As a Master Tailor and former college lecturer, I understand how difficult it is to secure training in the tailoring industry. I consider myself very lucky to have had the opportunity to train and apprentice with so many fine tailors that I proudly call my ‘Masters’. Nevertheless, too few tailors take apprentices, mostly citing the costs and time it takes to train them without ever really knowing if they’ll continue working there after their time is served.
I too am guilty of this. When my third apprenticeship was finished, I left a year later for the bright lights of New York in search of my fortune as a Savile Row tailor. I never found it. There are no short cuts in Handcraft Tailoring, just hard work and long hours.
When you work in an industry you love, you’ll never work a day in your life, or so they say. My passion has always been training apprentices. When asked to take an apprentice at 27 years old while working as a coat maker at Henry Poole & co., I didn’t hesitate, for you only really master a craft when you begin to teach. One-on-one is, for sure, the best method to both teach and learn, though it’s really up to the Master who decides at what pace the apprentice will progress.
When I joined Pooles, I was told it would take five years. After eighteen months, I could make a jacket, though my Master was not ready to let me go so soon. He explained that all the time and effort he had invested in me was to be returned. Learning to make a coat wasn’t the only agenda. I had to continue to make coats under his guidance to improve my skills and reward his efforts. He released me six months later.
Falling Short on Education
At the same time, tailoring is a difficult craft to learn at college. Many colleges offer courses which are designed to give students a grounding in tailoring, though few really pass on the skills required to produce a competent coat maker or trouser maker. But why is this? Surely if one trained for three to four years and has a Masters Degree, they could easily sew together a basic garment.
It isn’t enough to learn coat making by making one coat, or trouser making by making one trouser.
As a former lecturer of Parsons, The New School, who taught tailoring as part of their Menswear Bachelor of Fine Arts program, I came to understand quite quickly the limitations of a college education. With so much to cover and with wide-ranging courses that must appeal to the students’ diversity of taste, little time is allowed for the repetition required to learn tailoring. It isn’t enough to learn coat making by making one coat, or trouser making by making one trouser. A student must master each area by repeatedly sewing collars and canvasses until they are blue in the face, ready to choke if they see another collar to pad again.
Since my one-year diploma at London College of Fashion, many new courses have been added to meet the demand. It is no longer one year —rather it’s three years— and degree courses have been added too. Newham College has also expanded its tailoring program, and tailoring courses are popping up in fashion colleges all over the UK.
Every year, hundreds, if not thousands of students hit the streets looking for work in an industry which can barely afford to pay them, never mind train them.
College is a great start for anyone wishing to the learn the trade but it is by no means a one stop shop. Once the degree course is complete, many who wish to continue in the industry must secure an apprenticeship with a reputable tailor. The tailoring houses of Savile Row are inundated with requests. Every year, hundreds, if not thousands of students hit the streets looking for work in an industry which can barely afford to pay them, never mind train them.
Paying It Forward
Rather than complain about the crisis and criticise those trying to meet the demand, I returned to Ireland in the Summer of 2016 and founded my own school of tailoring Handcraft Tailor Academy. Based on the trade schools of a bygone era, I take students on an intensive training program over a three month period. Each course is set up to focus on one discipline so the student can learn a skill and enter the workplace. I target graduates rather than novices, prefer my students to have attended college, tried their method and become disillusioned with third level education when trying to learn a craft.
My students come from all walks of life and various ages groups. One such student is Tom Bennet. A former DJ and video editor, Tom went back to tailoring, having apprenticed in his youth. Tom is a distant relative of Per Anderson of Anderson & Sheppard, has a rare gift and great knowledge of the trade, which he picked up from the Bespoke Cutter & Tailor forum. He knows hard work is the best investment. Trial and error, learning from the mistakes and never giving up will take you where you want to go in life.
Small class sizes help too. I take three to four students on each program so all benefit from one-on-one training. Each student gets a minimum of one hour with myself each day, much more time than I ever got with my Master or could afford one of my students in third level. Twelve weeks may seem like a short period, but when it’s five days per week, minimum class time of five hours per day and extra time allowed for evening study, it becomes a rare opportunity to the learn the craft from someone who loves teaching it.
Passion is the most important element when learning a trade—the passion of both the teacher and the student. Patience plays a key role: the student learning to walk before running and the teacher being prepared to say the same thing a thousand times over so when the student hears it for the one thousandth and one time, they understand.
Those that can do should teach but not everyone who can do can teach. Many find it difficult and they don’t recall how hard they had it or what it was like not to know. There are too few rewards in this life for hard work, but watching and seeing someone you have taught put that learning into practise is the greatest reward of all.
Rory Duffy is a fifth generation, Savile Row-trained tailor and founder of Handcraft Tailor Academy in Ireland.