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Sewing machines and textiles: inspiring the next generation

Author: Gary Walker  

'Do you offer basic sewing classes?'

You'd be surprised how often I’m asked this question! Usually, it comes from a young person wanting unique, bohemian homewares or an older mum looking for a creative outlet. What unites them both is a desire to learn and the excitement of what lies ahead.

People who ask this often haven't yet had the opportunity to learn to sew or learn how to thread a sewing machine. But with maturity comes a desire for artistic expression and the realisation that sewing is an essential life skill. Some regret that those skills weren’t passed down or sought from their mother or grandmother when they had the chance.

I’m Gary Walker, Managing Director of Echidna Sewing. And I want to change the world. I want young people to learn to sew. And I want educators to understand the importance of textiles and fashion. Most of all, I want our next generation to embrace the opportunities that sewing and embroidery technology has made available- from improving their homes to their careers and self confidence.

Why learn to sew?

'With the textile and apparel manufacturing industry in Australia long-since collapsed, surely sewing is old-fashioned and redundant? So why teach students or young people how to sew?' Many ask this, but it's not that simple.

Our fashion and retail economy

For a start, there is a bigger picture which is often overlooked. Retail is the second largest employment sector in Australia, only marginally behind healthcare.

Fashion and clothing retail forms a large part of this sector. For 2012 the Australian Fashion Council (formerly the TFIA) estimated the entire fashion and clothing supply chain, including manufacture, wholesale and retail, contributed $27.5 billion to the national economy. The sector employed 200,000 people (TFIA, July 2012). Yet many of those persons were unskilled and under-trained, young people.

The unfortunate side is that the rapid turnover of large retail chains and continual cost-cutting prevents their frontline staff from gaining the skills and knowledge they need to carve out a potentially rewarding career. Poor service leaves customers disappointed. And brick and mortar stores lose their biggest advantage over online sellers – knowledgeable, personal advice.

Of course the traditional retail fashion industry is already under threat. Industry analysts eMarketer Inc predicted that in the US over 20% of apparel would be purchased online by 2016. That's a few years ago and it's likely the number is much higher now. Traditional brick and mortar retailers had to offer better service and unique benefits to compete in the changing marketplace. Knowledgeable, fashion-conscious staff had to be one of the first priorities.

How it should be

Imagine walking into a clothing store and being greeted by a salesperson who understands fabrics, style and fit. They discuss your personal style and suggest the best clothing to suit your taste and body shape. They have enough basic sewing skills to suggest how you could easily alter the garments to hug curves, highlight assets and hide what should be hidden. It’s an experience virtually unheard of in Australian retailing – yet it shouldn’t be. Employers might not be willing to provide the training, but they will certainly value anyone who already has the skills.

Customising online purchases

The changing retail trends pose another interesting question. What do you do when a garment purchased online arrives and doesn’t quite fit? Purchasing online is unreliable at best since:

  • customers can’t try on garments over the internet
  • global sizes are inconsistent
  • manufacturing quality is often poor
  • the “typical” body shape remains a myth.

Yet with basic sewing skills you can alter clothing for better sizing and fit – and it only takes the sorts of skills which can be taught in high school.

Style and expression

Regardless of the potential for a career path or cost savings, sewing is about more than utilitarian applications. It lets anyone present themselves or their family to the world with their own creative fashion style or just decorate their home without buying the same furnishings as everyone else. In a world of mass production and uniformity, it allows personal expression to shine through in a way nothing else can. It gives us an appreciation of the handmade, the imperfect and the truly unique – but with the quick learning curve and instant gratification that modern technology allows.

How we can instigate change

A great starting point for change is to engage young people in a way that is modern and relevant – that means with computers. Sewing might be an ancient art, but it has advanced as rapidly as any other technology and today's machines are fully computerised, easy to use and more affordable than ever before.

I’ve seen first-hand how inpiring and effective the right machine can be in a school environment. It seems students no longer see sewing as something their grandmother used to do. Instead they see it as an artistic hobby that they can share with friends.

Maybe I’m not going to change the world. But if nothing else, I hope to start a debate. What should our children be learning? And how do we deliver the knowledge they need to succeed in the workplace, in balance with life skills that will make them independent, self-confident and happy?

If you're not sure, show a high school student how easy it is to sew a one-off, handmade skirt that could rival anything in a high street store. Then watch their eyes light up. You’ll have your answer.