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I am a mother, a new grandmother, and a teacher. But whatever happens in my life, I keep sewing. I have worked as a political communicator and now as a teacher in my formal life. I have also written extensively on sewing. I have been a frequent contributor and contributing editor of Threads magazine and the Australian magazine Dressmaking with Stitches. My first book Sew.. the garment-making book of knowledge will be published in May 2018 and is available for pre-order from Amazon


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Sunday, September 6, 2015

Whatever happened to home economists

I finished the last wedding event outfit I am going to make a few days ago. A knit top and skirt for the breakfast the next day.

I had of course planned on all sorts of other sewing but when I downed tools on that one I knew I was done.

Like a dinner.

My mojo never leaves me but right now the sewing tank is empty. I counted eight dresses/outfits for myself and other folks in the last six weeks and that's it for me for a bit.

I am also contemplating the first fall, I am taking this term right off except for some grandchild childcare, that I haven't gone to work in a million years. 

I have a backlog of life to catch up on and a house with many projects to do. I've gone domestic to cleanse the work palate and even though my husband won't be home for a week, doing a lot of cooking for myself. I will flypaper to follow.

But I have one other longer thought.

Who here remembers home economists? Or is one?

I am probably the last generation that recalls this as an academic discipline, the Mrs. degree my dad used to call it. In fact my own university had a very well regarded home ec. program but that became sort of embarrassing and it was morphed into human ecology or human nutrition etc. and the sewing part quietly phased out. Folks who want to sew are now directed to art schools where they go right from textiles to designers skipping the part where the neckline fits.

Listen I get it.

In the old days smart women where supposed to apply their minds to the current location - rather than become a macro economist they were directed to the economics of menu planning. Rather than running countries and corporations they were supposed to run households instead.

You could see glimpses of what this meant when you watched home ec. grads in action. They were the women who actually measured and weighed when they cooked, who never eyeballed it in sewing, and wore dress shields with silk blouses. Nancy Zeiman.

Of course this was not a good fit for so many women, my highly intelligent mother having to suffer the 1950s and 1960s with zero interest in things domestic, a woman who could debate politics and yet was judged by the dust balls.

And of course this culture denied the world cardiologists and yes macro economists and corporate CEOs who maybe would have said yes tobacco caused cancer.

All this is true but I wonder about the women who are doing other things who really would have liked home ec. and now have no where to go. Except maybe Pinterest, mommy blogs, and indie patterns produced, sometimes with more hope than skill, on desktop printers in the spare room.

Lost home economics grads who are DIY taking beautifully lit photographs of first projects on rail fences. GOMI is not the same as useful assessment and teaching.

Somewhere in the back of my mind there is a project here, a sort of distance program in home ec. free like Kahn Academy that my generation of women should get going so it is easier to get the basics, the intermediate and the advanced - the 100, 200, 300 and 400 level courses. Going to think about that. I am sure many of you could come up with the units.

Is this making any sense to you? 


Angela M. said...

Oh my goodness YES!!!! YES!!!! This makes perfect sense. It is great for so many reasons that women can become doctors, CEO's, whatever. But - I think in the haste for women to have those opportunities too many "threw out the baby with the bath water". I have never understood why high schools were compelled to do away with home ec courses (maybe some rural high schools have them still?). As far as I can tell, the closest thing to home ec around here is a child development course - and while a good thing, not the same as home ec. Personally, I think it would be great if all kids went through even one semester of a class that included some bare bone basics of home ec - how to sew on a button, basic cooking skills, balancing a check book, etc. Not all parents have the time/skills/desire/care to teach their kids anything like this, and then when they go out on their own.....

But I digress. I, too, watched as colleges changed their programs away from home ec majors into other things like fashion design, and have wondered just what all we have lost in the process.

Margie said...

Oh my goodness. I think this still exists in the form of fancy knitting/sewing retreats, cooking shows and magazines like Martha Stewart's. I actually think domesticity is fashionable at the moment. We're supposed to be living simply and making our own bread, right? It all feels a bit like something for people who have the money and therefore the time, to me. Not that it isn't fun to make your own bread, of course.

badmomgoodmom said...

Oops, I left the comment on the wrong post.
Here's the link to my Home Ec posts.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, it's making sense. I was a dedicated teacher for 43 years. I didn't want to be one. I wanted to be at home.

Barbara said...

Wonderful, wonderful posts badmomgoodmom, I recommend everyone follow the link posted above.

Jodie said...

I'm ONE! I did my degree work at University of Manitoba (Human Ecology) in Fashion and Design and moved into teaching and got my professional status (so I get to put PHEc. after my name). The sad part is that the university programs across Canada have all but disappeared or been sucked into other Faculties. I proudly describe myself as a Home Economist and know of others in my city. But I feel we are few (perhaps an endangered species). But at least in Alberta there's a number you can phone to talk to a Home Economist and ask cooking questions (The Atco Blue Flame kitchen still maintains the hotline and the test kitchen).
But I digress - I'm doing exactly what I want with my degree and my time and at the time I was in university it was EXACTLY what I wanted to be doing. I "found my people" as it were. But I'm sad that the students I interest in sewing and cooking have no further to go sometimes. I would love to work to create an online resource for them. There is ABSOLUTELY a need.

Robin said...

I have friends and family members who feel you can't and shouldn't want both--intelligence/career and home economic skills. I am a degreed and licensed professional who likes sewing, cooking and crafting. I'm thought of as odd, and dumbing down because I enjoy what is considered 'no-brainer' activities. It's nice to know I'm in great company.

Teri on the left coast said...

OMG Jodie - the Blue Flame Kitchen still exists? That is wonderful. I still have a very old book of theirs from when I wore a younger woman's clothes.
I too miss the Home Ec group. I always knew if I got instruction from a home economist it would be good instruction. Maybe not the shortcuts, but solid information.
I agree, we need to get the basics out there. I've watched uTube videos on basic sewing skills but the detail is missing, it is all shortcuts. We need: how to tie a knot in the end of a thread, how long a thread should be so it doesn't get tangled, how to do a blind hem stitch by hand, when to wax a thread and how to quadruple it to sew on a button, how to pad stitch a collar stand and sew on and sew forth.
I volunteer for the 101 course on measuring the straight of the grain...
Barbara - I'm always thrilled when I see a new post from you. Sewing on the Edge is my favourite blog and I so appreciate the time and effort you put into it.
How is Daisy doing?

Lyndle said...

Great post. I hadn't thought of it exactly in this way but I had noticed the gap in sewing training. I'd looked intermittently for a more rigorous sewing training and decided I will have to make myself do it from books.Jette wehave community ed classes, or fashion design type classes at polytech/ University. I checked outthe high school syllabusthinking perhaps I could do it by correspondence, but they are more textile design courses. All good in themselves, but not quite what I was after. Probably I don't have time anyway...I suspect it is a casualty not just of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, but of the diminishing status of Craft in our society. By that I mean not macrame plant holders (though they're fine) but of the respect for professionals who work with their hands and of taking pride in that skillset. It does exist but I think it is less ubiquitous than it was forty years ago. My parents peers were proud of their skills at bottling fruit or tying a parcel well (remember string?)or growing as really good lawn as well as the more obvious things like carpentry or dressmaking. A nurse said to me recently that she could run the perfect temperature bath. I'm glad the range of choices has broadened but I worry that our young people have to do s lot of book learning before theyget to experience the satisfaction of making something really good with their hands. It suits some of us but not all.

sewingkm said...

I majored in Home Ec back in the late 60s. Even though I didn't finish my degree I was and still am perfectly aligned with this field of study. But I felt a bit of shame in mentioning this field especially during the 70s and 80s. So I encouraged my daughters to seek degrees in Engineering and the Sciences which they did and have been very successful. I'm over this self consciousness and am now teaching sewing to young teens which I find quite satisfying. This is such an interesting subject! Karen

Summer Flies said...

This is very relevant to me at the moment. I love sewing and cooking - domestic Goddess stuff - but not just sewing and cooking, I like the thought behind it all. It is too easy to dismiss as basic, boring, ordinary, non scientific or very professional. I heard recently that there will be a shortage (or is?) of Home Economics teachers for high school here in Australia and I thought maybe I should go and study for that - sewing and cooking for your job - passing on the skills but also reminding the current generation that you can do it yourself. It's a skill but not impossible to learn - I think, if I didn't have sewing in my life, that I wouldn't have understood that I can have a go and do it, practice and get better. and appreciate time and effort for labour. $9 jeans in Kmart don't let people appreciate time and effort for labour, just that it isn't worthy of your time.

garnet128 said...

Well said!

Erika said...

On the bright side - my 11 yo son has home ec as his first elective in middle school and it's the class he's the most excited for.

I feel like those skills are available to be learned for those who care to, I guess. I am a passionate cook and housecleaner and seamstress, and both my boys will learn about at least the first two from me and my husband both (and sewing as they like - the older one has already made himself various easy things.) I'm not sure we need a degree?

I do agree though that when you go looking on the internet, for sewing anyway, you mostly get the skill level of the young. The millenials - the ones who grew up with the computer - need to mature and acquire their 10,000 hours before really mature tutorials will be common on the net.

Anonymous said...

I graduated from Syracuse University in 1971 with a dual major in Home Economics and Education. Many of the things I learned in Home Ec. I use every day. These include: budgeting, setting a table, planning nutritious meals, cooking, sewing, etc. Many of these things I passed onto my son because he didn't learn them in school. There is a great need for Life Skills Education for students with emphasis on specific areas if students are interested.
Much was lost when these skills were eliminated in school.
Kathy C.

Mae said...

I'm 63, so when I was in high school I studied Home Ec., both cooking and sewing. I hated it and rebelled against the teacher's claim that 'there is only one correct way to do this' . That was the start of a lifetime of finding/inventing lots of ways to sew and cook so hooray it did me no harm. Then, I found myself in university residence with several Home Ec. majors. One of them failed a pecan pie baking assignment because she covered the crust with tinfoil to keep it from getting too brown. She rebelled, but most of the girls simply did as they were told, so sad. I think it was time for Home Ec to die. I prefer the internet,

Anonymous said...

Just yesterday I was in the Washington, DC, apartment of my recently college-graduated daughter (now a paralegal), sewing the hem of a skirt that belonged to her friend. None of these young women -- some economic analysts, some law-firm employees -- could figure out how to do this themselves. At least my daughter was able to pull out the basic sewing kit I gave her four years ago when she left for college, where I found some thread and a needle -- but not the scissors that apparently went missing long ago -- and resewed the hem that would have cost her friend an easy $25 to be mended at the local dry cleaner. It took less than 30 minutes. I came home with several patterns and measurements to make this daughter a basic work-worthy wardrobe, because even though her starting salary is good, the economics of living in a major American city don't quite allow for the shopping she desires. I can do this and am happy to -- but the whole issue of informed DIY consumed me on my 7-hour ride home in the height of holiday traffic. I hated home ec in junior high and high school, but that is because my mother was a good teacher and had the foresight to enroll the 10YO me in a sewing class at the local Singer store, where I made a shirtwaist dress in plaid -- perfectly matched seams, beautifully installed zip -- and there was no looking back for me! I remain eternally grateful to my mom for the gift of this knowledge, which has led to a lifetime appreciation for fit, fabric, and doing it myself.

Anonymous said...

I am a Home Economist as well! I taught Child Development primarily, and my students ran a preschool, but I also taught Foods, Interior Design and various Clothing and Design courses. There was literally something for everyone and our courses were very popular. However, the downfall came when state-mandated testing came about and since Home Ec was not a subject area covered by the testing, it was eased-out and replaced by additional classes in technolog/math/language arts. Study halls were eliminated, so no options for electives outside of music & art.

I was six years away from retirement with full pension benefits when my school system cut the Home Ec. Fortunately, I'd seen the writing on the wall and became certified/licensed to teach Health. Sadly, one of my department members could not be convinced to apply for the Health license and she lost her job after 20+ years in the same school system, and I became a Health & Drug Educator- certainly not what I expected when I began my teaching career!

Now if we can do something about the "Becky Home Ecky" remarks that I see occasionally on the internet.

Anonymous said...

Aw heck, you made me cry remembering my own high school experience. Short and fat, instead of a tall, blond "surfer girl". But sewing and art got me through.
I met a freshman high school student recently that was so excited to be taking a semester of sewing. It is her favorite class - and so far it is only hand stitching! I was amazed but encouraged. Just wait until she get to play with fabric!
Denise L

RanchHouse said...

Family and Consumer Sciences is strong in Texas; once Home Economics. Our local school district has added a teacher this year. One branch, Child Development / Early Childhood is strong in many Community Colleges statewide. There are annual state teacher conferences. There are local, state, and national student organizations and conferences.

BS Home Economics; MS Special Education; EdD Education
Retired Home Economics teacher and Child Development Professor

Leigh Wheeler said...

Wow! You have GOT, absolutely MUST read The Lost Art of Dress. It is all about how the Home Ec degree came about, and wahat we lost when it went and what happened. It's a really interesting read.

RanchHouse said...

Leigh Wheeler - Comment on The Lost Art of Dress. I was a 1974 Home Economics graduate. We were the last class to live in and maintain the Home Ec houses for a semester as a degree requirement. Two of us were repeated the course taught by the Dean. Our house mother/instructor told use the repeat was because we had worn pants (not jeans) to class.
In foods course, we were required to cut up and bone a chicken. Instructors told us earlier students had to de-feather them; not sure if they had to catch and hatchet them.

Each year I present at state conferences and hold on trainings on my college campus for Family and Consumer Sciences Education teachers (Home Economics).

There are still Home Economics degrees; the name is changed to Bachelor of Science in Family and Consumer Sciences Education

"A B.S. program in Family and Consumer Sciences Education prepares students for state licensure and employment as Home Economics teachers at the middle or high school level. The Home Economics degree program curriculum may include classes in human nutrition, economics, family development, sociology, child development, financial management and parenting. Most programs have a student teaching requirement.

Anne said...

I didn't have the opportunity at school to do home ec. I think it was maybe still available then, I'm not sure, but I did science - and never the twain shall meet! I waited until I retired to take up sewing and am pleased that my daughters are showing interest.

India said...

In some ways I had an opposite experience to those covered in these posts having had my teenage confidence in myself and my sewing shattered by a sewing teacher. She, as I found out later, was notorious for always having a class angel who could do no wrong and a class scapegoat who could do no right. From day one and on no basis at all (I was shy and spent most of my time trying hard not to be noticed) I was the scapegoat. Everything I did was inevitably wrong, unpicked and resewn .... and resewn ... and resewn always to a stream of criticism I was constantly terrified and dropped "Needlework" as soon as allowed and might never have sewn again until lack of cash forced me into it and I found that actually I was quite good at it. Not all school sewing classes have the desired effect and not all teenage sewing boosts confidence.

Cynth said...

I agree, the Lost Art of Dress is a fascinating read. As someone who currently works in Cooperative Extension (the former home of the "Dress Doctors" in the book) I clearly see how this happened. University politics, the struggle for recognition and acceptance for women in academia, and the perception that there was not enough "science" in sewing. It is a loss.