Sewing for a living was one of the standard occupations for women before the industrial age. A look at one small group of women---pre-Civil-War African-Americans in Charleston offers some context in an unusual city known for its chintz-style bedcovers.
We can classify Charleston's African-American seamstresses as belonging to four economic categories:
1) Enslaved seamstresses
2) Free women of color (as they were called)
3) A category rather in between, hired-out women whose owners allowed them to work for others
4) Escapees who tried to blend into the last two categories.
1) Enslaved seamstresses
There are no statistics on enslaved seamstresses, just personal histories. See one at a post here:
2) Free women of color
Studying censuses and city directories gives us numbers. Many years ago E. Horace Fitchett counted 22 free Black women working as seamstresses in the year 1819 in the city of about 22,000 people, mostly Black. We have no idea how many enslaved women worked at sewing then or later.
Loren Schweninger looked at "Black Owned Businesses in the South, 1790-1880," examining census and R.G. Dun business rating records, and made a few observations about free Black seamstresses. New Orleans was a center of free-Black-owned businesses (but New Orleans with its French & Spanish heritage did not have much of an antebellum quilt presence). Looking at the lower South in general he noted, "a surge into the entrepreneurial class during the 1850s among free women of color, who opened boarding and lodging houses, seamstress shops, and laundry businesses.... On the eve of the Civil War, Charleston [with a population of about 70,000] boasted 92 free Negroes who ran businesses of various types. Most of them were shopkeepers, storekeepers, skilled artisans, wood dealers, butchers, and boardinghouse keepers."
3) Hired-out seamstresses
Slaves were hired-out and the slave owner received their wages. An orphaned family of white children, for example, might have their slaves hired out and live on the profits.
Other owners hired out their enslaved workers when they left the city for the summer's sickly season. And some owners had few other assets than these human beings---the laboring classes. The higher classes could not work themselves; it cost them status.
In many cases the hired-out themselves could keep money earned over a certain sum.
Owners who hired out slaves were required to pay a tax (except for the orphans.) The tax was collected by requiring employees to wear a badge indicating their status. Just like dog tags (an unfortunate comparison) the city made money because they charged for the required badges. Charleston was unique in this requirement and Charleston slave badges, which had to be renewed annually, are quite a collectible item.
The detail above of Eastman Johnson's 1859 idealization of Negro Life in the South shows a common motivation for runaways....
Seamstresses had an easy transferrable skill, required few tools and were in demand. Those who ran away hoped they could always make a living.
“‘They Are Supposed to Be Lurking about the City’: Enslaved Women Runaways in Antebellum Charleston,” South Carolina Historical Magazine 115, 2 (June 2015).
"‘They Will Endeavor to Pass for Free’: Enslaved Runaways’ Performances of Freedom in Antebellum South Carolina,” Slavery & Abolition 31, 2 (June 2010): 161-180
And his dissertation:
“Female Fugitives: Enslaved Women's Resistance in Georgia, 1815-1835” ...