On Teaching Fashion: Can Fashion Students Sew?

Continuing on the theme of fashion and dressmaking education today and in the last 100 years, I am interested to consider why have education curriculums changed so significantly in the past decade- when dressmaking, needlework and sewing skills were very prominent. I recently looked at the work completed by my Grandmother in her education in the late 1930’s- a series of beautiful samples of finishes and seams, all neatly pressed, labeled and with perfect precision.



I am fascinated by these samples, with the millimetre care and attention to perfecting this technique. Learning these high-end sewing skills are the basis of a career, knowledge and opportunity for a future in garment construction. Do fashion courses teach to this level of detail today? Are we losing the knowledge in education of how to develop a pattern and create a garment? Or is it a matter of lack of learning the basics first?

What core sewing and construction skills of garments are covered on the courses you teach? Do you think Fashion Design students should have a strong grounding in sewing and construction? I remember at University and being told you should as a designer, have an understanding and ability to make your ideas- otherwise how do you know if they are going to work? I think this is very true, and an ethos I pass onto my current students.

Sewing, in my opinion, is a life skill, and it should have a presence in the national curriculum which sadly is not so prominent any more. Sewing can be a career, a specialism within the fashion industry, and we should be upskilling individuals to be able to produce detailed sewn items. Such as when Mary Portas began the Kinky Knickers factory in 2012- upskilling out of work individuals and allowing them access to a career!  Recently I attended the Disseminating Dress conference, where there was a paper about ‘Educational Needlecraft’ by Margaret Swanson and Ann Macbeth, published 1911. This book opens with:

‘This book represents the first conscious and serious effort to take Needlecraft from its humble place as the Cinderella of Manual arts, and to show how it may become a means of general and even higher education.’ (McMillan. M. Preface, P1)

Educational Needlecraft then maps out a creative curriculum, split by age, lesson and topic. It covers a wide arrangement of needlecraft such as darning, hemming and seaming in great detail for ages 6-24yrs old. I am interested to read how this book is set out, and curriculum developed. The preface discusses the creative development of the student when young, needing colours and adventure, and then more precision when older. Also a social responsibility is discussed in reference to changing fashions and children wearing hand down worn out clothes. This preface references how 12-year old girls would have the abilities to cloth themselves and others. Today many of my teenage students would not be able to create garments for themselves, let alone when they were 12. The detail in this book, first published in 1911, mirrors the detail I see in the folder my grandmother collated samples and careful notes she made of the lessons she attended.

Why do you think this was this an important life skill in the 1900’s, but does not appear in main stream education today? Should we blame fast fashion? I would love to hear your opinion upon the importance of sewing in society today. I am very interested to hear how in different countries, the skill of sewing may be delivered differently or have more of a social importance. Many countries around the world produce most of the clothes we wear today, I am interested in how these countries teach individuals to have access to these careers.


Swanson, M, Macbeth A. Preface by M. Macmillan (1911) Educational Needlecraft. London: Longmans, Green and Co.

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  • Jane Hurst July 17, 2015 08.20 am

    I am a 1978 graduate of a well respected Fashion Design course. I see two separate issues here. Needle arts and/or sewing and construction of garments. Perfecting needle arts takes many years of practice and mentoring, not enough time in a 3 or 4 year course. Garments with this type of work would be so expensive to produce, a very small slice of the market. Is it necessary to have those skills to be an effective designer, no.
    Do you need to understand cutting, construction and finishing of a garment to be a designer, yes. I have spent my years since my formal education in many work rooms, knowing basic sewing and construction help designers decide where they want to spend their money, help determine a quality product, what market are you trying to attract? A hands on experience is the way to learn, you must understand fit to be a good designer. You must be able to understand construction to speak to your cutter and sample makers.
    My criticism of the industry right now is too much focus on a less curvy body, the easiest to fit and design for.
    I think basic sewing should be back in school curriculum at an early age so as consumers people know what a quality product is, why it can be cost saving to buy a more expensive
    garment that will last through many washings.

  • Karen Tierney July 17, 2015 09.51 am

    There is so much to say about this topic or topics! I am a dressmaker in CA. It’s my second or third career. Graphic design was what I did my graduate work in. I taught design and then started a business as a dress maker. Much of what I do is restoration (brides who are reusing their grandmothers gown) and historic costuming, and custom wedding gowns. I find that the design skills translate beautifully to sewing. Being trained in design before computers, I have the hand skills and attention to detail, and eye for shape color and line etc…To me it’s the same.

    So getting to one of your questions…It was indeed an important life skill in the 1900s or you didn’t have clothes! It wasn’t a disposable culture then. People didn’t have many options in their closets so they need to care for what they had. In some families the gowns were the most valuable thing in the house that was past around to the sisters. When it was worn out or was out-of -fashion it was remade and used again until it was so worn it was cut up for quilts. No waste there.

    I’m currently teaching private sewing lessons to a 30 year old woman. She lives a very busy life but sees the value in having this skill. I am watching her painfully learning attention to detail, patience, dealing with having to ‘do over’ after making mistakes, and deciding on her standard of perfection..and much more. They are life lessons.

    In terms of one of your other questions: Do fashion students need to learn to sew? Absolutely! Every Architect needs to know their materials. To me sewing is the same as Architecture. It deals with material characteristics such has strengths and stresses, with the added concern for bias, and the fact that it has to move on a non geometric shape. The more I sew the more I have respect for the infinite variables of fabric and the character of each one. How can you create amazing designs if you don’t understand this?

    Sincerely submitted,

  • Lawrence July 17, 2015 10.46 am

    OK, so you are in my world… I am a fashion designer – Trained Tailor… and a fashion design teacher in one of the 2 biggest and most famous schools in NYC. The state keeps changing what it feels students need to learn – even though they have no idea what the actual sector needs them to know for their first jobs. Coupled with the fact that new classes are written, submitted, and then edited and resubmitted till the state approves them creates a collection of out-of-date classes.

    Also, the reality that each student is viewed by schools as a potential $$$$$ (if kept till completion) by each school almost insures that the class load be turned into FUN and INTERESTING classes. Having to hand baste canvas to a jacket is anything but Fun and Interesting. There is also the reality that MOST students are medicated (either by doctors or self). This changes what the expectations of the students’ outcome… from challenging to just get through it alive.

    The other problem fashion has is that ANYONE can call themselves a designer. Why can;t I buy a dentist chair and call myself a Dentist? Americans don;t see this sector as credible… who can’t draw a pic??? Well, that picture better have all the info needed to make that garment! Even the most common of questions will bring people to tears… “OK, so how would you get into the dress?” And not only knowing where to place the opening… you need to know what closure are you using! But I guess this is all brought on by the schooling that the students have been used too – Everyone gets a ribbon just for showing up.

    Garment construction is very important to a designer…. because what you use inside effects the outside!!!! But then again… H&M has helped dummy down fashion and the students studying it. And please don;t get me started on the NEW fashion words… BESPOKE and COUTURE. If only the companies using these VERBS actually know what they mean and imply, they would be changing them.

    In order to be a true designer, one needs to understand their craft and all the aspects of it. Schooling can only supply you with a limited amount due to the actual restraints of the institution and the professors. On the job training brings one up to date with the trends of the moment… but an actual artisan can help bring back into tomorrow’s trends what was used and left behind in history’s past trends. And the fact that these amazing craftsmen are dieing is starting to shake up the industry in Europe and Asia. In the USA, people are talking about it, but the European factories, mills, weavers… where they ideas come from – the lack of knowledge about past techniques and machinery is being lived!!!!!

    With the acceptance of cheap fashion as a global standard, true fashion will have to fight back and reclaim it’s place. Having lived out half of my career, I will be watching and also helping this new world way of working…. I was hoping that the “Made in USA” trend would help bring quality work to the USA, but it is only helping employe Asian sewers now living in the USA.

    Have a great day….

  • Ralitza July 17, 2015 02.48 pm

    Hi from Bulgaria. My granny sewed all her wardrobe. At first she’d brought the fabric to a woman to mark the pattern pieces on it. Then she learned to draft her patterns. As a child, I was lucky to learn loads of old techniques from her. Her step sister had been to a a kind of ladies school – loads of embroidery, needlework, etc techniques, samples, table runners, table clothes with intricate details produced in a few years time. What impressed me most, though I was a kid, was the fact my granny was good at most needle crafts without going to such a school. Women learned lots of things by closely expecting the other women work and shared knowledge with each other. Perfection was a rule. My mothers generation was mainly depending on courses to get same knowledge and simplified one too. Less women were interested in sewing their clothes and sewing clothes slowly became exotic. This was pretty strange, as ready-made clothes variety were awfully alike during socialist years – most women had a black skirt and a white shirt /as they were so easier to get, they became a natural uniform/, Then it revived.

    I am sewing my clothes, and lingerie now. Just like my granny. She did not use couture techniques for all her clothes, but she was definitely able to do it for some that deserved this and did so. The perfect symmetry, the great fit, the beautiful interior – they were a must. For me, so many years later, a dress with a silk lining is something I can sew in a day, or spend weeks searching for. So I make it. I can’t imagine a fashion student unable to make a perfect seam or not knowing the basics of main couture techniques. You have to know the process and the possibilities to design it. This includes fabrics, techniques, styles, seams etc.

    The schools here have a really detailed plans and trainings. Nothing really special in most cases however, becaise they address the fashion industry, not the high-end of it.

  • Vickie vitale July 18, 2015 12.42 am

    I can’t believe I saw this post as a cousin and I had this similar conversation about sewing seams, details and more just past year. She was upset about some work she had done, being a sewer herself. I had been a sewer all of my life and became a seamstress during my career of designing clothes in the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s and on. I worked and learned many techniques from a fine and upscale bridal salon, as a part time job in my early twenties and carried those skills to this day. I had old sewing books as well as new ones and learned many tricks of the trade from youth on. My mother taught us girls the basics, and we learned the rest on our own.
    My feeling is that the skills of years past are not being taught in school or public classes as they were back when we were kids. I grew up in the sixties when even then there was still pride in what we did. Everything today is quick and fast, and foreign made, cheaply, u less you pay good key for high end things, and even then I check the seams which never seem to be finished. I miss the days of great French seams, rolled seams and no frayed edges. I still take pride in all I had made back then and today whether I am teCher creative paper skills, card making, scarf making and many other hand made items. People just don’t care anymore and need things in a hurry, quick and on the run. Please spread the word to keep Pride in American made items, handmades, and crafts! Thanks for posting this article.

  • Angielu July 20, 2015 10.31 pm


    Of course it is an important skill to learn!
    I had the fortune to find a school where i´ve learned it perfectly, i actually did 2 series of samples: One for sewing tecniques and one for embroidery.

    The fast fashion industry will never move a side a good taste and well made wardrobe.



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