By Kathleen Richards
In the era of fast fashion, it's hard to believe that in the not-so-distant past, most people—or, more accurately, most women—knew how to sew. Maybe they made their own clothes, or they at least knew how to fix garments to make them last longer.
In any case, these days sewing has become a lost art. For those interested in picking up the skill for everyday usage or for a prospective career, there's Apparel Arts.
Originally based in San Francisco, the sewing school in downtown Oakland is more rigorous than a hobbyist's enterprise yet far cheaper than a private accredited program in fashion. Students can work toward a certificate of completion—a 2½-year self-paced program—or just take a one-off class. In either case, expect to get a high level of instruction with one-on-one attention and a curriculum that adheres to industry standards.
Suzy Furrer began the program somewhat reluctantly two decades ago. Having worked as a patternmaker in the vibrant local fashion scene of the '80s, she taught a patternmaking class at the Sewing Workshop in San Francisco. One of her students began pestering her about learning the skill more deeply, and when Furrer finally gave in, she invited friends, too. "Within a year I had so many people interested in patternmaking," Furrer recalled. Working out of her small studio in the Dogpatch neighborhood, she soon had to move to a bigger space a block away. She added classes on textiles, illustration, and manufacturing. Between 1996 and 2000, Apparel Arts was a one-woman operation.
In 2015, as development at Mission Bay was exploding and most of her students and teachers had relocated to the East Bay, Furrer decided it made sense for Apparel Arts to cross the bridge as well. She found a bigger space in downtown Oakland and by that time hired more instructors—including that first student, Allison Page, who remains a teacher.
Furrer's students are a mix of 18-year-olds right out of high school looking to gain entry into the industry and older adults already in the field who want more training. And then there are those who just want to learn to sew. "People come at it for all different reasons," said Furrer, adding that the ages of the students span from 18 to 80.
The program's flexibility is one element that makes it so attractive. There's no long-term contract, and students can take breaks if needed.
When Oakland resident Christina Weiland lost her job at the Circus Center in San Francisco, where she performed as an aerialist and made costumes, she decided to pursue costuming more seriously by enrolling in Apparel Arts.
"The costuming is so much better than at other schools in the area," said Weiland, 51, of Apparel Arts. She is now a professional dresser for union shows in the Bay Area and also does stitching—meaning the actual sewing—for some of those shows. "Everything I learned at Apparel Arts I really put to use in the stuff that I do now."
Weiland said she had looked into other programs in the area, but those would have cost more than $30,000 and taken just a year and a half to complete. "That didn't work for me," said Weiland. "I wanted an in-depth experience of everything related to making garments."
Weiland said she appreciated the flexibility of Apparel Arts because she worked in the industry. Ultimately, the program took her nine years to complete and cost her about $5,000—far less than other professional programs.
(The program is more expensive now. Including materials, the certificate program costs about $15,000 and takes around 30 months to complete. Students pay on a month-to-month basis, with the minimum payment being $275 per month and the maximum about double that amount.)
Beyond the technical skills she picked up—such as tailoring men's clothing—Weiland also appreciated the collaborative atmosphere. "I loved the community in the classroom because it was so supportive and not competitive," she said. "Everyone had different goals. It was fun to see where everyone ended up."
Madlyn Jane Smith also enrolled at Apparel Arts to pursue a career in sewing. She began making her own garments at age 9 because she was petite and couldn't find clothes that fit her properly, and that transformed into a desire to make clothes for other people as well. But after taking a class at Santa Rosa Junior College, she decided she wanted a more streamlined path to working in the industry. That's when she found Apparel Arts.
"My sewing totally changed going to Apparel Arts," she said. "I know how to finish things better. Making your own patterns, you get to decide about how to sew things together. There are no instructions. It's a big puzzle. That's helped with my construction."
Smith, who's 23, finished the program in three years and is now a technical designer at the outdoor sporting goods company Marmot Mountain in Rohnert Park. Attending Apparel Arts was key to landing her foot in the door.
"There's this fantasy of going to school for fashion design," she said. "I didn't know what to expect but it was a more real-world view of the industry and not just pretty sketches." Smith added that the self-paced nature of the course requires students to be motivated, but it also allows for more freedom. And like Weiland, she also made a personal connection with the program. "It's kind of like my second home," said Smith. "I miss it now."
Furrer insists she never set out to create Apparel Arts and that it grew organically. The program now has about 125 students per month, but times are changing. "It's a tough industry," Furrer said. "There are people who stay in the industry for five, 10 years, and then leave."
And now, the same forces that pushed Apparel Arts out of the city are the same ones prompting Furrer to consider another change. "What happened in San Francisco is now happening in Oakland," she lamented. "It does get tougher every year to do this old-fashioned brick-and-mortar with the rent and the costs."
Specifically, Furrer foresees more instruction going online. (She already teaches patternmaking on www.Craftsy.com.) "I think the online stuff is kind of what we're adapting to," she said. "I've been talking about that and trying to move in that direction in case we get priced out of this."
She also sees a change among students, who want quicker satisfaction in constructing clothes as opposed to Apparel Arts' "old-school" in-depth instruction. Furrer said she may restructure the program to adapt to those demands.
And then there's the reality of the fashion industry.
"It's not cost effective to make your own clothes anymore," she admitted. "People just expect for clothing to be cheap."
But it's not all doom and gloom. Shows like Project Runway have inspired people to return to the craft, and social media and sites like Etsy have also made fashion entrepreneurship more accessible.
The future of fashion may not resemble the industry of the past, but at Apparel Arts, there are still those who find it worthwhile to slow down, and sew well.