Why Cat Sews (Spiritwalker Monday 30)

(Note for the spoiler-wary: I have done my best to eschew spoilers, so if you haven’t read the books, there are vague references to plot herein, but I have tried to make this post basically spoiler-free except in the mildest way. If you have read the books, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.)


In chapter 1 of Cold Magic, our heroine Cat Barahal sneaks downstairs at dawn to return a book she’s not been given permission to remove from her uncle’s library. It’s clear she is well educated and from a family with a high degree of education for girls as well as boys.

While in the parlor, Cat notes that

(a)ll eight mending baskets were set neatly in a row on the narrow side table, for the women of the house–Aunt Tilly, me, Beatrice, her little sisters, our governess, Cook, and Callie–would sit in the parlor in the evening and sew while Uncle or Evved read aloud from a book and Pompey trimmed the candle wicks.

This sentence is meant mostly to describe the poverty of the household. I don’t go into detail about the arrangements, but the reader may guess that the family does not have enough money to heat and light more than one room in the evening.

Another way to show their straitened circumstances is to show that they sew almost all of their own clothing because they can’t afford to have their clothes made by others (the book is set before the era of inexpensive ready-to-wear clothing that can be bought off the rack in clothing stores). Mending is also a crucial part of economy, as well as refurbishing older clothes, re-purposing worn garments, and re-fitting them for a different person.

The mention of sewing, and how the family mostly makes their own clothes, also tells us something about the world, a time in which sewing, knitting, weaving, and other fabric crafts are not a luxury or a hobby but a necessity. People who could not afford bespoke clothing (made to measure by a tailor or dressmaker) had either to sew their own, buy used clothing at markets, or hope to obtain cast-off or stolen items by other means.

Sewing is mentioned in a second context as well:

Our governness, Shiffa, had been imported all the way from the Barahal motherhouse in Gadir to teach us girls deportment, fencing, dancing, sewing, and how to memorize large blocks of text so we could write them down or repeat them later.

Cat is portrayed as a sensible, practical girl who has learned a number of skills, some of which are specifically tailored to the role all children of the extended Hassi Barahal clan are expected to take up in service of the clan’s business, which is that of mercenaries, spies, and couriers. Fencing and memorizing text are skills clearly useful for spies and couriers. Fighting and spying are also skills that adventure novels highlight.

In book two, Cold Fire, Cat is thrown out into the wide world alone and far afield from the place she grew up. Basically, she finds herself with the clothes on her back and her sword as her only possessions. It would have been easy for me at this point to focus on Cat’s sword-craft.

Being confident with a sword is a useful competency for a young woman unexpectedly out on her own in an insecure and often dangerous world. Her ability to use the sword could become the most important and most visible of her skills as she continues her adventures.

But I did not want to imply that the skills most important to her ability to adapt to her new circumstances were solely or chiefly the skills that have long been culturally identified as “masculine,” such as fencing (fighting). I wanted to depict skills identified (in American society but by no means in all societies) as “feminine” as equally important to her survival.

Why? Because as a society we often tend to value the “masculine” over the “feminine.” “Masculine” is public and strong, “feminine” is private and (often) sexual, and frequently “feminine” concerns are defined as trivial and unimportant. Such definitions are cultural constructs, as is the relative value assigned to various skills and experiences.

For instance, is reading a “masculine” skill? In places and times when the literacy rate of men far outpaced that of women, or when boys were far more likely to be given an education than girls, reading was considered a masculine pursuit. It’s easy to forget that today, when one of the common assumptions in the USA today (again, this will be different in different places) is that girls somehow naturally tend to be better at reading than boys. This idea is pervasive now but in other times and places would have been considered radical or ridiculous.

What is Cat’s most important “possession?” What does she see it as? When Cat washes up in Expedition, she acts to secure the good will of the woman who has shown her hospitality by describing the skills she thinks would interest her host.

“Can I help in some way? I’m a good worker. I know how to sew, cook, read, and write. I must tell you, I have nothing, no coin, no possessions, nothing but my labor to offer you.”

Competency and willingness to work matter when it comes time for a character to adapt to new situations. Competent characters are more likely to adapt successfully regardless of whether their skills are culturally identified as masculine or feminine, of course, but as a society we tend to depict stereotypically “masculine” skills as more valuable or just tend to depict those skills at all, as if they are the only ones “people” will be willing to or interested in reading about.

In fact, a wide range of skills are necessary for societies to hold together, and in a fully realized world it is important to acknowledge more than a limited few.

In Cold Fire, Cat’s skill at sewing gives her a way to make a place for herself in her new circumstances. It gives her a bit of status and respect, and as well creates an interesting contrast to her old life because in the city of Expedition, sewing (as well as tailoring for both men and women) is a predominantly male profession. Additionally, she mends while conversing with other women (because hand-work like sewing is a job that can be done while listening and talking), and the ties she builds with other people are crucial to her success in being accepted in a new place.

Sewing helps her to survive.

As a character, Cat sews because in the cultural landscape and time she grew up, she would have learned how to sew. She sews well because sewing well is a challenge she relishes. Because she likes fashionable clothes that flatter her figure, sewing is the only way she has to fit herself in such clothing.

As a writer, I emphasize Cat’s sewing because it is true to the character and the time and  because it works well within the plot.

I emphasize her sewing because it allows me to give life to the world through details of daily life that intersect with the character and the plot rather than simply using discrete details pinned on like photos or backdrops. Sewing is a detail that helps to illuminate Cat: She is a very physical character, very active, and of course very talkative, but her facility at sewing also reveals that she is painstaking, likes to do things well, and that despite her talkative nature she is also a good listener.

Finally, I emphasize her sewing because I want to make a statement about the importance of all the different kinds of work that underpin human society, especially those that, in my experience, are too often brushed aside in the science and fantasy fiction that I love to both read and write.

35 thoughts on “Why Cat Sews (Spiritwalker Monday 30)

  1. The adventure novels bit is interesting, since I look at this from a RPG point of view.

    What do I mean? There is a phrase that my RPG group has been tossing around, not their own, but from a theorist in the genre: “Murder Hobo”.

    A lot of “Dungeons and Dragons” type games and characters really have the profession of “Murder Hobo”. Their only skills are to be wandering adventurers who kill things and have no other underpinnings to community, and no saleable skills. While there are role playing games and systems that fight this tendency, it is true that a Dungeons and Dragons fighter, or a thief, or what have you, doesn’t, on the face have the capacity to do anything else.

    So, too, a lot of secondary world fantasy protagonists in fantasy fiction. Too many only seem to have useful skills that relate to adventure, and nothing practical. If they couldn’t “Adventure”, I’m not sure they wouldn’t starve.

    So for Cat to have skills such as mending–and be willing to use them when she’s stuck in the Caribbean, is refreshing.

  2. I so agree with this – it really annoys me that the stereotype of the “tough woman” tends to include a rejection of skills like sewing and cooking, even though these were practiced by both men (outside the home) and women (inside the home) throughout history. Like you, I made my female orphan earn her living by her needle, though in my case as a costumier for an all-male theatre company – it fitted the plot but also seemed like a logical career choice for a girl*. Later she learns to fight and reveals that she knows how a lock works and therefore how to pick one – but I focus on her sewing to begin with because I wanted to write a truly realistic female character and as you say, there are far too few of them in fantasy.

    (* Admittedly, she disguises herself as a boy, but as mentioned above, tailoring was men’s work, and of course done by hand back in the 16th century.)

  3. I did not connect the family sewing and gathered together in one room to do so as indicating a tight financial situation. From my reading of 19th C. England (pretty much all Jane Austen but why not rely on the best?) this would have been a normal evening for all but the highest ranking upper class. The ability to sew, sing, play the piano, etc, were pretty much a requirement for any young lady, even one hoping to mary a man worth “10,000 pounds per year”!

  4. Competent characters are more likely to adapt successfully regardless of whether their skills are culturally identified as masculine or feminine, of course, but as a society we tend to depict stereotypically “masculine” skills as more valuable or just tend to depict those skills at all, as if they are the only ones “people” will be willing to or interested in reading about.

    All too true and all too relevant! Thanks for this post; I appreciate this kind of thought into the underpinnings of life in a fantasy or non-fantasy world and too much of SFF-genre thinking (not just SFF-genre, really: so much of pop entertainment is colored by this kind of sexism) comes from the idea that sword-swinging or revolver-toting adventurers exist and gallivant in a vacuum, and obviously their clothes just patch themselves, their food just makes itself, and their rooms just clean themselves.

    The cultural feminization of reading as a pursuit is an interesting subject in and of itself: literacy really has lost a certain amount of masculine capital as more and more women have become literate, to the point that, like you said, it’s assumed boys are naturally worse at it and there’s a not-so-subtle emphasis now on mechanical and spatial reasoning as being more “difficult” or prestigious. I think some of that feeds into the resurgence of anti-intellectualism too, and how the more girls read, the less “cool” or edgy reading becomes as a pursuit. (Learning in general, actually: academic excellence I think is starting to be regarded as “feminized” too, at least in the United States.) Lots of depressing hogwash there altogether.

    Good post and thank you for taking this into consideration as you write! It really does show.

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  6. Thanks for including sewing in your world. It make for realistic world building. I’ve noticed both Robin Hobbs and Lois McMaster Bujold include this economic activity. I’ve notices other writers who don’t give enough time for the sewing to be done. Handsewing is time consuming so if you want it done quickly you’ve to to hire or recruit a lot of people. I believe that previous to the 19th century all women would have been sewing or spinning regardless of social class. The difference was that upper class women did embroidery and lace-making while the lower classes did practical textile work such as knitting, mending, spinning, and of course laundry. I just love it when a writer remembers that clothing must be washed, and socks knitted and mended.

  7. “Murder Hobo” is the best description ever.

    What interests me in particular is that we — almost all of us — live in a network of social relationships. And it is ONLY the advent of mass production and distribution that makes it possible for a person like me, forex, to casually buy my food and clothes with so little interaction with other people, if I so choose. Yet somehow this permeates stories with an idea that we need not consider social relations as important in understand how worlds, and personalities, function.

    Thus the Murder Hobo.

  8. I cannot tell a lie: I specifically did not learn to sew as a teen as a reaction against it being women’s work. It took years for me to understand how my own prejudices against women had taken their toll in small ways like this even as I identified as a feminist.

  9. It is more that the servants are there as well; they can’t afford to heat and light both a parlor for the family and a servants’ hall.

    Although, in truth, there is another element to this household that I never went into, and that is that only the two servants Callie and Pompey are hired in; Cook, Shiffa and Evved, while posing as “servants” are in fact part of the entire Hassi Barahal spy operation with their own skillsets.

  10. Yes, this, gosh — all of it.

    I hadn’t thought about academic excellence becoming feminized, but that could well be happening; it will be interesting to see it unfold (although perhaps depressing). And of course, that’s in the USA. Why do we have these weird gender essentialist things going on here?

    That’s a really important point about which forms of reasoning/intelligence are considered most prestigious. Literariness used to be very masculine . . . Dang all those popular YA women writers!

  11. I know, right? Spinning along was a huge time consumer before the various mechanical spinning devices came along.

    And yet then there is always some male writer *cough* who comes along to critique a world building emphasis on all that trivial stuff.

  12. I hear you. I work in a STEM field by day, and took up quilting recently. There was a little voice in the back of my head as I was doing this that said “so what if it is traditionally female and you are living the stereotype. Being in STEM and doing this is a Good Thing. As is doing it in its own right.” Though the gender essentialism I come across in the quilting community makes me want to throw things at times… It is worth it to be able to get the “you made that?!” when I take my own-made laptop bag to conferences.

  13. I’m always amazed at how hard we keep having to fight against this ALL THE TIME.

    I think we can — I don’t know — remake the lines?

  14. Academic excellence is feminized and, I think, de-Westernized to some people: you see the devaluation of mathematical reasoning too as more and more Asian students outstrip white students in the U.S. in standardized test scores and you hear the murmurs of, well, if Asians are good at it, it can’t be that special. (God help you if you’re doing something Asian women are supposed to be good at!) I did once have someone tell me (a biracial Asian-American person) to my face that they didn’t “think of me as a creative person” despite my being a writer and a pianist, because they had decided those were “logical pursuits, not really artistic”; that’s the amazing doublethink that can cause a pastime to go from being well-regarded to degrading in cultural capital. When the Wrong Sorts of people are good at them. See also, I guess, how there’s a lot of hearkening back to the prestigious and esteemed career of scholar back when not so many women were going into academia. Sigh.

    Status can be a series of disturbingly fast-moving goalposts. The more the Wrong Sorts get them, the more the status symbols move on to other things they don’t have.

    Also, damn those women writers and their success! 😛 It’s almost like they write things people want to read!

  15. I loved sewing from an early age, even though I rejected other “feminine” activities like playing with dolls in favour of playing football (soccer) with the boys. In my mind there were boys on one side, girls on the other and me in the middle – and I did what I damn well pleased 🙂

  16. I’ve only recently come to realise that first, I was brought up thinking of driving as being a feminine pursuit, and second, that that’s a bit odd. But in my experience as a small child, I rarely saw men driving. My mother delivered us to school, as did all the other mothers, and collected us, and I only ever saw my father drive at weekends. Later, I saw my father drive a lot more, but it never really took in the same way. And it still twists my head a little to realise that other people think of driving as being Very Masculine.

    It’s strange how little it takes for these things to get set in one’s head.

  17. I was what was then called a tomboy, and to some extent I have always held on to that identity even though I now reject the whole binary that created it, if that makes sense. So I get what you’re saying!

  18. And tho I learned how to sew as a child (I could do couture clothing by the time I was 12) along with a lot of other useful skills (one of my aunt had taught home ec for 20 years — I was her student while she visited the family in the summer), I refuted all of it in my late teens for similar reasons. And why I went into software development (rather than fashion design). I did everything I could to get away from the stereotype of “going to college to get a MRS degree” that I avoided what I’m truly passionate about for 30 years. Now, I’m trying to reclaim my heritage.

  19. So true about status as fast moving goalposts.

    When I was younger I remember reading discussions about how the young East Asian musicians were excellent technicians but could never be as profoundly excellent as the European and American ones because they were only technicians and did not have “the heart.” I mean . . . MAN, all the unexamined racism.

  20. Yes, exactly. Or in another country something may be a gendered activity that isn’t here, or the other way around. Yet, as you say, these things get set in our heads.

    One of the challenges of being a writer is exactly when you write something that slams up against people’s assumptions.

  21. Thank you so much, John. I hope you enjoy them. Each world/story has a bit of a different flavor (I try not to repeat myself).

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  24. In RPGs when a player introduces a new character, or I make one of my own, I always ask, “so what’s wrong with him? Why doesn’t he spend his time in a warm cottage surrounded by loved ones?”

    I’ve come across no single better question for adding dimension to the typical murder hobo character. My games end up a bit darker, though.

  25. In this case, though, the darkness makes for a more engrossing game, surely. Precisely because people have started thinking about what makes their characters the people they are.
    That’s a great question.

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  27. (Somewhat off the topic) – I’m also in a technical field and do some quilting. I really find it a fairly mathematical, precise sort of work. Of course, I’m drawn to straight lines and geometric patterns. 🙂

  28. I really enjoyed this piece! As a reader, it’s always interesting to me what kind of detail and texture an author adds by instinct, and what is a deliberate placement to build character (or setting, or plot).

    I do love Cat’s character, too. She’s so, hmmm, cool and deliberate. She has the ability to be *still*.

  29. Yes. To me great quilting is all about the geometry of patterns. Yet I remember how for so long (and to some extent still) quilting is downgraded to a “craft” or “folk art” rather than “High Art.” It’s interesting how necessary those distinctions become to hierarchize things.

  30. Thank you.

    That’s an interesting perspective on Cat. I tend to think of her as being in constant motion but you’re right: When she needs to be, she can be “still.”

  31. Even Polgara sews… In the Belgariad, Polgara is always mending. When she’s asked why, when she could simply use magic to fix things, she says that not only does she enjoy keeping her hands busy, but it’s a good way to “fit in” when required.

  32. I think in the age of so many publishing writers living in societies where so much is being manufactured out of their sight and then purchased, it is easy to overlook the sheer amount of work necessary to maintain daily life.

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