As you may or may not know, 'petit main' was the nickname for a couture seamstress in Paris. A term to describe a hard-working, highly skilled, unnamed and unfamed workforce. Literally, 'petit main' means 'little hand'. That alone shows very much how these women were seen. They are sometimes refered to in asides of fashion history.
Of Madame Vionnet for example, it told that she treated her seamstresses very well for those days. She allowed them chair with backs and provided on site child care, paid sick leave and the opportunity to take a couple of days a year off without losing pay. Knowing that these things were exeptional, just try to image how Coco Chanel, working in the same time and notorious for her temper, may have treated her 'petit mains'.
Vionnet did her most famous work in the 1920's and 30's, but the heighday of Paris couture houses, and with them of the petit mains, was in the 1950's. Even before rationing of fabric and sewing supplies had disappeared, some of the great masters of twentieth century fashion had taken the stage. Dior and Balenciaga, Coco Chanel's second time around and a little later Givenchy. The couture of those days was known not just for beauty, grace and creativity but also for its exelent fit, shape and quality. Which would not have been possible without the countless women painstakingly (hand)sewing the expensive fabrics.
Demands made to them were very different from one couturier to the other. For his New Look, Dior 'invented' a silhouet which hadn't been seen, or sewn, for about half a century. Many of the techniques needed to create this shape had to be learned based on textbooks dating back to the Victorian era. Balenciaga, on the other hand, was known for his great attention to fit. He was known to change the way the sleeves were set into a garment even after the client had taken it home.
Despite the many different houses, working days for most petit mains must have been very monotonous. To ensure to quality of each garment produced in their workshops, most houses had specialized seamstresses taking care of each step in the making of a couture dress. So one woman might be setting sleeves or making pintucks all day, every day, for years.
To me, the 'petit mains' are the unsung heroines of classic couture.
Today, reality is even more grim. Even most high fashion houses have relocated the majority of their production to countries where wages are low. Fortunately, more and more attention is now being dedicated to working conditions in the factories of fashion because from child labour to insane working hours, all the wrongs of early industrial Europe have been repeated on larger scale abroad.
At the same time, crafts have been on the verge of disappearing in the western world. In Holland nobody under 35 has learned to sew, knit or do any other kind of craft when at school. However, that was not the end. Lots of us have been learning these skills in other ways. We asked our mothers or grandmothers, took private classes or found tutorials in books or on the internet. Most of us learned some useful things, but have little time. Quick fixes, the likes of which would have horrified the seamstresses of old, are now among the most popular projects. Some of us, like me, may sometimes be hasty but at other times, we want to learn everything and make each garment we produce a work of perfection. My great grandmother was a professional seamstress before starting a family. Her daughter once told me I would have made her proud. I couldn't imagine a bigger compliment.
We are the generation of sewing, we are either sewing sauvages or sauvage seamstresses. Any way we are her to stay.