Redefining Sewing As an Educational Experience in Middle and High Schools

By Montgomery, Bette

Sewing is a traditional educational experience in family and consumer sciences (FCS) education in middle and high school. Learning sewing skills, however, is not as relevant today as it was in the past. To better prepare adolescents for life roles, FCS education needs to reflect the changes in society and focus more broadly on the work of the family. This article (a) contrasts the traditional or technical science-based curriculum model (which emphasizes sewing skills) with a critical science-based model (which emphasizes the work of the family), and (b) proposes that the critical science approach is more relevant for today’s individuals and families. In addition, significant questions that need to be addressed are identified in order to examine sewing as an educational experience in FCS.

Sewing is a tradition within home economics and family and consumer sciences (FCS) education. A century ago, sewing became part of home economics programs-developing sewing skills, whether they were for fancy work or utilitarian purposes, was viewed as important to assuming domestic roles (Burman, 1999). By the 1960s, learning clothing construction skills was an important part of preparing young women for occupations related to clothing as well as for homemaking roles. In the 21st century, an emphasis on sewing skills has continued within exploratory or introductory courses at middle and high schools, and in advanced or career development courses at the high school level.

Families and society have changed, however, which calls into question the need to learn sewing skills. For example, although women once made much of the family’s clothing, now ready-made apparel is available and accessible in neighborhood stores and from catalogs and internet-based retailers. Most individuals and families can obtain clothing and textiles to meet their needs without knowing how to sew.

In addition, financial and human resources are limited both within families and society. Individual students, families, or schools may or may not be able to purchase the sewing supplies, kits, or equipment needed for sewing to be cost-effective. Public schools, as well as colleges and universities, are experiencing a reduction of financial resources. Human resources are limited as well. In many areas of the U. S., FCS teachers are in short supply. Due to limited resources, families, public schools, including colleges and universities, are forced to make difficult decisions regarding educational priorities.

Although families and society have changed, and despite the desire of the profession to eliminate the stereotypical image of “cooking and sewing,” sewing, from a technical perspective, continues to be a predominant part of FCS classrooms. It is essential, therefore, to reflect upon how learning experiences such as sewing support educational goals and the enduring understanding of concepts important to individual, family, and community life (Eisner, 2003; Harrison, Andrews, Saklofske, 2003; Shumer, 2001; Wiggins & McTighe, 1998). To begin this process, two curriculum models are examined: the technical and the critical sciencebased curriculum models (see Table 1) (Plihal, Laird, & Rehm, 1999). The premise of each model is briefly described related to the view of the family, focus of learning, and role of the teacher and students. It is proposed that a shift from a technical science-based curriculum model to one that is more critical science-based will help improve FCS education and redefine the role of sewing as an educational experience.


Technical science is the dominant curriculum model that has guided sewing activities or clothing construction courses in both middle and high school. The major premise of this model is that families sew in order to produce their own clothing. The family is perceived as engaging in primarily technical or “how to” actions related to clothing and textiles, such as how to make clothing or how to do laundry. Sewing is viewed primarily as an isolated activity because the family context, responsibilities, or actions are not included within the curriculum.

In this model, emphasis is placed on learning technical actions, such as efficient sewing skills and techniques to complete a textile product. Lessons may include how to sew straight seams, when to use stay stitching, or how to hand-sew a hem. The complexity of the project may vary from simple (such as bean bags or square pillows) to more complex (such as making a shirt with a collar and cuffs), but the emphasis on sewing skills remains the same.

Hands-on learning experiences are emphasized as students apply the skills or techniques to make sewing samples or textile projects. Activities also may support the achievement of academic standards (e.g., measuring to learn math skills or following pattern directions to learn reading skills) or personal outcomes (e.g., increasing one’s self esteem or creativity). Learning sewing construction skills is viewed as important to job preparation in the textiles and apparel industry (Brandes & Garner, 1997; Lee, 2002). However, curricula based on sewing skills only, without any focus on the family or related concepts, is unlikely to prepare adolescents for their current and future roles within the family and society.

In addition, this curriculum model relies on direct instructional approaches in which the teacher describes or demonstrates the skill to be learned and then leads students, either as individuals or as a group, through most of the instructional experiences (Burden & Byrd, 2003).

Teachers are considered sewing experts who transmit knowledge to students and help resolve sewing construction problems as well as technical difficulties with the sewing machines. Alternative instructional approaches may better facilitate students’ understanding of concepts rather than skills alone.


An alternative to the technical perspective is the critical science-based curriculum model. In the 1980s, FCS critical science- based curriculum gained momentum in Ohio, Wisconsin, and Minnesota (Smith, 2004). Ohio developed a critical science-based curriculum focused on meeting personal and family textile needs (Ohio State Department of Education, 1983). The interest in critical science continues, but overall educational changes in FCS have not yet been documented (Johnson & Fedje, 1999; Vincenti & Smith, 2004; Vincenti, 1999).

Table I. Curriculum Models

View of the family

From a critical science perspective, individuals and families are more likely to be viewed as consumers rather than producers of clothing (Firat, 2001). Many individuals find sewing meaningful, but most are not likely to sew as part of their jobs, nor is it as common as it once was for families to sew to meet their clothing needs. The average family spends only $13 on sewing materials, patterns, and notions for clothing annually (1999 Consumer Expenditure Survey as cited in Russell & Mitchell, 2001). In contrast, in 2002, families on average spent approximately 4.3% of their total expenditures, or $1,750 annually, on apparel and services such as dry cleaning1 (U.S. Department of Labor, 2003).

The family is viewed as carrying out responsibilities and actions related to clothing in more integrated ways. Textiles and clothing- related experiences can be part of the work of the family, which includes providing an environment in which individuals develop their potential, nurture relationships, transmit culture, and assume social responsibility (Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, 1987; Wright, 1999). The actions in which families engage to carry out these responsibilities include technical actions as well as communicative and critical actions.

The family can use technical actions as a means to carry out the responsibility of developing nurturing relationships. For instance, a parent can assist a child in learning how to sew while they share quality time together. Communicative actions are those through which persons come to a mutual understanding, share beliefs, or transmit culture. A grandmother can tell about the family’s journey to the U.S. as well as cultural traditions while sharing the paisley shawl her own mother carried from her native country.

Critical actions are those that result in empowerment or helping others to become empowered. For example, a family can engage in critical actions by examining their perceptions of the homeless population in the community. Families could carry out social responsibility by identifying needs of the homeless related to food, shelter, or clothing, and by volunteering to work at a shelter, starting a food drive, or by collecting or even making clothing. Such actions can be thought of as critical or emancipative, because in the process, distorted beliefs and assumptions are critiqued and examined.

FCS teachers can help students further examine these actions in relationships to families. Technical or hands-on experiences such as sewing are not eliminated, but are placed within the context of the work of the family. Sewing can provide a means for carrying out family responsibilities and actions, but the task of sewing itself is not a central focus of the family today. Within the classr\oom, the work of the family, rather than sewing skills, helps to identify broad concepts that lead to enduring understanding.

Focus of Learning

In the critical science model, the focus of learning is on broad concepts, the enduring concepts, or the big ideas that hold the course or unit of study together (Hauxwell & Schmidt, 1999; Wiggins & McTighe, 1998). These are the important ideas students should remember after the details have been forgotten (Wiggins & McTighe, 1998). In FCS, broad concepts are selected based on the work of the family. Examples of broad concepts include resource management, caring for family members, and social responsibility. Broad concepts also include cognitive processes, such as practical reasoning.

Individuals and families can engage in practical reasoning to address real-life individual, family, or community concerns (Brown & Paolucci, 1979). To implement this in the classroom, for example, a teacher may present the problem of what to do with regard to consumer redress for an apparel product that does not last through several wearings. Students then develop questions related to the practical reasoning categories.

Practical reasoning includes an examination of four categories of questions related to the context and valued ends related to the problem, alternative actions (technical, communicative, critical) needed to resolve the problem, and consequences of alternative actions (see Table 2). Students use these questions to guide problem investigation. Information gathered is used to form a judgment about what to do about the problem (e.g., write consumer complaint letter to the garment manufacturer).

Ideally, after problem investigation, students implement appropriate actions, which may or may not result in the construction of a textile product. For example, students could use the practical reasoning process to investigate the concerns of children in poverty in the U.S. and the clothing and textile needs of these children- which could result in the making of clothing items, blankets, or other sewing-based projects (Zieman, 2002). In this scenario, the greater emphasis is placed on the problem-solving process rather than on the development of expert sewing skills and techniques.

One concern is that the critical science model eliminates hands- on activities. Although the nature and focus of activities may be different, students can be actively engaged in learning through a variety of experiences. Practical reasoning may be only one of multiple learning strategies that are used in a course or program. For example, students may be actively involved through learning opportunities such as:

* Reading literature or watching movies that highlight work of the family components, such as sharing family responsibilities in the home, or cultural aspects of apparel.

* Examining teenager’s concerns about body image, clothing, and “fitting in” with their peers.

* Reviewing case studies that describe work of the family involving technical, communicative, or critical actions related to clothing and textiles.

* Writing stories, songs, or creating posters that illustrate the impact of clothing/textiles on human development.

In the critical science model, students also may sew, but sewing is connected to broader concepts that are explicitly identified in the curriculum and taught in the classroom.

Role of the teacher and student

In the critical science-based classroom, the role of the teacher and student are different from that of the technical model. The teacher facilitates and structures learning experiences and is, therefore, not viewed as the sewing expert (Brooks & Brooks, 1999). Solutions to problems are discovered collaboratively through the investigation process. Students are assessed on their use of problem solving and collaborative processes rather than primarily on their sewing skills or product completion.


To move from a technical science to more critical science-based curriculum requires an examination and possible change in both educational practices and beliefs (Fullan, 1991; Montgomery, Brozovsky, & Lichty, 1999). To begin the transition, FCS professionals need to think about sewing as an educational experience within FCS courses in middle and high schools, and address difficult questions such as:

Table 2. Practical Reasoning Example Questions

* What are the educational priorities in FCS? Can these priorities be supported with available human, financial, and materials resources?

* What are the opportunity costs if emphasis is placed on sewing skills rather than on broad concepts, such as the work of the family? What are the benefits?

* What broad concepts guide the foundation of the FCS sewing- based curriculum? Are broad concepts clearly communicated to students, parents, administrators, and the community?

* What are the educational goals of the FCS course or program? How do learning experiences or activities support the educational goals? Do sewing experiences enhance these goals in a meaningful way?

* Is sewing an essential educational experience? Or are there alternative experiences that would better prepare youth for their current and future roles in the family and community?

Answers to these questions may be difficult but they can contribute to improving FCS education. Sewing is an important tradition that can continue to be built upon but FCS educators need to be sure that the needs of today’s individuals, families, and communities are met.


The technical science and the critical science-based curriculum models represent two distinctly different approaches to the use of sewing in the FCS classroom. It is time to redefine the educational priorities of sewing, clothing, and textiles in FCS classrooms. An examination of the enduring concepts related to clothing and textiles can help the FCS profession move away from the emphasis on sewing skills and may create a powerful, necessary metamorphosis of the FCS curriculum in middle and secondary schools.

The author acknowledges the assistance ofAimee Prawitz, PhD, and Sarah Cosbey, PhD, who are both Associate Professors in the School of Family, Consumer & Nutrition Sciences at Northern Illinois University.

Curricula based on sewing skills only, without any focus on the family or related concepts, is unlikely to prepare adolescents for their current and future roles within the family and society.

1 Based on an average annual expenditure of $40,677.


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Bette Montgomery, PhD

Assistant Professor

School of Family, Consumer & Nutrition Sciences

Northern Illinois University

[email protected]

Copyright American Association of Family & Consumer Sciences Jan 2006