bags are rubbish and why blueberry jam is pink.

Find out about more women in STEM in A Passion For Science: Tales of Discovery and Invention and More Passion for Science: Journeys into the Unknown, both ebooks just £1.99 on Amazon.