On Teaching Fashion: Should Teachers Design During Class?

Teaching a course that involves sewing, draping, and/or patternmaking requires that I show hands-on techniques when I am in the classroom. Using handouts, referencing diagrams in our books, and having pre-sewn examples are helpful but I believe that students need to see how to create a pant sloper, or how to sew a French seam from beginning to end with a live demonstration. I had considered making short videos of each technique, assigning them as homework, and when class was in session they could start working on the technique since they have already watched the video. I asked my current apparel design class how they felt about this and heard a unanimous response with preference for live demos instead of the other methods, with comments such as “I am visual person and I need to see you sewing before I can do it” , or “it is crucial for me because I won’t understand it by just reading the book or watching a video since I’ll forget it by the time I’m in class”, and “sometimes when you are sewing you start talking about other ways you can do or if you mess up you show how to fix it”.

Paintbrushes by Stella Haus

Paintbrushes by Stella Haus

Sewing hong kong seams in front of students is often when I would “mess up” but it gives me an opportunity to talk about why the error occurred and what I could do to fix it. Since most of the apparel design students are learning, they all experience similar mistakes and appreciated knowing that it can be repaired. I had recently read an article titled Should Teachers Make Art During Class? and I started thinking that I would fall into the “No! Students First!” category listed in the article which states: “Opponents to making art during class time question how those who do it find the time. These teachers claim to be constantly on the move, addressing student concerns. Any attempt to work in class would be continually disrupted by student questions. They simply couldn’t focus on both their students’ needs and the concentration needed to complete their own art.” 

It takes every minute of my time in class to help students through patternmaking, draping, and sewing courses. I would like to think that my students are independent but in our program we constantly push our students to do more than the required minimum so even after they master a technique, we have them learn an additional skill or challenge them to increase the difficulty level of what they are working on. It is a constant conversation that happens in our design lab from the moment they walk in the classroom until they leave. There is no time for me to design during class when I have a room full of students that need guidance on a current project. FurthermoreI have closed my bridal design business since I began teaching full time although I would not want to bring a client’s dress in our sewing lab for fear of something happening to it. Sharing my beading techniques or embroidery from past gowns, however, has been helpful at times and students said that they enjoyed seeing what I design. But I am not convinced that seeing your teachers working in class or designing is more important than guiding and helping your students with their projects. Even when I teach the jeans project in my sewing course, I don’t make a pair of jeans for myself, instead I make jeans into a teaching tool. I change fabric for different pattern pieces so they stand out and use different color threads to show different seams. Students are curious about my design aesthetic and they usually ask me questions about what designers I like and what kind of gowns I have made in the past and I am happy to share. This has backfired a couple times though, when students have decided to make something because they thought I would like the style and they might receive a higher grade. I learned about this when an individual confronted me about a grade and mentioned it was “my style, so I thought you would like it more”. How disappointing I though, that a student would assume I would not stick to my rubric and instead grade garments based on my personal taste.

Although I don’t have much free time outside of work, I do like charity sewing and entering design competitions. Sharing photographs from the fashion shows is easier to share with my class anyhow and will give them an idea of what I am currently working on without wasting time. Today I am actually participating in the Megan Summerville’s Black & Tan Design Challenge , where Mrs. Summerville gives away yards of fabric to each designer and then each designer uses that material to create an original design. This year she assigned a technique from The Art of Manupulating Fabric by Colette Wolff to each designer to incorporate into their design . If you are familiar with that book you can appreciate all the hard work that has gone into each garment. I plan on adding this to my personal design portfolio and maybe share the technique I used with my students in the future.

Do you keep up your personal design portfolio or have time to design in the classroom? How do you manage your time to accommodate students while working on something else? Please comment below. I look forward to your response.

Related Articles


  • Laura Pfeiff March 13, 2015 08.48 pm

    Yes! I teach writing to 14 year olds and I think it is so valuable to do a “live write” in class sometimes. Different experience than giving them exemplars-valuable.

  • Olga M. March 16, 2015 07.11 am

    Dear Karen,
    Your great post really got me thinking. It’s true that a teacher who is solely busy whith his or her own creations in class might appear very selfish to the student. This is not studio time for the teacher, but for the students. However, I absolutely agree that it is wonderful if the teacher has hands-on experience and can show how to sew “live” in front of the students, giving them a chance to observe, ask and try themselves.
    Then again, I do remember my own teacher bringing in some interior design projects into class. She used to work on them when we were busy with out own collections, but always put her work down if we required her help. Actually, her amazing use of fabrics really inspired me. Once she gave me a little cut-off part of this most exquisite fabric, which – she said – cost something like GBP 200 per metre. Since that time I became very interested in interior design fabric and incorporated some of them into clothing. So a teacher working on personal projects can be extremely motivating,too!
    Oh and what is a hong kong seam?


Leave a Comment

Monthly Archive


Available now: Punk Style by Worn Through founder, Monica Sklar, PhD. Find it at : Amazon.com, Powell's Books, or a bookseller near you.