Thursday, January 7, 2010

Sew What

I occasionally sew, although much less than I used to. (I mostly repair items or shorten overly long t-shirts for myself.) I assess if it's worthwhile to pull out the sewing machine and set up the spool and bobbin. If the job's too small, or if I feel I might risk mangling the fabric by using the sewing machine, I'll hand-stitch the item. Often, when I sew or think about sewing, I think about the term for someone or something who/that sews. I wonder why a person is not a thought of as a "sewer", but a "seamstress" or "tailor".

Sew-related—why has a sewing machine not evolved to become referred to as a sewer, as a washing machine has become referred to as a washer? For that matter, a machine that dries clothes used to be called a clothes dryer but is now commonly called a dryer. Maybe the topic of that particular machine never comes up except in the context of clothes, so using the single term "dryer" is enough.

The noun "sewer" has three main entries in the Merriam Webster online dictionary. What an unfortunate case of one word being spelled the same way, but meaning three different things, with the definition partially dependent on pronunciation!

Etymology: Middle English, from Anglo-French asseour, literally, seater, from Anglo-French asseer to seat ­ more at assize
Date: 14th century
: a medieval household officer often of high rank in charge of serving the dishes at table and sometimes of seating and tasting
Date: 14th century
: one that sews
Etymology: Middle English, from Anglo-French, from assewer, essiver to drain, from Vulgar Latin *exaquare, from Latin ex- + aqua water ­ more at island
Date: 15th century
: an artificial usually subterranean conduit to carry off sewage and sometimes surface water (as from rainfall)

In the written form, "sewer" requires context. I'm thinking that "sewer" has a built-in unpleasant connotation (sewage), effectively rendering the other definitions nearly irrelevant for acceptance. In the spoken form, both the pronunciations for sew and sewer (someone or something who/that sews) seem they should be spelled "soh" and "soher". The etymology goes way back, so (not sew fast) probably we will be stuck with sew much unpleasantness. (BTW, "sow" has its own set of definition, pronunciation, and part-of-speech issues, which I'll forego.)

"Seamstress" and "tailor" seem to be two main words associated with people who sew that don't conjure sniggers (silent or vocal) that "sewer" seems to. It seems there's a gender implicitness in using "seamstress" or "tailor" for someone who sews. A seamstress sews, although the root indicates the seam is the object of attention. The suffix is the feminine form—a girl or woman. Why isn't a male who sews commonly called a "seamster"? For that matter, "seamster" seems to be a term for someone who, uh, seams. "Tailor" is used for someone who creates, but also customizes clothes, and might actually sew. It seems that "tailor" implies a male occupation.

Returning to talking about "seam", a seam is only one specific part of an item that gets sewn. Anyway, I've never encountered "seam" used as a verb as I have seen "stitch" used. I never hear anyone referred to as a "stitcher", yet it seems "stitch" is a perfectly good word that fits the sewing topic. A "stitch" is a general term for a unit of the activity "sewing". To stitch is to sew—perfect infinitive, imho—even spells like it's pronounced. A stitcher can be someone who sews (no gender assignment) and sews any part or all of an item that has stitches—seam, collar, facing, interfacing, sleeve, cuff, armhole, yoke, lining, hem, skirt, pants, suit, ….

Sew what? Sew what you think you might want. In August, I had run across a recent article about sewing getting popular again ("Sewing surges in popularity"), which you can sink your teeth into. A notable excerpt is the following:

At Sew Crafty, students start with clutch purses ­ for male students "man bags" ­ and gradually move on to pajama pants and aprons. Despite the rules on the studio's wall, students are encouraged to let their imagination guide the stitches.

Maybe after reading the article, you'll be inspired to sink (or stick) pins and needles into a sewing project.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

While the written "sewer" who sews could be confused with the written "sewer" which handles the sewage, vocally, there is the confusion with "sower". While "sower" is archaic and not much in use, having one word confused with two other totally different words in different circumstances is a little much, and would tend to limit the usage of "sewer" as "one who sews".