Is Sewing Engineering?

Tuesday December 13, 2016

•  BeaABH •  ChaseKBH •  materials science and engineering •  mechanical engineering •  Nina Basu •  STEAM •  STEM •  textile arts • 

Last night, Nina spent some time working on a holiday dress for Ducky. There will be another post about this next week, but Nina hit me with a question,

How is this not engineering?

And I responded, “It is.” But that’s only half the story. As I post on a lot of different subjects, I usually like to make sure at least one of the tags for each post is a top-level subject and for a list, I like to use Wikipedia Outline of Academic Disciplines.1 So I figured that sewing would somehow or another fall under materials science or mechanical engineering. I bring all this up because it highlights an important point. Wikipedia generally reflects concensus views, and is descriptive rather than prescriptive. I often say, “Wikipedia is the average of all human knowledge.”

That descriptive approach places sewing under textile arts, which seems okay, but that falls under “art media” and “decorative arts” and that’s not engineering. Wikipedia’s consensus descriptivism is that sewing is an artistic discipline, and not an engineering discipline. While the conclusion is incorrect, it does represent the consensus, and that’s a problem. A brief Googling leads to more information.

Sewing, leatherworking, metalworking, and other low-technology crafts are generally placed a tier or more below the high-technology engineering. But these low-tech skills are important disciplines in their own right, and they are necessary when working on high-tech projects. For instances, the Picavet I built with Chase last weekend for floating a camera is built from a picture frame, dowel rod, paracord, and some rings.

A photo posted by James Howard (@k3jph) on

There’s nothing high-tech about it but it will be absolutely critical for our high tech project. And this is not a one-off. In an essay last year, Stephanie E. Vasko writes:

Increasingly, sewers can integrate high-tech materials and components into garments, regardless of location and education level. I’m not just talking about sewing machines; new supplies like conductive thread, sewable circuits, and programmable LEDs have become easily accessible…

Dr. Vasko further notes that crafts can be a gateway to higher technology projects. I saw this last night as Chase ran a basting stitch for the dress. But it’s also not a one off. Nita Patel writes how traditional home-based crafts led her to electrical engineering:

We started with hand sewing and graduated to using my mom’s sewing machine. > > It was electric when I got to use the machine. Wow! A device that could reduce the time it took to make a skirt from about a week – after you already messed up and started over about five times – to an hour. The concept that an electric machine that could simplify my arts and craft workload was wonderful.

Part of the problem, also noted by Dr Vasko is that crafts and technology have been gendered, and we can see that in these two reports. But that’s not necessarily so. I may have stapled my sleeve this morning, but that’s for lack of a sewing kit, not know-how. Teaching these sorts of basic crafting skills is really something we should be teaching as part of the core STEM/STEAM curriculum. Especially because they provide critical thinking skills necessary to support later engineering and design development.

not as good as it used to be. The best revision before that seems to be this one.

Image by Counselling / Pixabay.

  1. As an aside, someone “cleaned up” the article recently, and it is