You could argue that a clothing retailer asking customers to make their own clothes is like a butcher suggesting that the queue marks up a live cow and starts chopping.
Not only are they risking lost sales, they’re training customers not to need them anymore. But since we offered sewing and dressmaking classes in our basement studio at Rags to Bitches, profits have shot up.
The dress studio makes our own label, based on re-working vintage patterns, and a full bespoke service, based on being extremely nice to hysterical brides with mean mothers (“She’s not wearing satin, the light’ll bounce off her stomach…”) But so many of our bespoke and alterations customers sighed, “I wish I could sew.. my Grandma made all her own clothes,” as they were pinned and measured, it occurred to us that really, this highly practical skill was dying away, much like using a crossbow accurately, or manipulating a spinning wheel.
So we tentatively advertised a course for six people to learn to make a basic pattern, for a skirt (it’s easier than a top), and were inundated with applicants. We moved on to courses in sewing machine technique, making a dress, customising, and embroidery, and all sold out- we now have a vast waiting list and are looking for extra teachers.
Meanwhile, Argos reports that sales of home sewing machines have shot up, and how-to books about sewing are being produced at the rate that how-to books about sex were published in the ‘90s (and I should know, I wrote them.) It seems that women are looking at their piles of ill-fitting cheap fashion fixes, and realising that 50 years ago, their grandmothers looked great because they made the clothes they wanted. Ones that actually fitted. And if they liked a dress style that didn’t come in green, with a white belt- they only needed to buy the material, and it could be theirs.
Pattern cutting and sewing is becoming less of an amusingly arcane skill, and more of an essential in fashion today. Its new popularity may also persuade certain fashion colleges that it’s worth teaching students the basics, rather than encouraging them to spend three years making mood boards and chopping up chicken wire to create ‘futuristic pieces’, thus rendering them completely unemployable.
We have often taken on ex-fashion students either as staff or for work experience, and the majority have never been taught pattern-cutting, yet expect glittering careers in design. But it takes more than a stylised drawing and a fabric swatch to produce wearable clothes, and it’s surely time that fashion courses got out the sewing machines and the set squares, and taught the boring bits as well as the flashy stuff.
Luckily, women who’ve never threaded a needle in their lives are cottoning on (oh ho ho. Sorry,) to the idea that pattern-making can save them thousands of pounds, and create the clothes they actually want. Admittedly, it could be a scary time for retailers- but perhaps we’ll end up selling bolts of cloth, buttons and patterns for our best-selling lines, alongside the clothes. Besides, it’s only women’s shops that need be concerned- I can’t see menswear stores being inundated with blokes who’ve suddenly decided to make their own suits.