I created a bit of a brouhaha on the FHM facebook page yesterday. I posted about the word ‘sewist’ with a reference to a New York Times (NYT) article on male sewers. The article was introduced with the tagline “The word “sewist” — an increasingly popular gender-neutral term for people who sew — appeared for the first time in The Times yesterday, as noted by the Twitter bot @NYT_first_said.” I took this statement to suggest two things. Firstly, that the word was created and/or becoming popular because it was gender-neutral and secondly, that the NYT were taking credit for being the first paper to print the word, thereby coining it into English language etymology.
I asked readers on the FHM facebook page if they felt other words to describe sewing were sexist. I couldn’t think of any terms that were specifically denoting gender, other than seamstress, but this word is now generally considered archaic, like murderess, authoress, and actress. Most words for needleworkers are already gender-neutral: sewer, stitcher, designer, pattern-maker, stylist, milliner, seamster… You might think dressmaker is gendered, but that’s the product not the maker, and tailor may be assumed to be male due to historical precedence and profiling, but a tailor is not always a man anymore than a nurse is always a woman.
One poster felt seamster was gendered because it was a masculine form of seamstress. Although her point was reasonable, feminized versions of words don’t necessarily suggest the non-feminized version applies only to men (ie: murderer, author, actor), but that didn’t seem to agree in the poster’s eyes. She was apparently offended as her comments then became more pointed and personal, ending the discussion.
Apparently I misunderstood the NYT navel gazing statement when it was pointed out that the NYT was only talking about the NYT printing the word for the first time. One poster found an article in the Los Angeles Times from 1986 that uses the word ‘sewist’, which makes me wonder why the NYT even bothered to point out that they used a 35 year old word for the first time…
In the end, Threads magazine (the ‘sewists’ bible) had the best explanation. In an article from 2012, Threads found the earliest usage of the word ‘sewist’ dates back to 1964. The word gained a popular following in the 2000s with online sewing bloggers who felt it elevated home sewing because it was created from a combination of the words ‘sewer’ and ‘artist’.
‘Sewist’ gained popularity because the most commonly used word ‘sewer’, which according to an etymological search has been around since the 14th century, can also be a conduit used for waste disposal – a 17th century use for the same heteronym (word that is spelled the same but pronounced differently).
So although the word ‘sewist’ is not gender-specific, that is not the reason it was created. However, no dictionary defines the word sewist, so you can’t use it in a game of scrabble.