XXII.6 November - December 2015
Page: 72
Digital Citation

Sewing as a design method

Kat Jungnickel

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What might sewing and wearing your research bring to an understanding of mobility, gendered citizenship, and the changing nature of public space? This is one of the questions at the core of my research about Victorian women's cycle wear. For the past two years I have been literally getting into my work and inviting others to do the same through sewing workshops, show-tell-and-try-on events, curated bicycle rides, exhibitions, and costumed performances. This project considers design not only as subject matter, but also method of investigation and mode of knowledge transmission.


In this article, I reflect on design as inquiry from a sociological perspective via a project called "Freedom of Movement: the bike, bloomer and female cyclist in late nineteenth century Britain" (otherwise known as Bikes & Bloomers) [1]. I led an interdisciplinary team at Goldsmiths made up of researchers, a tailor, weaver, filmmaker, and artist to sociologically explore the design of a collection of mobility artifacts in the form of cycle wear. In the process, we hand-made a series of Victorian cycling costumes inspired by patents lodged by inventive women from 1895 to 1899. We also conducted an ethnography of our making practices. More broadly, we were interested in alternative ways of making, telling, and sharing sociological stories beyond talk and text to a range of audiences.

The research is about Victorian cycling cultures and in particular women's cycle wear. It explores how early adopters of cycling in late-19th-century Britain dealt with many barriers that initially inhibited middle- and upper-class women from engaging with this new mobility technology. In particular I was struck by how many women creatively responded to social, physical, and ideological challenges to their freedom of movement through their clothing. Cycle wear did not exist at this time; women had to make it themselves. The many ways they hacked and adapted existing dress and designed new kinds of costumes can tell us much about small everyday sociotechnical practices of resistance and by default how and in what ways women were expected to move in and through public space.

back to top  Victorian Cycle Wear Designers

Cycling was popular for middle- and upper-class society in late-19th-century Britain. Yet women's desire to ride a bike initially clashed in many ways with entrenched social norms. Conventional fashion, consisting of layered petticoats weighing up to four pounds, floor-length skirts, corsets, blouses, and tailored jackets, restricted an enthusiastic cyclist's mobility. Wearing more suitable mobility clothing such as Rational Dress (bloomers, shortened or no skirt, looser or no corset, etc.) was not necessarily safer. This is because the female cyclist was initially less identifiable as a woman according to conventional gender roles and as a result sometimes treated as less-than-citizen or as non-citizen with startling public demonstrations of vitriol in the form of verbal and often physical assaults [2]. For some onlookers, such attired women were seen "blatantly to ape the lifestyles and perceived privileges of manhood" [3]. They were viewed as entering into previously defined masculine spaces and wearing men's clothing. As Tim Cresswell has argued, "Mobile women, in particular, have been seen to be indicative of wider social and cultural themes of power, exclusion, resistance and emancipation" [4].

How did women respond to these challenges? There were many sociomaterial strategies at play, but one that is particularly striking for its ingenious design and because little is known of it is convertible cycle wear. This dynamic new form of clothing equipped the wearer for dual positionalities—to appear as if in ordinary clothing when in society's gaze and yet transform at will, from conventional street wear to cycle wear and back, depending on mobile need and social context. It turns out that some women went beyond designing new forms of cycle wear to patent their inventions.

Figure 1, for instance, shows an illustration from patented design #17,145 for "Improvements in Ladies' Cycling Skirts" by Alice Louisa Bygrave on December 6, 1895 [5]. Bygrave was a dressmaker from Brixton, South London, who came from a creative family; her mother was a dressmaker and her father was a watch and clock maker. Her design is fascinating in that it fuses deliberately concealed technologies, similar to that of an engineered timepiece, into a women's skirt. Hidden in the skirt's infrastructure is a simple yet impressive pulley system made up of four stitched full-length channels, weights, buttonholes, waxed cords, and waistband clips. This system remains concealed inside an otherwise ordinary-looking floor-length skirt until activated via the cords, which gather the centers of the front and reverse skirts out of the danger of the bicycle wheels. The weighted hem enables the skirt to quickly and conveniently drop back into position once the cyclist releases the cords and moves away from her bicycle, thereby enabling her to fit back into society.

back to top  Studying Design Through Patents

Patents are fascinating design artifacts. Regardless of commercial success, they are a valuable source of data about what were considered challenges of the time. These sociotechnical imaginings provide glimpses into how inventors envisioned intersections of bodies, technologies, and space. For instance, a patent for a convertible cycling skirt that doubles as a cape is described as follows:

The Rational Dress now greatly adopted by lady cyclists has one or two objections inasmuch that when the lady is dismounted her lower garments and figure are too much exposed. Now the object of our invention is to obviate these disadvantages ... [6]

Although Victorian designers controlled their copyright for up to 20 years, after this period their inventions became public property. The nature of a clothing patent is such that the language and drawings must enable anyone knowledgeable in the art of sewing to reproduce these garments. Inventors therefore had a responsibility to future makers. As a result they provide an almost step-by-step guide for others to reproduce their designs. We view patents as a series of dynamic links—or better still, dialogues—between the past and present, ideas and artifacts, and words and illustrations.

The Rational Dress now greatly adopted by lady cyclists has one or two objections inasmuch that when the lady is dismounted her lower garments and figure are too much exposed. Now the object of our invention is to obviate these disadvantages. (FROM 1895 PATENT)

So, why make material costumes when we could simply analyze paper versions of the patents? There are many longer responses to this question, but fundamentally, from a science and technology studies (STS) perspective, cycling costumes can be viewed as devices or tools through which we can explore how mobility, gender, and citizenship are performed, organized, and produced. Cycling costumes shape, and in turn are shaped by, social, cultural, and political forces and we were curious as to how these devices were designed to enable and also to inhibit different forms of mobility. This is even more critical for convertible costumes, given that they are deliberately designed to transform, thus enabling the wearer to occupy multiple mobile identities. Making costumes from these patents therefore presented an opportunity to conceptualize, question, and expand ways of investigating the mobile clothed body through the mobile clothed body. And we deliberately set out to do so in a way that resisted flattening dynamic mobile subjects in the process of studying them: by making and wearing the costumes.

It is worth briefly outlining some of the other reasons we chose to make these extraordinary designs. First, we have been unable to locate evidence of any existing convertible costumes in British museum collections, despite the fact that some of the patented designs were commercialized and distributed around the U.K. While there is a plethora of existing Victorian women's sporting garments such as yachting, tennis, horseback-riding, walking, and swimming costumes, there remain very few cycling garments from the late 1890s. Second, convertible costumes are designed for mobility. If they did exist, we would have had the chance to touch them (with gloves) and look closely at their manufacture, but we would not (for obvious reasons pertaining to their delicacy, value, and age) have been allowed to try them on. We would definitely not have been allowed to go cycling in them. Also, even if we had found suitable artifacts and somehow been allowed to wear them, given the diminutive size of Victorian women, with their corseted torsos, these costumes would not have fit well on modern female bodies. Finally, we anticipated that much could be learned from the machinations of making these garments directly from inventors' instructions.

Making these garments from the patents presented multifaceted opportunities to get inside these costumes; to get closer to the makers, artifacts, and time period; and to invite others into the project. In total we hand-made five full costumes inspired by patents lodged by inventive women from 1895 to 1899. We did this work in a Goldsmiths sociology office. Although only five skirts were directly linked to patents, we constructed a collection of accompanying pieces (such as blouses, bloomers, jackets, and waistcoats) from archival research to create full costumes.

Many findings emerged from this process and we gained unexpected insights into the complexity of designs through a deep engagement with the mistakes, tangents, and mess of making. For example, Bygrave's pulley system appears much simpler on paper than in practice. To make the design successfully operate required a complex series of experimental iterations in multiple materials and scales. The weights, mass of fabric, and waxed cords in the pulley system necessitated a nuanced attention to balance and overall assembly that was not evident from the written form. Making involves engaging mind and body, choices and contexts, and errors and sewing injuries such as achy backs and pin stabs. We also noticed during the research the exaggerated role of bodies. The body is a critical research instrument in many qualitative methods, but its presence and function were explicit here in that it was required to make the garments, make sense of them, and also to make them work. As Tim Ingold writes, "To know things you have to grow into them, and let them grow in you, so that they become a part of who you are" [7]. These costumes, we discovered, did not make much sense off the body; in many cases, they enrolled an assembly of arms, legs, and waists to operate. It was telling that we regularly reached for costumes and climbed into them, in order to share our findings with anyone who happened to walk past the office.

back to top  Making Things to Make Sense of Things

I often find myself explaining my sociological practice as a means of "making things to make sense of things" [8]. Making is central to my work: making things, making adjustments, making mess, making sense of people's responses, and making meaning. Engaging with the design of these garments through making sparks dialogue between central themes of multi-dimensional materials and, at the same time, opens up for discussion improvised, hands-on, and object-oriented ways of thinking about and through knowledge production. In addition to insights into past cycling cultures, the costumes catalyzed nuanced discussions about the nature and value of alternative forms of academic knowledge beyond talk and text, and the spaces in which different disciplines get to make knowledge and how this shapes outputs.

Overall, the project invited different ways of really getting into the subject area of Victorian women's cycle wear. The collection of costumes was transformed into a socio-spatial argument, helping to reveal relationships and connections between ideas, archival materials, images, bodies, skills, and theories. These material assemblies offered a tactile, visual, and sensual engagement with findings and in doing so attracted and engaged a range of publics into an extraordinary, yet also everyday, sociotechnical inventive history. Rendering these convertible costumes material (again) as we describe here also helps to raise questions about what other creative and inventive artifacts and practices are deliberately hidden from view and how else we might get ourselves and others closer to these kinds of designs.

back to top  Acknowledgments

Bikes & Bloomers is part of the "Transmissions and Entanglements: Making, curating and representing knowledge" project supported by Intel and by an Economic and Social Research Council Knowledge Exchange grant (ES/K008048/1).

back to top  References

1. Jungnickel, K. Bikes & Bloomers Research website. Goldsmiths University of London;

2. Jungnickel, K. 'One needs to every brave to stand all that': Cycling, rational dress and the struggle for citizenship in late nineteenth century Britain. Geoforum, Special Issue: Geographies of citizenship and everyday (im)mobility. 2015.

3. Simpson, C.S. Respectable identities: New Zealand nineteenth-century 'New Women'—on Bicycles. The International Journal of the History of Sport 18, 2 (2001), 54–77.

4. Cresswell, T. Embodiments, power and the politics of mobility: The case of female tramps and hobos. Trans of the Institute of British Geographers 24, 2 (Jun. 1999), 175–192.

5. Bygrave, A.L. Patent #17,145 for 'Improvements in Ladies' Cycling Skirts,' 1895. Accessed at The British Library Business and IP Centre, London.

6. Pease, M.E. and Pease, S.A. Patent #13,832 for 'Improved Skirt, available also as a Cape for Lady Cyclists,' 1895. Accessed at The British Library Business and IP Centre, London.

7. Ingold, T. Making: Anthropology, Archeology, Art and Architecture. Routledge, London and New York, 2013.

8. Jungnickel, K. Making things to make sense of things: DiY as research subject and practice. In The Routledge Companion to Media Studies and Digital Humanities. J. Sayers, ed. (in press).

back to top  Author

Kat Jungnickel ( is a lecturer in the sociology department at Goldsmiths College, University of London. Her research explores mobilities, digital technology cultures, DIY/making practices, and making methods.

back to top  Figures

F1Figure 1. Illustration from patented design "Improvements in Ladies' Cycling Skirts" by Alice Louisa Bygrave, 1895.

UF1Figure. The collection of convertible cycling garments made in the project.

UF2Figure. A ceiling-camera photo of the research team at work.

UF3Figure. The research team and volunteers perform in costume.

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