Sewing is a Foreign Language?

Sewing Lab Class

When I teach “Sewing Lab” at Art Center College of Design, I have students from all departments and all sewing levels.  Housed in the Product Design Dept. many students are there to get help with the prototyping of their projects.  Apparel Design at Art Center revolves around anything that can be worn: clothing, costume, accessories, uniforms, headgear, or even clothing for toy design.   I usually recommend that students start with a purchased commercial pattern and adapt it to their needs.   Sometimes this requires combining two or three patterns, making a muslin or research prototype before the final version is made. 

Not only are many of these students new to sewing, for many English is not their primary language and in the fashion & sewing world there are many terms that are French, and not necessarily even modern French.  The confusion of reading pattern instructions is known to most sewing enthusiasts.  Patterns range from beginning level to advanced designer patterns.  And now with the resurgence of interest in 1940’s and 50’s Vintage Vogue patterns the level of complexity becomes even greater.  
Having to help students “translate” pattern instructions has been a true challenge to my own sewing skills.  Many patterns, especially those that have to be translated into English from another language, have an amazing variety of what I like to call “you can’t get there from here” lapses in instructions.  This is like when you follow driving instructions around a construction detour only to find the last sign missing, and you are completely lost.  Some of the more interesting “detours” from this last week follow.
  • Make a what seam?  This question was in reference to what looked like a fairly simple pattern when the instructions said “make a French Seam”, then didn’t tell you how.  So my very innovative students were fantasizing about what that meant.  Do you need to drink a glass of wine while sewing the seam?  Do you cover the seam in brie first?  (answer: a way of making a seam that totally encases the raw edge, making the garment somewhat reversible.)
  • But the pattern doesn’t have pants.  A man’s sweatshirt fabric jacket with a hood had a mystery pattern piece labeled “Ankle Band”.  The pattern being translated from the French actually refered to a “Waist Band”. It took us at least a half an hour of looking over the drawings, looking at the pattern pieces, and finally just guessing to solve the mystery.
  • Just even the edges.  These instructions were listed for finishing the fabric edges of the shoulder facing for the jacket above made of sweatshirt material.   Because this fabric does not unravel, I guess they decided it was not an issue and the reader should just “figure it out yourself”.


Visit the Art Center College of Design Library website: FASHION: Apparel Construction page for video orientation on using home sewing machines.


About Justine Limpus Parish

Associate Professor - Art Center College of Design apparel design - Product Design Dept. costume design - Entertainment Design Dept Fashion Instructor: Mt San Antonio College Workshop instructor: Disney Consumer Products
This entry was posted in FASHION DESIGN, PRODUCT DESIGN/APPAREL, SEWING, TEACHING and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Sewing is a Foreign Language?

  1. joanell connolly says:

    justine – wonderful post – i assume you will be writing that “book” from all these adventures.

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