(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.