Today I’m having a chat with a sewing legend Alison Smith, MBE. Her sewing pedigree doesn’t need introductions. A trained Art & Fashion textile teacher, author of The Sewing book, yes that large red one, and tutor and headmaster of her own sewing school, the largest independent sewing school in the UK. Grab your drink of choice and enjoy getting to know more about her career.
HoP: Hi Alison, I really love hearing about people’s background; everyone has to start somewhere. Where does your artistic influences come from and when did you start making clothing?
Alison:I come from an artistic family. My mothers side of the family had many musicians and dressmakers and my father was musical, my granny and my mother both sewed and knitted, made lace, crocheted so it has always been around me. I don’t know when I actually started to make clothing, it’s just something I have always done. I also used to knit a lot. As a teenager I made my own dresses and coats.
HoP:What was your first job? What have you learned that is still useful for you today?
Alison: My first job was in a office and I hated it. I stayed there for a couple of years whilst I gained some extra qualifications in business and then I went to university to train to teach art with fashion. I thought I would get long holidays!! The skills I still use today from my first job are about business and accounting and being organised.
HoP:Has someone impacted you most in your career and how?
Alison:This is a difficult question. I think I would have to say my parents as they always encouraged me to do what I wanted and follow a dream, even if they didn’t always see it the way I did.
HoP:What qualities and skills necessary you think people should to have to succeed in your career? (Successful dressmaker)
Alison:Running a sewing school is like balancing several balls in the air all at the same time. I think the discipline of being a teacher and working in schools has helped me tremendously as you get used to working under pressure, being able to plan what it is possible to achieve within a certain time frame. I was the first to open an independent sewing school back in 1992 and my formula of one day and two workshops now seems to be the standard. You need to organised and to know what you are teaching inside out. Don’t try and attempt to teach something you are unsure of as students ask plenty of searching questions!
HoP:Can you give my readers an insight into a typical day in your studio? what does it look like behind the scenes.
Alison:Behind the scenes. A typical workday I will get to work about 7.45am after clearing overnight emails at home before going into work. My first job is to check which staff are in the shop and to see if there are any jobs that need doing such as stock checking, putting up kits for classes etc. it’s then time for a coffee. I check my sewing room and make sure it’s ready to receive students, thread the sewing machines and over lockers if necessary. My shop opens officially at 9.30 am but I quite often see sales reps at 8.30 so I may see a rep and buy some fabric or haberdashery. Students arrive from 9.30 so it’s then time to make them welcome and show them around. I teach from 10 to 4 which is full on with fitting toiles, altering patterns , explaining pressing techniques etc. at the end of the day it’s time to tidy up, load the dishwasher and if it’s the end of a class get the room ready for the next morning. I get home about 6 pm most evenings. I tend to teach Wednesday through Friday most weeks with Monday’s and Tuesday’s spent preparing classes or preparing classes for Craftsy or writing books.
HoP:What is your favourite part about your job?
Alison::My favourite part of my job is teaching new skills to students, I get so much pleasure when I can make something that they have been struggling with seem easy. My least favourite part is paperwork! When does it all come from?
HoP:What advice do you have to aspiring dressmakers?
Alison:Never stop learning. Try and learn something new every week, even if it’s only a new way of sewing a dart, or a new piece of haberdashery.
HoP:What was like receiving an MBE for services to Sewing and Corsetry ?
Alison:My MBE was a huge shock, and a complete surprise. It really is as people say, you get a brown envelope in the post that bears a resemblance to a tax bill and then you are sworn to secrecy. I was lucky enough to be presented with my award by Prince William, who, was absolutely charming.
Editors note: MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire)
This is awarded for a significant achievement or outstanding service to the community. An MBE is also awarded for local ‘hands-on’ service which stands out as an example to other people.
HoP: Besides teaching, you recently launched a line of sewing patterns.What’s next for you?
Alison:I launched a range of dressmaking patterns earlier this year which has been far more work than I ever imagined. There are 4 patterns currently, two already for sale and a dress and trouser pattern available in September. Launching patterns was a bit like opening my shop the idea is fine but then it’s where do I get packaging, a new web site, graphics. It’s been fun and I am sure by the end of this year it will all be running smoothly. I am having the Sew Wardrobe web site revamped at the moment. I also have several new patterns in the pipeline. My aim to produce a range of classic but simple shapes that can be made time over in different fabrics with only a little tweak each season. What’s next ? More patterns and kits and online fabric
HoP:Where do you get your pattern ideas from?
Alison:I spend a lot of time looking at fashion magazines, going around large stores in London and of course street fashion, mainly in London. Our children – all grown up now – live in London and we are in London at least once a month. I have to admit I love people watching isn’t that awful. I love to see what are the women wearing in the city, or shopping on Oxford St. What are the teenagers wearing and also the tourists some of them are just so smart. I think my patterns reflect the clothes I would like to wear.HoP:How do you describe your fashions and style?
Alison:I would describe my style as classic and tailored. I like simple fitted shapes in beautiful fabric. I always like to look as if I have thought about what I am wearing even if it’s only my jeans and a Tshirt.
HoP:What is your absolute most favourite item of clothing you’ve sewn?
Alison:I don’t really know what my favourite item of clothing is. If I had to choose I would have say my wedding dress. I made it, the week before we got married! I love making jackets and coats as I love the challenge of jacket but then again a lovely evening /cocktail dress is fun to make too. I just love sewing and practising what I preach!
“The Sewing Book” was the first sewing book I ever bought and highly recommend to beginners. It has sold over 400,000 copies worldwide. You can learn how to sew with Alison at her successful Sewing School or at Craftsy.