Seamstress and Narrative

Seamstresses at Work

The seamstress in nineteenth century literature and genre painting was typically associated with exploitation, sadness, and physical exhaustion. The affect of the genre paintings by the little known Russian artists M.L. Klodt and N.L. Skadovsky is one of quiet sadness and apparent resignation. The seamstress in the 1917 eponymous poem ("Shveia") by Khodasevich works night and day:

Ночью и днем надо мною упорно,
Гулко стрекочет швея на машинке.
К двери привешена в рамочке черной
Надпись короткая: /"Шью по картинке/"

(English translation)

Her social position in Dostoevsky's first novel Poor Folk is interchangeable with that of the prostitute – a common nineteenth century affiliation – which helps explain Nikolay Chernyshevsky's programmatic radical novel What Is To Be Done? One of its plot lines follows a feminist sewing cooperative, which provides gainful employment to a prostitute and in which the seamstresses share equally in its earnings, offering women an alternative to exploitation and prostitution.

The factory seamstress is the classical exploited female figure of modernity’s capitalist economy and its sweatshop. The women in the photograph taken in the House of Singer on Nevsky Prospect are employees of the Singer Sewing Machine Company, making readymade garments in the building’s large first floor hall. They appear well-coiffed, perhaps for the occasion, and probably do not typify the worst kind of female exploitation in the textile industry. What is striking in this photo is its gendering: the women are sitting and working while men in hats stand idly by, as if their role is to oversee the fruits of female labor.

During the Russo-Japanese and First World wars, upper and middle class women contributed to the national war effort by sewing clothing and bandages for soldiers at the front. Photographs, like the one above by Karl Bulla published in the popular weekly Niva, frequently appeared in the Russian press. The pictured event took place in the palace of grand duchess Maria P. Romanov, cousin of Nicholas II. A similar sewing event, under the auspices of the empress Alexandra, was held in the main hall of the House of Singer during the First World War.

To see men working on the sewing machine, go to Singer Conquers Nature: Men Sewing in Antarctica.