Who We Are: How Studying Textiles at University Changed Our Sewing Practice

As home sewers, we have come to sewing via a variety of routes. Lots of us are self-taught, having developed our skills by sharing information, and with the help of online resources, books and magazines. Others will have built on skills taught by family or friends, or begun at school or in a sewing class.

For many of us, the possibility of studying a sewing-related subject (in a private class, at a college, or at university) is appealing. Whether to test and develop our existing skills, learn something new, enable a change of career, or just set aside some time to focus on our interests.

Today two sewists and bloggers who went on to study textile-related courses at university level are sharing how it has affected their sewing practice after leaving the classroom.


Sonja:

Sonjya, a white woman with brown shoulder length hair, wears a jacket made of a red ikat-style fabric.

Before I went back to school, I had a very basic understanding about the eco-friendliness of certain fibers — natural fibers biodegrade, synthetics do not. But after I learned more about the processes involved in creating textiles, I realized that there is an environmental impact associated with every textile product. Growing natural fibers requires irrigation, fertilizers, and fossil fuels to run the farm equipment; manmade fibers like rayon require hazardous chemicals; and all fibers require huge amounts of energy when they are spun, woven, knitted, and dyed.

As a result, I’ve become far more thoughtful about my sewing practice. I try to be careful when I’m purchasing fabric, selecting materials that will withstand lots of wash and wear, and buying with a project in mind so I won’t have yardage leftover that isn’t useful to me or anyone else. When possible, I like to use secondhand fabric. I try to sew carefully and use techniques that will help the garment last so I’m not creating disposable clothing. I do lots of flat pattern measurements so I can skip muslins, and when I do make a muslin, I sometimes share it with someone else my size that also wants to make the pattern, or I shred it and add it to my compost heap (but I only do this with unbleached muslin and cotton thread!). When a garment just doesn’t work for me, I try to find it a home with a friend or family member rather than taking it to Goodwill, so it’s less likely to end up in a landfill. I sort my unusable scraps by fiber type so the textile recycler I volunteer with can use them more effectively. Finally, I try to minimize my environmental impact by taking good care of my handmade clothes. Small things like hand washing and using the appropriate detergent for the fiber (regular laundry detergent eats away at protein fibers like wool and silk!) extend the life of my garments. 

Sonja Beck Gingerich studied textile development and marketing at the Fashion Institute of Technology. She is currently a freelance design development assistant at Marc Jacobs, and she lives in New York with her husband, Blake, and pug, Peggy.


Lauren:

Peggy, a white woman with long, wavy light-brown hair, wears a floral V-neck top over a black mock turtleneck. She's grinning at the camera.

Hi all! I started sewing my own clothes around the age of 14 and most of my learning was done by trial (and a lot of error) and was supplemeted by the wonderful variety of sewing blogs that were around 9-10 years ago. When it came to choosing what to do my degree in, the thing that I wanted to keep learning more about was the art of sewing, so I went to a drama school in London called Rose Bruford College to do a degree in Costume Production, which gave a thorough grounding in making costumes for stage and screen.

I was determined from the start that studying fashion wasn’t for me because most of it was drawing and design based, and I just wanted to do some sewing! It was brilliant going to uni with a couple of years of sewing under my belt because I had a firm grasp of the basics and it meant that I could really concentrate on levelling up my skillset.

Previous to starting my degree, my sewing technique was fairly slapdash. My output was quite prolific but the quality of the clothing that I was making left a lot to be desired. At Rose Bruford I learnt the ‘proper’ way to make clothing. First the pattern is drafted and adapted to fit the measurements of the person that it’s being made for (this was a brilliant skill for me to learn and apply to my own home sewing), then it’s marked up on calico to make a toile. We had the chance to experiment with making patterns with or without seam allowance. I found that my preference was to make patterns without seam allowance and to mark the seam allowances straight onto the fabric during the cutting out process. This meant that I could mark the sewing lines directly onto the fabric easily by drawing around the pattern but also meant that the pattern was easier to adapt in the future, than if seam allowances were already incorporated. Once all of the important lines were marked out in chalk it was time to tack all of the lines into place by hand or machine. Then the calico toile had its first fitting. Our normal procedure was to have two calico fittings and a final fabric fitting. I learnt how to spot fitting errors and how to pin out the excess and how to make that change to a pattern correctly. I got the chance to experiment with fabrics for all types of garments, including those that I wouldn’t normally make for myself. It was a constant battle of balancing a deadline with neat and accurate sewing that would pass the eagle eyes of my tutors.

Now I’ve graduated from my degree I tend to pick and choose from the things that I learned depending on the time, budget and scenario. I’m so grateful that I had the opportunity to grasp the traditional way of sewing things and to have tutors on hand to answer any questions. I’ve really learnt to appreciate ‘slow sewing’ and how much difference putting the time in makes for  a special project.

Lauren started her sewing blog ‘Lady Sewalot’ as a teenager and had great fun working out how to make all of her own clothes. She went to uni to do a degree in costume and now alternates between working in the wardrobe department of West End shows and making for film in theatre around various workrooms in London. She tries to cram in some sewing for herself every now and then and even occasionally blogs about the things she’s made over at originaldigby.com


Thanks to Sonja and Lauren, and thank you for reading. Do you have a sewing-related course you’d love to study one day, or does the thought of returning to education fill you with dread? We’d love to hear your thoughts!


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