Sewing is the craft of fastening or attaching objects using stitches made with a needle and thread. Sewing is one of the oldest of the textile arts, arising in the Paleolithic era. Before the invention of spinning yarn or weaving fabric, archaeologists believe Stone Age people across Europe and Asia sewed fur and skin clothing using bone, antler or ivory needles and "thread" made of various animal body parts including sinew, catgut, and veins.
During the Middle Ages, Europeans who could afford it employed seamstresses and tailors. The vital importance of sewing was indicated by the honorific position of "Lord Sewer" at many European coronations from the Middle Ages. An example was Robert Radcliffe, 1st Earl of Sussex who was appointed Lord Sewer at the coronation of Henry VIII of England in 1509. Sewing for the most part was a woman's occupation, and most sewing before the 19th century was practical. Clothing was an expensive investment for most people, and women had an important role in extending the longevity of items of clothing. Sewing was used for mending. Clothing that was faded would be turned inside-out so that it could continue to be worn, and sometimes had to be taken apart and reassembled in order to suit this purpose. Once clothing became worn or torn, it would be taken apart and the reusable cloth sewn together into new items of clothing, made into quilts, or otherwise put to practical use. The many steps involved in making clothing from scratch (weaving, pattern making, cutting, alterations, and so forth) meant that women often bartered their expertise in a particular skill with one another. Decorative needlework such as embroidery was a valued skill, and young women with the time and means would practise to build their skill in this area. From the Middle Ages to the 17th century, sewing tools such as needles, pins and pincushions were included in the trousseaus of many European brides.
While much clothing was still produced at home by female members of the family, more and more ready-made clothes for the middle classes were being produced with sewing machines. Textile sweatshops full of poorly paid sewing machine operators grew into entire business districts in large cities like London and New York City. To further support the industry, piece work was done for little money by women living in slums. Needlework was one of the few occupations considered acceptable for women, but it did not pay a living wage. Women doing piece work from home often worked 14-hour days to earn enough to support themselves, sometimes by renting sewing machines that they could not afford to buy.
Garment construction is usually guided by a pattern. A pattern can be quite simple; some patterns are nothing more than a mathematical formula that the sewer calculates based on the intended wearer's measurements. Once calculated, the sewer has the measurements needed to cut the cloth and sew the garment together. At the other end of the spectrum are haute couture fashion designs. When a couture garment is made of unusual material, or has extreme proportions, the design may challenge the sewer's engineering knowledge. Complex designs are drafted and refitted dozens of times, may take around 40 hours to develop a final pattern, and require 60 hours of cutting and sewing. It is important for a pattern to be created well because the way a completed piece fits is the reason it will either be worn or not.
Pressing and ironing are an essential part of many sewing projects, and require additional tools. A steam iron is used to press seams and garments, and a variety of pressing aids such as a seam roll or tailor's ham are used to aid in shaping a garment. A pressing cloth may be used to protect the fabric from damage.
Seamstresses are provided with the pattern, with the intent of using as little fabric as possible. Patterns will specify whether to cut on the grain or the bias to manipulate fabric stretch. Special placement may be required for directional, striped, or plaid fabrics.
In addition to the normal lockstitch, construction stitches include edgestitching, understitching, staystitching and topstitching. Seam types include the plain seam, zigzag seam, flat fell seam, French seam and many others.
With the development of cloth simulation software such as CLO3D, Marvelous Designer and Optitex, seamsters can now draft patterns on the computer and visualize clothing designs by using the pattern creation tools and virtual sewing machines within these cloth simulation programs.