I have been sewing lately.

My niece was recently married and her bridal party was quite large. Traditionally in our family we make the dresses for a girl child’s wedding – starting with my cousin’s wedding in Texas in 1983 or ’84 when the bridesmaids made their dresses.  When my sister married, I made my first wedding dress. Since then I have made two others – my oldest niece’s (a confection of tulle and two-way stretch lace) and my own dress as well as a handful of bridesmaid’s dresses.

When this niece became engaged, I agreed happily to make her wedding dress.  During the search for a style that she loved, she found a dress at a sample sale that was perfect and at a price that was better than if I bought the silk faille. But it was a gown and no fun to swing dance in, so we found a style and a pattern that we could alter to make a reception dress for her.  Easy, simple, lovely.

Now the bridesmaids’ dresses were not difficult – from a Butterick pattern first published in 1952, the dress is a simple black sheath with an organza over-skirt.  Really quite easy.  But then they told me that there were nine bridesmaids – and six (eventually seven) junior bridesmaids. The nine adult women all would fit in the main pattern, but the size variations in the junior bridesmaids (or house party) made it necessary to find a similar pattern for those.

I didn’t make all of those dresses.  I probably constructed six or seven of the black dresses.  I made three of the seven dresses (in baby blue) for the house party.  By dress number ten, my dress, I had a new sense of mastery.

I have sewn a lot. I have done some seriously fancy sewing, but I have never constructed ten of the same dress. The six black dresses had a specific construction technique for the bodice illustrated in the instructions. The blue dresses had a similar bodice but a completely different construction technique.  I liked the blue dress pattern better – the technique made for less hand sewing, flatter facings, and easier fitting.  Win! Add to that the fact that I wanted to use an invisible zipper in my dress.

I’ve made lots of costumes without a pattern. I’ve altered patterns before. But I rarely construct things in my own way that start as a pattern.  On the last wedding dress that I made, I did change up the facing so that it was all enclosed with no unfinished edges, but cut out a dress from a pattern and then put it together the way I wanted to?  Highly unusual.  Creating something without a pattern is like composing – doing this was more like improvisation.

This gets to the question of rote learning vs real understanding.  How did I get past the rote learning of the first pattern – making something six times the same way – to being able to apply my understanding of other ways to accomplish the same goal? The things that I incorporated were:

  • multiple strategies – more than one set of instructions
  • multiple modalities – my sister and I talked about the processes and success and struggles with each pattern, I read the instructions, I watched two YouTube videos on inserting an invisible zipper, and I handled the fabric.
  • trial and error – I sewed, ripped out, and resewed seams.
  • prior knowledge – I have sewed since I was 10 years old (four plus decades of sewing) and I have a reservoir of experience to draw from.

So what does this mean for the work in my classroom? I’m still trying to think through all this, but I am sure that mastery in the English classroom comes with accessing all four of these assets.

Photo by Sam

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