Ripped at the seams: When sewing was a woman’s activity and boys played cricket

Jan 26, 2023
A childhood sewing kit brings back primary school memories. Source: Getty

Rummaging in my craft stash containers, I found my childhood sewing basket. It’s a lovely pale blue and white, woven wicker container with a powder blue satin lining. 

It was a birthday gift from my sister years ago, but holding it now brought back primary school memories. When I – and my other female classmates– would spend the afternoons learning how to sew, because we were future women, and we girls had to learn to sew straight hems. 

The boys in the class would spend happy sunlit afternoons playing football or cricket, while we grey-clad girls were forced to sew in silence, threatened with corporal punishment if we attempted to chit-chat.

I still remember the whooping and slap of the old-fashion yard ruler hitting my chubby seamstress hands when I whispered to my deskmate asking if the hem on my handkerchief was straight. 

I was so scared, but from that point on I learned to sew straight hems in silence, like a good girl. We all did.

These codes in education in the past were all perfectly normal for the good ol’ days. Education and corporal punishment came hand in hand, but so did gendered classes. 

In Secondary school, we were taught compulsory flower arranging in Home Economics. Many girls made great success in pursuing this subject, as well as their mothercraft lessons. It prepared them for their planned future of being Australian women– Attagirls!

Back then, I was one of only three girls studying Maths and Physics in a male-dominated class. Our male teachers openly told us we should have been studying to be housewives. We ended up doing that anyway, in various shades of queens of clean.

The male teachers based their attitudes on the dated belief that women could not do Maths and Science because males had bigger bodies, thankfully that way of thinking faded for our younger girls today. We three future women learned a lot from our textbooks and proved that women could do a STEM subject, sailing off to further our studies in science courses, scholarships in hand. 

Soon after my first year in uni, I switched my studies to the Arts and became a teacher, specialising in the primary sector. I still taught Maths though, and later also tutored the subject, despite not having a “big male body”.

As a teacher, I was expected to practise corporal punishment. I tried not to apply this, but no one is a perfect teacher. 

One great teaching highlight for me was when I heard two of my lads after school discussing how they would rather receive a whack on the butt, than do English, especially for homework.

“Right. This is an Aha moment!” I thought.

From then on, any rudeness, swearing, or misbehaviour was met with revoked privileges and more English homework. If the lads continued to be naughty, I would make them write more essays and do their reading comprehension with old English books. 

At the end of each year, I then promoted many of my scholarly students to higher education in Secondary school. The funny thing is that some of them came back to thank me.

I had made them gain an education and they, too, had won scholarships. One wise old nun remarked, “The naughtiest boys will always come back to see you.” Too true. 

So now I look back at my sewing box and popped it back into my craft stash, storing back my memories of what was expected of women in the past. 

Thankfully, time took care of everything, including corporal punishment in classrooms. 

While many things have changed, I still find crafting to be cool. Today I am making a cot blanket with dinosaur appliques, for my local charity.

And by the way, I can still sew straight hems!

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