The great Pierre Balmain once said ‘dressmaking is the architecture of movement.’ To create something that looks beautiful on the body is, without a doubt, an art. Despite not being able to thread a needle, when I sat down to look for a dressmaking expert and stumbled across Alison Smith’s ‘The Sewing Book’, I instantly wished I could. It’s not hard to see why she’s sold 300,000 copies worldwide, set up the first sewing school in the UK or been awarded an MBE for her services to Sewing and Corsetry. I was thrilled, honoured and a little nervous when Alison agreed to take a break from teaching at her School of Sewing and designing patterns for Sew Wardrobe, her own online portal, to share her story with Hotcourses.
So Alison, you’ve have an extraordinary career in the sewing industry, where did it all begin?
I was brought up in a home where my mom and grandma sewed, it was just kind of natural really that I learnt how to sew too!
When did you decide to turn sewing from a hobby into a career?
Sewing was never really a hobby for me; it was part of my life together with knitting, embroidery and painting.
So when did you decide to share your art with others?
Well I trained to teach fashion after leaving school, first teaching up to A Level, before leaving to raise my own family. My sewing school was the first in the UK, which I started in 1992, when my second child had started school.
With your wealth of experience, what do you think is the hardest thing for beginners to get the hang of when it comes to learning dressmaking?
Without a doubt, the thing beginners struggle with the most is the fit. Fit is crucial and so difficult to understand, as the tape measure does not tell the whole story. So I would say if you are new to dressmaking, fit and understanding how the fabric works. It’s also difficult to know what makes a good piece of fabric; why they should use a piece of wool at £15 per metre, when they could use a piece of polyester off the market for £5 for example. Over time you realise the difference is in the finished garment and the ease of sewing it.
That’s good advice! What are the most important things to remember when learning dressmaking?
The most important thing to remember is to start with simple items in good quality fabric. If you don’t understand the process, it’s usually a good idea to get help from books or online lessons if necessary.
You’ve written two really successful books now, The Sewing Book and Dressmaking. Where did the inspiration for these come from?
Both my books show the techniques I use every single day with my students – they are all about the clothes I love to make. I also have to say that the publishers have had their input too!
They really are beautiful! How did it feel to be awarded an MBE for your services to the industry, and to be the first person to get that award?
Well this was a huge surprise and a real honour. To be recognised for doing something I just love to do is really special. I felt so lucky as Prince William presented my award.
What is next for you?
I have just launched Sew Wardrobe, which is a range of dressmaking patterns that will build into a capsule wardrobe. I am also selling fabric online too, which can be found on the same site.
That’s really exciting! So what advice would you give to someone hoping to follow in your footsteps and make a career out of dressmaking?
Never stop learning. Keep an open mind to new innovations, but don’t try to teach processes that you are uncertain of yourself. For example, if you have never made a tailored jacket then it may be a good idea not to teach that area of the craft. Practise what you preach and enjoy it.
That’s really great advice and something we definitely believe in here at Hotcourses. Finally then, I’ve got to ask, what was the first dress you ever made and do you still have it?
I have absolutely no idea – sorry! I did make my wedding dress though and I still have that, and the husband!
If you have been inspired by Alison’s story and want to learn how to make your own clothes, why not take a look at the dressmaking courses listed on Hotcourses. Who knows where your designs might end up?
Photo credit: Kelly Wright