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Tailor vs Seamstress vs Sewist. What's the difference?

The arrogance of youth blinds so many of us to the reality of our capability and sewing skills. Ignorance by definition is ‘not knowing’, and so many of us fail to realise how little we really know about sewing when we first begin to learn about it.


We start with so much confidence, the excitement of beginning a new sewing project that we fail to realise our limitations and how the project we take on is so far outside our sphere of knowledge in sewing terms. I, too, started so many sewing projects in my early days that I simply couldn't finish because I lacked the skills necessary. Half made projects that got tucked away in boxes that even today I am still trying to finish off. It takes experience to understand our capabilities and working inside those restraints will see us achieve more than we thought possible.


My mother was a sewist in her younger days - a skill she gave up when the last of my siblings reached the age of ten. Her skills were basic but she hailed from the generation who learned how to sew out of necessity. She could take a Vogue pattern and sew up a small garment meant for my sister or brothers. Born in Ireland in the 1950s, her community was still very cut off from the outside world. Their only means of seeing beyond her town borders was through the reports on the wireless (radio) and the newspapers and magazines for sale in her parents' post office. When she started to attend dances in her late teen years, my mother would take a trip to the local haberdashery and buy cloth at trades price. As her father was the local tailor, she was a sewist trained by a tailor. Miles from the nearest women's boutique, my mother would sew together mail-ordered patterns in the latest style and fashion. If my sister ever decided to follow suit in my mother's footsteps, she would be considered today as a sewist and mostly likely blogger sharing her creations with the world. My mother had no real formal training. Her father had taught her to sew on his old treadle machine and the rest she picked up from a few of the home economic classes hosted in her primary school. It was simply by chance that I didn't end up as a seamstress.


When we think of a seamstress, we generally envision a woman pinning a dress on a mannequin. A seamstress is typically a dressmaker and at one time was also a male-dominated trade. As a fifth-generation master tailor, many mistakenly assume I was trained by my father. The tailor in me comes from my mother's side of the family. My mother's father and grandmother were keen sewers. My grandfather made clothing for men and his mother made clothing for women. Tailors and seamstresses aren’t separated by sex. Tailors can be as easily women and seamstress can be men.


I admire the work of a seamstress. They create garments from fabric without form - fabrics like parachute silk, which moves and pulls in any which direction when attempting to cut.


A freelancer fashion designer friend of mine came to me a few years back while I was still an apprentice and asked if I would assist her with a project. She wanted a sort of slip made up from bright white parachute silk with a six-foot trail flowing behind it. As a men’s tailor, I had the foresight and experience to decline this offer immediately. Nevertheless, after a few weeks had gone by and the deadline was looming, she approached me again in floods of tears saying she had taken on too many projects for fashion week and pleaded for my help. Thankfully, she at least had the patterning done. I only had to cut it out and sew together, how hard could that be? After hours of wrestling my way through the making process and turning out a garment that was fit for purpose, I turned in the project. Her demeanour had changed from desperate for help to a critical observer and proceeded to correct the garment I had made as if she were a schoolmistress. My experience gave me a newfound respect for seamstresses and the realisation that their skills, though different to tailors, deserve equal respect. Looking back, the seamstresses I had met in Ireland were afflicted like so many artists and gave themselves little credit to their skills. Women who made nearly their whole wardrobe could see a design in a store window, to only return home and sew one for themselves in their size. To them, it wasn’t a skill, more like a way of life. Skills passed from mother to daughter or master to apprentice. In the seamstress' world, skills were kept in families passing from one generation to the next.


The trades of old were passed through a family with one generation training the next. If the family had a trade, less emphasis was placed on formal education. If you had a trade, you had a way of life and could support a family. My grandfather father died when he was young - years before he was of age to begin his apprenticeship in the trade. Back then, people believed that the trade was in the blood and if one had a family relative in the industry, it was thought that their offspring was a natural craftsman in the same industry.


An outside apprentice was a rare thing. If a tailor did take on an apprentice, they came in from a nearby town or village and there was an understanding that when they finish their training they would return home to start their business outside of the catchment area of their master. Tailors stayed strictly within their lane, making suits for the local factory owner, a wealthy landlord, the town physician and the priests or bishops. The common man who could not afford the skills of the town's tailor would have enlisted the work of a seamstress or sewist to make their garments.


Suits were often passed from father to son. The son's first suit was an old one of his father's whom a local seamstress could tailor to his size. Garments were also passed down through a household - the labourer who received an old suit of his lord, already beaten and worn out. Clothes were so valuable in sewing terms, nothing that was made was ever truly discarded.


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