Fashion History | History of Couture | History of Sewing Dressmaking and Tailoring

Fashion History: What’s a Workroom? An Introduction For Non-Sewers

January 23, 2020

For non-sewers a Workroom might be hard to visualise.  You’ll probably know a needle when you see it and recognise a sewing machine but after that it becomes fuzzy and unclear.

We’re here to help…

Here’s our intro to a sewing Workroom…

Just as people go to the office to do their job, a Workroom is the place where seamstresses, tailors and those that sew for a living spend their 9 to 5.

These days people use the nickname ‘Sewists’ – a generic term to describe someone who sews – but the proper names of professional Workroom staff are as many as the skills they carry out.

McCalls Pattern Workroom
Women working on patterns at McCall’s Magazine, New York, 1913. This is a sewing Workroom.

Workrooms and fashion design 

Making clothes is a complex process when not mechanised by computer and made in factories designers of the past were very hands-on.

Couturiers didn’t make clothes so Workroom staff were as important to the finished product as the person who imagined the way they looked in their minds.

Christian Dior in the Workroom August 1947
Having successfully launched The New Look, Christian Dior crafts his Autumn Winter 1947 collection with skilled Workroom hands.

Christian Dior’s Workroom 

Fashion designers use Workrooms when designs are made up by a separate part of their business. Christian Dior for instance, used sewing staff to turn his imagination into reality. Passing them his sketches one by one they’d be interpreted, planned, cut out and stitched by skilled Workoom ‘Hands.’

His input was the sketch, the imagination, the vision. Theirs was to know him, see what he wanted and make that into a 3-D wearable outfit seen on the catwalk to be ordered by women and men.

Workroom creating accordian pleats designed by Raf Simons’ creative director at Christian Dior (2012 -2015).

Workroom Hands – Cutter 

Each of the Workroom staff has a particular skill or talent job titles often called Hands. Their skills could be in cutting, for instance.

Cutters place pattern pieces onto cloth knowing exactly where to guide scissors so as to cut out the right shapes. Often marking up with chalk cutting fabric is the bedrock of creating a design.

Understanding fabric 

Cutters could have a preference and talent for working a particular type of cloth. In the past natural fabric was much more widely available, expensive and intensive to get right.

Workroom staff knew who was good at working with silks or satins and they’d be chosen to carry out a task.

All Hands knew the intricacies of fabric, sewing stitches and as well as the layers of input at each stage to realise a design.

The Dressmaker Painting Clifford Hall circa 1955
The Dressmaker. Clifford Hall painted this portrait of a seamstress in a London Workroom in the early 1950s. Behind her is a tailor’s mannequin wearing what looks like a hand made bra. Patterns and designs are pinned to the wall cloth hanging from a rail. On the table are spools of cotton and she’s hand-stitching clothing using them as thread. A sewing machine isn’t seen.

Fitting and Alteration Hands 

Ever been into a shop and bought something but it didn’t fit right?

In the past you’d take that to a Workroom to be changed to fit your measurements by Alteration Hands.

Alteration Hands understood how a garment was put together. They worked with a Fitter who had a mind like an X-ray machine seeing through its layers to judge what to do.

Fitters made decisions about what needed to be done. Alteration Hands specialised in making their instructions happen so the garment you bought fitted you. Teamwork in action!

Want to know more…

Here’s a film from 1947 showing techniques that would also be known and used by a Workroom Hand. In fantastic flowery language the commentary instructs the viewer how to properly sew a seam.

You can see the level of understanding the woman had to have to create her at-home design.

If your mind’s boggling don’t panic! There are lots of technical words used by sewists to describe what they are doing.

We can help again…

Basting is an American term for lightly tacking cloth guiding the sewist to where to permanently stitch.  It stops two or more pieces of cloth from sliding around. Stitches are not permanent and are taken out after they’re done. In Britain we’d say ‘tacking’ or ‘tacking stitch.’

A picture of pinking shears

Pinking shears look like crocodile teeth. Using them means the edges of cloth don’t fray as much as using straight scissors because they cut at right angles to the warp and weft – the weave of the fabric.

Overcasting is a way of sealing the cloth at its raw edges to stop it fraying. These days machines called overlockers effortlessly do the work this woman did by hand!

Vintage Instructions for Running Stitch
Sewing made simple Vintage-style. A running stitch is usually used to baste fabric, loosely tacked together with cotton.

Workroom skills today 

Today any space that has sewers could be called a Workroom. Sewing shops, tailors, fashion designers and couturiers all have skilled Workroom Hands.

The Great British Sewing Bee 2019 Workroom
Patrick and Esme discuss Riccardo’s fabric choice in the Great British Sewing Bee Workroom, 2019.

Patrick, Esme and contestant Riccardo are pictured here in the Great British Sewing Bee Workroom although most sewists don’t have the same cameras or pressure of time.

Where do you find a Workroom?

In years gone by the Workroom was as much a part of a fashion business as selling clothes but with mass-production and changes to the way clothes are made the traditional Workroom has fallen by the wayside, no longer incorporated into fashion retail.

These days your local Workroom could be where a dressmaker stitches, behind windows in a dry cleaning shop or where big fashion designers and tailors of Saville Row cut, fit and alter items for sale.

The Workroom has a long tradition stretching back over 300 years.  It was there thousands of skilled men and women carried out their craft.

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