Fashion DNA in the genes, er… jeans

Rebecca Chambers wants her students to think twice before picking up the cheapest pair of pants they can find at the mall during the holiday sales.

Before the last bell rang at Shaftesbury High School to signal the start of the winter holidays, Chambers’s portable classroom was filled with masked teens concentrating on the various stages of the tedious jeans-making process.

A sixteen-year-old was cutting out a pattern to produce a pair of pants that will be tailor-made for her. Peers took turns folding and ironing the raw indigo fabric. Others were at the rows of sewing machines to sew what will soon become the pockets of their high-waisted jeans.

Students occasionally muttered or sighed – sure signs of frustration amid the painstaking work that requires copious problem solving.

“Not only do they acquire a lot of practical sewing and garment-making skills, but they also appreciate how much work goes into the garments they wear,” Chambers said.

The textile teacher wants her students to ask questions like, “If your jeans cost you $ 30, how does that store make any more money?”

Over the past five years, Manitoba has launched a new curriculum in fashion design and technology for grades 9 through 12. Sustainability, citizenship and consumer responsibility are key issues.

Students now learn about the fashion industry “through design and illustration, marketing and merchandising, recognizing the environmental and social justice influences on local communities.”

The sector is one of the most polluting on the planet, not far from the oil and gas industry.

Grade 11 student Alysha Finnson has learned everything from the huge amount of clothing that ends up in landfills every year to the dire conditions that garment workers in industrialized nations face to earn a living.

“Being on this course and learning it has changed my perspective a lot – that’s why I like to shop at thrift stores so I can repurpose things and make my own clothes,” said Finnson, 16, who signed up for a Grade 9 home economics course to learn how to patch holes in fabric.

Like many of the Grade 11 and 12 students who currently make jeans under Chambers’ supervision, Finnson said he continued to take textile classes because of how much he respects his teacher.

So far, in this semester, the upper class has already designed miniskirts and sewed T-shirts. The current jeans project is by far the most complex. This year marks the first time that Chambers has entrusted her students with the challenging technical task.

“I was stuck on this step (pocketing) for three days,” said Grade 11 student Angelin Hou. While the 16-year-old admitted the project tested her patience, she said the course is “always fun”.

Jessica Walker echoed these feelings during a break in assembling her jeans, which will be indigo, high-waisted and wide-legged.

The Grade 11 student said she was grateful that she was able to attend classes in person full-time in the fall, after a year of instruction every other day in 2020-21.

The onset of the pandemic saw what should have been her first sewing experience canceled. The 16-year-old was unable to sew Grade 9 pajama bottoms, so now she’s determined to finish a pair of jeans.

“I really appreciate being able to do something more detailed,” he added.

Should students temporarily switch to distance learning in the new year, Chambers reassured them that they will be able to make up for lost time during lunchtime in the second semester.

The teacher said she saw how beneficial it is for students’ well-being to do things with their hands.

“These students have been tested with regards to social connection (disruptions), anxieties around COVID and the pressures of having to interact exclusively online for over a year,” he said.

“I can see in them, when they can settle down and work on a project, how calmer they are.”

maggie.macintosh@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @macintoshmaggie

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