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Needlework: sewer or sewist?

Q: Some in our sewing group think a person who sews is a “sewer,” while others prefer “sewist.” To me, “sewer” is more natural, but others say it looks like the drain pipe. (We all agree that “seamstress” sounds too businesslike for a hobbyist, and besides it rules out men.)

A: One who sews is generally called a “sewer” (pronounced SOH-er), a word that’s been in English writing since the 1300s. The alternative, “sewist,” first appeared in the mid-19th century, and it’s quite popular on sewing websites.

Certainly “sewer,” defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “one who sews,” has history on its side, though it was variously spelled “sower,” “sawer,” and “shewer” at first.

The earliest known use of it in writing, according to the OED, is from William Langland’s long poem Richard the Redeles (1399). These lines are part of a satirical passage about a puffy sleeve, extravagantly slashed and scalloped, that was fashionable in the Middle Ages:

“Seuene goode sowers sixe wekes after / Moun not sett þe seemes ne sewe hem aȝeyn” (“Seven good sewers, for six weeks afterward, / May not set the seams nor sew it together again”).

The term has been in steady use ever since. Samuel Johnson, in A Dictionary of the English Language (1755), spelled the word “sewer” and defined it as “He that uses a needle.”

Here are a couple of the OED’s 19th-century examples:

“The sewer has it placed on a long table round which she travels, stitching as she goes” (from a British newspaper, the Echo, December 1870).

“She was not only a neat sewer, but could cut out men’s shirts” (from a Victorian novel, Edward Peacock’s Narcissa Brendon, 1891).

The OED’s entry for the word hasn’t been updated for more than a century, but we can assure you that “sewer” is still going strong.

For example, the sewing guru Sandra Betzina uses it in the title of her book Fabric Savvy: The Essential Guide for Every Sewer (1999). And a trademark logo of the Huskvarna Viking sewing-machine company is “Made for Sewers, by Sewers.”

We see no reason to abandon a word after more than 600 years of English usage. In speech, of course, it will never be confused with the other “sewer” (pronounced SOO-er). And in writing it would be difficult to confuse the two nouns if they were used in context.

As for “sewist,” the earliest OED example is from a Wisconsin newspaper: “But what is the use of our discussing the merits of a sewing machine; we are no ‘sewist’ ” (The Eau Claire Free Press, Dec. 19, 1867).

The dictionary’s next citation is from an upstate New York newspaper: “When the men were set to work cutting out emblems representing their divisions and sewing them onto the sleeves of their blouses and overcoats, they were sure they were making themselves pretty to be sent home. ‘And me the worst sewer, or sewist, in the world,’ he grumbles” (The Syracuse Herald, Jan. 26, 1919).

The most recent Oxford example is from a comment about threading a needle: “Among sewists, it’s okay to stick the end of the thread in your mouth to wet it” (from A Kid’s Guide to Sewing, 2013, by Sophie Kerr et al.).

Although “sewer” is the more popular term, two of the ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult now include “sewist.”

[Update, Oct. 10, 2016: A reader comments, “Better yet, ‘stitcher,’ the term used by costuming professionals like my daughter.”]

The source of both “sewer” and “sewist” is “sew,” a very old English verb. Its earliest known appearance in English writing is from the early 700s, according to OED citations.

This is from a Latin-Old English glossary, dated around 725, and probably compiled as a vocabulary aid: “Sarcio, siouu.” Here the Latin sarcio (mend, repair) is translated as “sew” (siouu in Old English).

Other Old English and Middle English spellings of the verb included siowian, siwian, seuen, and seuwen. The modern spelling emerged in the late 1300s, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

After more than a millennium, “sew” still means what it meant to the Anglo-Saxons. You know the meaning, but here’s the OED’s definition anyway:

“To fasten, attach, or join (pieces of textile material, leather, etc.) by passing a thread in alternate directions through a series of punctures made either with a needle carrying the thread, or with an awl; to make the seams of (a garment, etc.).”

Over the years, figurative uses have emerged, notably the familiar expression “all sewed (or sewn) up,” which since the early 1900s has been used to describe a situation or a case that’s brought to a conclusion.

And that reminds us that the verb “sew” has two past participles, so you can say either that you “have sewn” or “have sewed” a project. The simple past tense is “sewed.”

As you might suppose from the word’s great age, “sew” didn’t originate with English. As the OED says, it comes from “Common Germanic” and “Indogermanic” (a synonym for Indo-European). So its distant ancestors are prehistoric and have been reconstructed by linguists.

Outside the Germanic languages, relatives of “sew” are known in Latin, Lithuanian, Old Slavic, Sanskrit, and Hittite, Chambers says. People have been employing needle and thread for a very, very long time!

Now, as for that other “sewer,” the one we associate with gutters and drains, it dates back to 1402-03, when “suer” meant an “underground pipe,” Chambers says.

As the OED explains, that 1402-03 sighting appeared in a compound, “suergate” (literally “sewer-gate”), meaning “a floodgate at the mouth of a drain or watercourse.”

The word came into English through Old French (seuwiere or sewiere), a language in which it meant a “channel to carry off overflow from a fishpond,” Oxford says. The Old French word was Latinized as seweria in the 13th century.

In its earliest uses, the English word meant “an artificial watercourse for draining marshy land and carrying off surface water into a river or the sea.”

These OED citations from the 1400s, recorded in the Rolls of Parliament, illustrate that sense of the word. “For Sewers, Walles of Mersshes, Dyches, Gutters” (1461) … “Makyng of Sewers for avoidyng of lake waters” (1482).

By the early 17th century, the modern sense of the word appeared in English writing, defined by the OED as “an artificial channel or conduit, now usually covered and underground, for carrying off and discharging wastewater and the refuse from houses and towns.”

Shakespeare, spelling “sewer” as “sure,” is credited with the earliest known example of this usage in writing: “Sweet draught, ‘sweet’ quoth ’a! sweet sinke, sweet sure.” (Troilus and Cressida, 1609. The jester Thersites, known for his irony, is speaking.)

The OED’s next example is more straightforward: “A sewer within the ground to ridde away filth.”

The citation is from a 1610 English translation of William Camden’s Britannia, a historical work written in Latin in 1586. The Latin original uses cloacum for “sewer.”

Finally, as we’ve written in a later post, “sewer” has occasionally been used as slur for an objectionable person.

[Note: This post was updated on April 11, 2022.]

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