Friends, while I was working on the pinking tutorial I miiiight have fallen down a pinking history rabbit hole. And then a seam finishing history rabbit hole. You guys, garment construction history is neat! Home sewists' finishing techniques have a lot to do with changing technologies, economics, and gender constructs. Also there is drama! And intrigue! And that old argument that the true "inventor" of a technology is not the person who comes up with the idea, but the person who capitalizes on it.
That's a hard argument to swallow, even if history often bears it out.
Anyway, there are a lot of moving parts so I can't pretend to be an expert; instead, this is more of a sketch, with links to my sources. If you know more about any of this than I do, please let me know in the comments!
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Pinking seems to be a relatively recent development in the history of garment finishes. Sewists have occasionally hand-pinked corset seams and other garment edges since at least the early 1800s, both for decoration and to keep seam allowances from raveling.
In the US, pinking tools started cropping up in the mid-19th century with the rise of the garment industry. The development of these tools quickly took two different directions. Pinking irons were hand tools that worked a bit like a corrugated hole punch: if a sewist wanted to pink a seam, she would stamp the seam in small sections until the entire edge was pinked. Like JL McIntosh's pinking tool, below, later iterations included interchangeable bits, so the sewist could choose a straight or curved edge.
Pinking machines, on the other hand, were stationary rotary machines intended for factory use. These went through heavy design iterations in the 1890s, thanks to massive growth in the US garment manufacturing industry. Most pinking machines were like RJ Hearne's Cloth Cutter below. They were designed to be hand-cranked and hand-fed, so that an operator would feed the fabric through the machine and use a rotary wheel to pink the fabric. With labor cheap and labor protections still relatively minimal, safety took a back seat to speed.
In 1893, a woman named Louise Austin patented the first pinking shears for home use. Her idea was pretty revolutionary at the time: she combined the continuous speed of a rotary cutter with the portability of a hand tool. The resulting shears would greatly speed up pinking for home sewists and professional dressmakers, but it’s unclear whether she was able to manufacture them.
And in any event, most home sewists and dressmakers didn’t have access to these improvements in pinking technology. Up through the early 1930s, most seamstresses finished their seams either using traditional couture methods like bias binding or flat-felling, or with a simple whipstitch. (Check out Jennifer Rosbrugh’s awesome post on 19th century finishes here.)
That all began to change in the 1930s. In 1931, Samuel Briskman filed a patent for the pinking shears we know today. Invented by Curtis Weidauer, the shears had interlocking teeth and both fixed and adjustable blades.
Briskman, who was born in Russia and immigrated to the US in 1889, when he was just 16, had been working in New York as a silk merchant when he filed his patent for pinking shears. Unlike Austin, Briskman knew he needed to patent a manufacturing method, and he had enough capital to get a small factory up and running in New York’s garment district. He called his company the American Pinking Shears Corporation.
[The American Pinking Shears Corporation at its second address, 102 Prince Street in Lower Manhattan. From the Museum of the City of New York]
By 1950, Briskman's distributor J Wiss was selling 500,000 pairs of shears a year to home sewists and dressmakers in the US and abroad, each with an insert describing pinking as "the greatest saving of time and effort."
[1950 J Wiss pinking shears insert for Models C and B]
This surge in pinking's popularity probably had to do with more than good marketing. In 1950, after two decades of having their families destabilized by war and economic depression, and with the threat of nuclear war looming, many Americans sought stability in marriage and “traditional” gender roles. Marriage and birth rates soared, and people married younger than they had in generations – in 1950, the average woman was just 20 on her wedding day, and the average man was 23.
Women were expected to cook and sew and care for their husbands, homes, and children. Ready-to-wear clothing was certainly available after the war, but the renewed cultural emphasis on homemaking, plus a lack of cash in early-career households, meant that many women sewed clothes for themselves and their families. Pinking shears sped up the task of sewing so busy, cash-strapped homemakers could focus on other things. (See Elaine Tyler May’s Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era.)
Pinking as a finishing technique peaked in the 1950s. The shift away from pinking was largely technological. In 1964, the Japanese industrial serger company Tacony Corporation began manufacturing a small serger, the Baby Lock, for home use.
While home sergers didn’t become commonplace until the 1980s, this development, plus the broader shift in fashion from natural fibers to synthetics in the 1960s, meant that pinking fell out of favor. Synthetic fabrics, especially knits, don’t ravel and therefore don’t need to be pinked.
[Dacron! From Envisioning the American Dream]
Samuel Briskman passed away in 1967, and his obituary explains that he invented pinking shears while playing with his wife’s bread knives, revolutionized the sewing industry, and ended up in every woman’s sewing kit. Somehow this story seems apt for the man who appropriated Louise Austin’s invention, repackaged it, and sold it to a new generation of undercapitalized but enterprising women.
*Cover illustration is an altered version of a 1951 J Wiss Pinking Shears ad. You can find the original (and lots more!) here.