The need has gone out of the needle arts
There was a small haberdashery at the local shops where I grew up in suburban Sydney. It kept us in school uniforms and women like my mother supplied with buttons, zips, needles and cloth for their home sewing projects. The elderly haberdasher had an intriguing array of stock in neat draws that went from floor to ceiling behind the counter of her store.
Not so long ago the wifely arts - such as sewing - contributed to household budgets. It was common for clothes to be stitched, jumpers knitted and garments repaired to save the family a bit of money.
But cheap manufactured imports, mostly made in China, have rendered many of the wifely arts uneconomic. It's not that sewing, knitting and baking have disappeared from homes - they live on as hobbies pursued enthusiastically by many. But they're rarely done to help make ends meet.
This shift in domestic behaviour has been shaped by the sweeping changes in the global economy over the past two decades.
Cheap and abundant off-the-rack clothing has dramatically reduced the incentive to make and repair clothes at home. In economic parlance, the opportunity cost of doing your own sewing has risen dramatically. Why spend the time and money purchasing cloth, thread and patterns when you can buy something ready-to-wear in a one-hour shopping trip?
This shift is reflected in the proportion of spending we allocate to clothing. Surveys of household expenditure show that back in 1960, the average household devoted more than 10 per cent of all expenditure to clothing. But that proportion has been falling ever since.
By 2003-04 it had dropped to just over 4 per cent and the latest figures show it now close to 3 per cent. The recent strength of the Australian dollar has put more downward pressure on the relative cost of imported clothing.
At the Pitt Street Mall shopping hub in Sydney this week, you could buy a women's sweater made - in China - from merino wool for about $70.
When I checked with a couple of shops on how much it would cost to buy enough merino wool to knit a similar garment at home, I was quoted between $71 and $110 (depending on the type and quality of the yarn). So the cost of buying materials alone would be more than a finished product made in China.
You then have to add the cost of patterns, needles and, of course, many hours of labour to calculate the full cost of making your own.
Low-cost manufacturing has undermined the wifely arts in another way. It's helped make a range of attractive products - such as mobile phones and computers - easily available.
But we need money to fund our appetite for new gadgets. This includes purchasing them and paying for their continuing use, such as telecommunication charges, internet fees and electricity bills.
The average number of appliances that use electricity in Australian households rose 45 per cent last decade. The average share of spending devoted to internet fees rose nearly sixfold in the six years to 2009-10 and the share of spending on pay TV fees rose by more than a third in that time.
This trend has increased the incentive for households to devote more of their time earning money to pay for these new habits, leaving less time for sewing dresses and darning old socks.
Economic change has shifted the wifely arts from a mainstream household practice to a subculture.
What was once a necessary household chore has become a leisure activity, not a money saver, and for some an expression of their identity. These crafty communities have become niche markets, often serviced by the internet, and pastimes such as sewing and knitting have taken on a sassy new character in books and blogs.
Nikol Lohr, an American champion of the wifely arts who claims to ''cook, sew, crochet, knit, needlepoint, embroider, decoupage, print, grow things, fix things, and generally craft her ass off'', has a book and website called Naughty Needles: Sexy, Saucy Knits for the Bedroom and Beyond.
That is a far cry from what was on offer at my local haberdashery back in the 1970s.