On Teaching Fashion: Hello, My Name is…

The first day of my Apparel I class is such a treat for me. I’m excited to introduce myself and talk about the class schedule and I enjoy meeting the new group of students. I usually show examples of the projects we will be working on this semester and examples of what previous students have made in the past. My Apparel I course is the first introductory sewing and patternmaking course in our program where we learn the basics. Since this is a lower level course and I have no pre-requisites, I often have students who take my course as an elective who are not fashion majors. Most of them have no sewing experience or they have taken only one sewing class at a local craft store. I also have fashion design and merchandising majors who have some sewing skills.


Student sewing on an industrial sewing machine. Photographed by Karen Bravo.

Regardless of their major, I’ve noticed over the years that the students are all very nervous on the first day. Perhaps it’s the unfamiliar room filled with the industrial sewing machines that make them nervous. Those machines do look intimidating to a beginner. I usually have at least one worried student approach me and try to explain that they can’t sew and they may have to drop this course. They seem to think that they will be expected to sew up a garment on an industrial sewing machine on the first day or something equally demanding that involves advanced skills. I had to think of exercises to help the students feel comfortable in the classroom if I was going to get them to come back with confidence. I found a great article called Razzle and Dazzle’em: Stage Directions for Engaging Instruction Sessions, that gave me some good ideas that I will try this semester.

My first task is to find out how much sewing experience the students have so I could pace the course accordingly. Knowing this would help me shape each project to their skill level. In the past, I would call their names off my roster and have them correct any name pronunciation and then say how much sewing experience they have out loud. Some students were apologetic, embarrassed, and overall did not seem to want to share this information with the whole classroom. I had to think of another way to do this. The next year I created a sign up sheet where each student had to write their name, their major, and write how much sewing experience they have. I then analyzed the sign up sheet after class and decided which direction to teach the projects in: slow beginner with emphasis on terms, intermediate, etc. This worked well but I did miss the opportunity to ask the student questions on the spot, as I had the opportunity before. This year I am going to try what my mother, a great teacher who has taught for 14 years in higher education, would do in her classroom. She told everyone to break up into groups of two and have each student introduce himself or herself to the other. Then after ten minutes one student will introduce the other and vice versa thus taking the stress off the experience of talking in public. I will have them ask each other about their major and their sewing experience. I also want to try the online polling option mentioned in the article to answer this question: what are your expectations of this class?

Another quick exercise that we do to break the ice involves the use of 1-yard fabric cuts and a mannequin. The students break up into groups and choose a half scale mannequin that has a knit fabric and woven fabric and one safety pin next to it. They have ten minutes to use these two fabrics to create a gown. The time restraint gets them working fast and helps them to not be so precious about the design. They get to feel the fabrics and notice that one of the fabric stretches and the other will only stretch on the bias. They notice the drape and how it differs from the knit to the woven. They also get to know another classmate and work together as a team. After the time is up we walk around and have the groups talk about the design they made. I ask them what it was like working with their fabrics and to be specific. After they are done explaining their design, I point out anything they may have missed and say each fabric name (jersey knit, rib knit, etc.) so they will know the fabric by name if they want to use it for their project. I also tell everyone to be sure and feel each fabric as we walk around the room. We talk about design and ask questions such as why you would choose one fabric over another when thinking about your project. This is a fun teaching exercise I have used for a few years now. Many of the students take a quick photo with their phones of their design on the mannequin and share it with their friends.

Since I have begun this exercise, I haven’t had any problems with students bringing the wrong fabrics for their projects. They leave with confidence and are excited to return for the next lesson. I do think it is important for all of us to do these introductions. We will all be working in the same space for months and it is important that we all get to know each other. I want everyone to feel comfortable and I would love for the students to make new friends. My hope is these ice-breakers help the students feel relaxed and comfortable in the sewing lab. I need them to be ready to sew with confidence the next time they walk into the classroom. I also need to remember that my first day is going to shape how they think about me and this course.

Please share your first day classroom experiences or any ice-breakers that you find successful in the comments below. I look forward to hearing from you.

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  • Olga January 11, 2014 02.51 pm

    Dear Karen,

    Your approach to breaking the ice which freezes over a lake of creativity is great! I particularily like the partner introduction, because it does take off the pressure and immediately helps each new student make at least one friend.
    When I taught a summer programme fashion class in Paris a few years back I had a major (everone LOVED fashion) and a minor (everyone was SCARED of fashion), so I can relate to what you are experiencing.
    I remember doing a litte exeercise, similar to yours with the small dressform: I used a full-size dress-form (dummy) and scisors, pins and bits of fabric. This was essentially a draping project. Students would come up-front in pairs and manipulate a few things on the dummy. Each time they would shape and design something. In the end the entire class was a mazed that a finished garment was right in front of their eyes! This was to show that fashion is easy, very spontaneous and free. No need to fear! 🙂
    Good luck with the next term. 🙂

  • Peggy January 11, 2014 10.55 pm

    What a thoughtful way to start a class. I’ve taught sewing before and never thought of that approach. They are lucky students.

    Good luck with the semester.


  • Karen Bravo February 19, 2014 01.46 pm

    Thank you for the reply Olga!

  • Karen Bravo February 19, 2014 01.47 pm

    Thank you Peggy! I appreciate your message.


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