RETIRED doctor Susan O’Halloran was brought up in a household where clothes, curtains and other soft furnishings were made by her mother.
“She must have saved a fortune. I am one of three sisters and she made our school uniforms, ball gowns, everything ,” said Susan, 58.
While not everyone had a dressmaker for a mother, back in the 1950s and 60s it was not uncommon for women to make clothes and they certainly knew how to mend them.
Wind the clock forward a generation and sewing teacher Sian Baker says it’s obvious that basic sewing skills are being lost.
In many schools sewing is simply part of design technology and the focus is on design. “I can understand that schools have to think about technology now,” says Sian, “but it is to the detriment of key sewing skills. A good designer should know how to make something.”
Consequently, in her current sewing class on Tuesday mornings in Holmfirth Adult Education Centre there are women who say they had never previously been shown how to sew a hem or put a button on a jacket.
But Sian believes that with handicrafts enjoying a revival many of the traditional skills will once again flourish.
“I’m finding that people want the skills for their own personal use or to develop into a small business,” she explained. “I’ve had a couple of upholstery students who have gone on to set up their own businesses.”
Susan, who signed up for Sian’s basic sewing class a few weeks ago, is convinced that craft is becoming popular once more because it provides relief from the stresses and strains of modern life.
“As people’s jobs get more and more pressurised they are looking for absorbing hobbies to help them relax,” she said.
However, since giving up work she’s looking for a retirement hobby. “I always meant to ask my mother to teach me more about sewing but never got around to it,” she explained.
And so she now travels weekly from her home in Lancashire to attend the Holmfirth class, following in the footsteps of her sister Catherine O’Halloran, who lives in the Holme Valley and is a past student of Sian’s.
Claire Kelly, 23, from Deighton, hopes that learning to sew will save her money but she also enjoys being creative.
A young mum, with two children – Jonathan, 4, and James, 6 – she wants to be able to repair their clothes and make furnishings for her home.
She said: “I never enjoyed sewing at school and it seemed to be all about learning how to use a sewing machine. I remember making a tissue packet holder, which wasn’t very exciting. And we didn’t do any hand stitching or buttons.
“My kids are always getting holes in the knees of their trousers and now I can get a patch and repair them.”
Claire is also studying English and mathematics at Kirklees College and is hoping to go into teaching. She sees basic sewing as an essential life skill.
Vicky Ellam, 25, from Netherton, is another young student who feels that she missed out on sewing skills at school. “The class was so big that it was hard to learn and we had to share sewing machines,” she said. “And we never learned how to mend anything or how to sew on a button.”
She has now learned enough to attempt making a dress for herself.
It’s not just in Britain that sewing has a lost generation. Student Wang Tong from north east China, who now lives in the Holme Valley, says she only learned the basics in primary school and had no sewing lessons at all at secondary level.
“For me now it is just a hobby,” she said. “I am making a nightdress to practice.”
Not all the students want to learn how to make clothing and furnishings, however, and Melodie Staniforth, 55, from Honley, wants to refresh her sewing skills to further her passion for art.
After taking a degree in illustration at the University of Huddersfield – graduating last year – she is now turning her talents to textile art.
At school in the 1970s she was taught both hand and machine stitching. “We had to make our own summer uniforms,” she explained, “These skills are coming together for me now and I’m combining them with illustration.”
Class leader Sian, a former PE teacher, says she was raised with a love of craft and decided that when her own children were small she would re-train as an upholsterer. It is, she says, a dying craft but one that she hopes will enjoy a renaissance.
She studied upholstery, soft furnishings and interior design at the former Huddersfield Technical College 15 years ago and began teaching alongside running her own small business.
At the time she retrained the college had an extensive and popular creative studies department, which was closed down a few years ago – a widely criticised move at the time.
Because of the renewed interest in crafts Kirklees College plans to once more offer adult education courses leading to qualifications in vocational subjects such as upholstery and sewing.
“There seems to be a surge of interest among younger people in their 20s and 30s, who want to make their own clothes or be able to re-vamp old ones,” said Sian.
“A lot of younger women want to look different. They’re buying vintage but finding it is getting pricey so they’re starting to re-model clothes. My daughter gets out all my 70s and 80s gear.
“It’s the same with upholstery. People are wanting retro furniture and re-vamping it themselves to get something different and unique.
“We live in such a throwaway society, but now people are starting to think that they don’t want to throw things away, they are starting to appreciate what they’ve got.”