Our aparadors (cabinets) were full of these feed-sack shorts with prints and colors of the widest, wildest variety, and these basically comprised our childhood wardrobe. We would wear these shorts after school, on week-ends and summers and even in our Manila trips to visit my cousins . My city relatives would laugh at our one-of-a-kind short pants and our rural fashion sense would be the brunt of endless jokes. But hey, these were our mother’s fullest expressions of maternal care in the lean days of our childhood and the best testaments to her creative expertise with the needle, the scissors and her old trusty Singer.
Sewing was a way of making a living for women with deft hands at the turn of the 19th century. It was not exactly a well-paying job—a sewing woman, engaged monthly, would earn about P5.00 to P6.00, inclusive of meals in 1898 ( in comparison, a cochero or a rig driver would make P7-P12 monthly). In 1902, her average wage rose to 40 centavos a day. Filipinas found stiff competition from Chinese tailors who could take measurements without using a tape measure and create a suit of tweeds, English style, for just P12, that often came with a guarantee—“no fitee, not takee”.
Singer sewing machines came to our Islands in the mid 1800s. As of 1885, Singer had sold 602,392 sewing machines on installment payments of 10 reales (P1.25) a week. In trade cards distributed all over the country, Singer proudly proclaimed its contribution in uplifting the lives of indios in the Philippines. An 1892 advertisement card featured Filipinos at work with their sewing machine with the following back caption: “ …the Spanish inhabitants, as well as the native Indians, use and prize our “Singer” Machine, which has found its way to this Island of the Sea…”
The American system of education recognized the importance of sewing skills, integrating needlework lessons as early as in elementary schools. Here, kids learned all kinds of tai and sulsi (from Spanish tejer, to sew and zurar, to darn). Embroidery and lace-making were likewise included in Home Economics courses, alongside housekeeping and cooking instructions. In 1912, a School of Household Industries offered 6-month courses in the sewing and embroidery of linens, handkerchiefs and lingerie for the American market.
Nevertheless, many a costurera (sewer) learned her craft not through formal education but by apprenticing herself to someone who worked well with needles and thread. She did not actually design dresses, but could copy a sketch or another dress as a guide, with minor alterations. Modistas (modistes), on the other hand, were more a progressive lot, honing their skills with formal cutting, designing and sewing education. Unlike costureras who called on clients for business, modistas had shops with a caratula (trade sign); customers went to her shop for orders.
As a craft and business, dressmaking came into being in 1910 with the appearance of the country’s first fashion couturiers. Pacita Longos was a pioneer in this field, designing and creating gowns for high society, beauty queens and dressing polticians’ wives and the country’s elite. Fashion schools sprang like mushrooms, often featuring stylish names like Mme. Kollerman’s School of Fashion in Quiapo. And, in the provinces, sewing classes were offered in humble shops and talyeres, as this vintage picture shows. Here, Kapampangan would-be modistas and sastres, practice various sewing skills from cutting, pattern-making and actual dress construction under the watchful eye of a teacher, and with lots of help from their Singers. Then as now, making a living has never been sew easy with one machine that touted itself as “…in the Philippines, as in every other part of the world, one of the foremost factors of civilization..”