Anymore, very few individuals in western society are formally trained in the garment making industry, compared to a century ago when workshops and boutiques were filled with apprentices supervised by a master tailor or two. Today, most who pick up a needle and thread are home sewers or hobbyists and are, for the greater part, self-taught (like Tonia and me). The tools and resources available now for the prospective garment maker are vast and often overwhelming. I am sometimes asked by friends and fellow sewers how I go about making the garments that I do. Where do I begin? Where do they begin?
More than anything, I believe that the proper execution of a garment, particularly a historical garment, begins with good research – that means foot work. And in the beginning, when Tonia and I started, we did a lot a foot work. Little did we know it, but what we did out of necessity to learn prepared us well in understanding garment construction and fashion aesthetics.
Then, we were young mothers and wives and had to use whatever resources were available to us to learn - we did not have the time or the monetary means to enroll in sewing or fashion design classes. In the 1990's, the internet was still fairly new - a novelty of sorts. On-line information was scant and very few reliable tailoring or garment making sources existed. We quickly discovered that the best resources for learning could be found in our local libraries, art museums, thrift stores, and our very own closets!
Today, as an established tailor, if I need to research a specific project or design aesthetic, I still get the greater part of my information from the library – from good old fashion books and journals. Why read books and journals when the internet offers such a wealth of information? Because, unlike these printed sources, personal websites are not peer-reviewed - quite simply, it boils down to the quality of information. Most (nearly two-thirds or more) information on the internet is incorrect. Books and journals still reign king when it comes to dependable and responsible research. However, this is not to diminish the accomplishments of garment making professionals whose workmanship and aesthetics are breathtaking – there are many exceptional tailors on-line whose information is especially reliable. But, if you are not sure about an internet source, fall back on peer reviewed printed material.
Museums are another wonderful source – not just for their textiles, but for studying fashion through artwork. Painting, sculptures, prints – they all provide a fairly accurate portrait of fashion during their receptive eras, and this resource is simply indispensable. Where very few individuals (like historians and curators) are privileged enough to inspect the construction of an antique garment (most of which are very fragile), art (although often two-dimensional in form) may be studied by anyone. Keep in mind, the examples that we historical garment makers look to when studying the mode of costume through time are far more numerous (there is a greater sample to pull from) in artwork than in the actual garments available for study. Artwork is an immense resource that should not be overlooked - today, museums often have whole collections on-line for study!
Finally, never pass up the opportunity to browse a good thrift or vintage store. Once, while Tonia and I were at a vintage shop close to downtown Dayton, she found a lovely little straw bonnet from the 1860s, in excellent condition – for $5 (the owners were going out of business)! These shops not only hold secret little treasures, but most carry textiles that you can touch! That’s right – you are free to see with your fingers! lol! You can closely scrutinize and inspect the workmanship of whatever garment you put our grubby little hands on (so to speak), and this is a wonderful experience! Don’t pass it up! Even if you have no intention on buying, you can still look, you can still touch – these shops become your personal learning center.
No matter where you are in sewing experience – even if you are coming from humble beginnings like Tonia and me – knowing the most effective and resourceful way to research a garment in any era will be an immeasurable benefit to your personal growth and knowledge as an emerging garment maker. Never underestimate the education you can get from a good book, a piece of art, or visiting a musty old thrift store! While these resources may not always be as thorough or as comprehensive as learning the craft of garment making in an apprenticeship or classroom setting, they can certainly point you in the right direction toward constructing quality clothing.
Happy sewing and watch those fingers! lol!