Tailors and dressmakers cut, sew, mend, and alter clothing. Typically, tailors work only with menswear, such as suits, jackets, and coats, while dressmakers work with women’s clothing, including dresses, blouses, suits, evening wear, wedding and bridesmaids’ gowns, and sportswear. Tailors and dressmakers are employed in dressmaking and custom-tailor shops, department stores, and garment factories; others are self-employed. Tailors, dressmakers, and sewers hold about 30,150 jobs in the United States.
History of Tailor and Dressmaker Career
The practice of making and wearing clothing evolved from the need for warmth and protection from injury. For example, in prehistoric times, people wrapped themselves in the warm skins of animals they killed for food. Throughout history, clothing has been made by both men and women, in all cultures and every economic and social class.
Early clothing styles developed according to the climate of the geographical area: skirts and loose blouses of thin fabrics in warmer climates, pants and coats of heavier fabrics in cold climates. Religious customs and occupations also influenced clothing styles. But as civilizations grew more and more advanced, clothing as necessity evolved into clothing as fashion.
The invention of the spinning wheel, in use in the 12th century, sped the process of making threads and yarns. With the invention of the two-bar loom, fabric making increased, styles became more detailed, and clothing became more widely available. Fabric production further increased with other inventions, such as the spinning jenny that could spin more than one thread at a time, power looms that ran on steam, and the cotton gin. The invention of the sewing machine tremendously sped the production of garments, although tailors and dressmakers were never completely replaced by machines.
During the industrial revolution, factories replaced craft shops. High-production apparel companies employed hundreds of workers. Employees worked 12- to 14-hour workdays for low hourly pay in crowded rooms with poor ventilation and lighting. The poor working conditions of these factories, known as “sweatshops,” led to the founding of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union in 1900 and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America in 1914; these unions protected workers’ rights, ensured their safety, and led to greatly improved working conditions.
Today, the precise skills of tailors and dressmakers are still in demand at factories, stores, and small shops. The limited investment required to cut and sew garments, the wide availability of fabrics, and the demand for one-of-a-kind, tailor-made garments are factors that continue to provide opportunities for self-employed tailors and dressmakers.
The Job of Tailors and Dressmakers
Some tailors and dressmakers make garments from start to completion. In larger shops, however, each employee usually works on a specific task, such as measuring, pattern-making, cutting, fitting, or stitching. One worker, for example, may only sew in sleeves or pad lapels. Smaller shops may only measure and fit the garment, then send piecework to outside contractors. Some tailors and dressmakers specialize in one type of garment, such as suits or wedding gowns. Many also do alterations on factory-made clothing.
Tailors and dressmakers may run their own business, work in small shops, or work in the custom- tailoring section of large department stores. Some work out of their home. Retail clothing stores, specialty stores, bridal shops, and dry cleaners also employ tailors and dressmakers to do alterations.
Tailors and dressmakers first help customers choose the garment style and fabric, using their knowledge of the various types of fabrics. They take the customer’s measurements, such as height, shoulder width, arm length, and waist, and they note any special figure problems. They may use ready-made paper patterns or make one of their own. The patterns are then placed on the fabric, and the fabric pieces are carefully cut. When the garment design is complex, or if there are special fitting problems, the tailor or dressmaker may cut the pattern from inexpensive muslin and fit it to the customer; any adjustments are then marked and transferred to the paper pattern before it is used to cut the actual garment fabric. The fabric is pieced together first and then sewn by hand or machine. After one or two fittings, which confirm that the garment fits the customer properly, the tailor or dressmaker finishes the garment with hems, buttons, trim, and a final pressing.
Some tailors or dressmakers specialize in a certain aspect of the garment-making process. Bushelers work in factories to repair flaws and correct imperfect sewing in finished garments. Shop tailors have a detailed knowledge of special tailoring tasks. They use shears or a knife to trim and shape the edges of garments before sewing, attach shoulder pads, and sew linings in coats. Skilled tailors put fine stitching on lapels and pockets, make buttonholes, and sew on trim.
Tailor and Dressmaker Career Requirements
While in high school, you should get as much experience as you can by taking any sewing, tailoring, and clothing classes offered by vocational or home economics departments. There are also a number of institutions that offer either on-site or home-study courses in sewing and dressmaking. Art classes in sketching and design are also helpful. Math classes, such as algebra and geometry, will help you hone your ability to work with numbers and to visualize shapes.
Tailors and dressmakers must have at least a high school education, although employers prefer college graduates with advanced training in sewing, tailoring, draping, pattern-making, and design. A limited number of schools and colleges in the United States offer this type of training, including Philadelphia University, the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, and the Parsons School of Design, also in New York. Students who are interested in furthering their career, and perhaps expanding from tailoring into design, may want to consider studying in one of these specialized institutions. It is, however, entirely possible to enter this field without a college degree.
Workers in this field must obviously have the ability to sew very well, both by hand and machine, follow directions, and measure accurately. In addition to these skills, tailors and dressmakers must have a good eye for color and style. They need to know how to communicate with and satisfy customers. Strong interpersonal skills will help tailors and dressmakers get and keep clients.
Exploring Tailor and Dressmaker Career
Take sewing classes at school. Also, check with your local park district or fabric and craft stores—they often offer lessons year-round. Find summer or part-time employment at a local tailor shop. This will give you valuable work experience. Contact schools regarding their programs in fashion design. If their course descriptions sound interesting, take a class or two. You can also create and sew your own designs or offer your mending and alteration services to your family and friends. Finally, visit department stores, clothing specialty stores, and tailor’s shops to observe workers involved in this field.
Those interested in high fashion should check out haute couture houses such as Chanel or Yves Saint Laurent. These industry giants deal with expensive fabrics and innovative designs. They also cater to a high level of clientele. Be prepared for stiff competition, because such businesses will consider only the most experienced, highly skilled tailors and dressmakers.
Tailors and dressmakers employed at retail department stores make alterations on ready-to-wear clothing sold on the premises. They may perform a small task such as hemming pants or suit sleeves or a major project such as custom fitting a wedding dress.
In some cases, it is possible for tailors or dressmakers to start their own businesses by making clothes and taking orders from those who like their work. Capital needed to start such a venture is minimal, since the most important equipment, such as a sewing machine, iron and ironing board, scissors, and notions, are widely available and relatively inexpensive. Unless the tailor or dressmaker plans to operate a home-based business, however, he or she will need to rent shop space. Careful planning is needed to prepare for a self-owned tailoring or dressmaking business. Anyone running a business needs to learn bookkeeping, accounting, and how to keep and order supplies. A knowledge of marketing is important too, since the owner of a business must know how, when, and where to advertise in order to attract customers. Tailors or dressmakers planning to start their own business should check with their library or local government to learn what requirements, such as permits, apply. Finally, don’t forget to consult established tailors and dressmakers to learn the tricks of the trade.
Custom-tailor shops or garment-manufacturing centers sometimes offer apprenticeships to students or recent graduates, which give them a start in the business. As a beginner you may also find work in related jobs, such as a sewer or alterer in a custom-tailoring or dressmaking shop, garment factory, dry-cleaning store, or department store. Apply directly to such companies and shops and monitor local newspaper ads for openings as well. Check with your high school’s career center to see if it has any industry information or leads for part-time jobs. Trade schools and colleges that have programs in textiles or fashion often offer their students help with job placement.
Workers in this field usually start by performing simple tasks. As they gain more experience and their skills improve, they may be assigned to more difficult and complicated tasks. However, advancement in the industry is typically somewhat limited. In factories, a production worker might be promoted to the position of line supervisor. Tailors and dressmakers can move to a better shop that offers higher pay or open their own business.
Some workers may find that they have an eye for color and style and an aptitude for design. With further training at an appropriate college, these workers may find a successful career in fashion design and merchandising.
Salaries for tailors and dressmakers vary widely, depending on experience, skill, and location. The median annual salary for tailors, dressmakers, and custom sewers reported by the U.S. Department of Labor in 2005 was $10.95, or $22,770 a year for full-time work. The lowest-paid 10 percent earned less than $15,270 a year, while the highest-paid 10 percent earned more than $35,850 annually.
Workers employed by large companies and retail stores receive benefits such as paid holidays and vacations, health insurance, and pension plans. They are often affiliated with one of the two labor unions of the industry—the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers of America—which may offer additional benefits. Self-employed tailors and dressmakers and small-shop workers usually provide their own benefits.
Tailors and dressmakers in large shops work 40 to 48 hours a week, sometimes including Saturdays. Union members usually work 35 to 40 hours a week. Those who run their own businesses often work longer hours. Spring and fall are usually the busiest times.
Since tailoring and dressmaking require a minimal investment, some tailors and dressmakers work out of their homes. Those who work in the larger apparel plants may find the conditions less pleasant. The noise of the machinery can be nerve-wracking, the dye from the fabric may be irritating to the eyes and the skin, and some factories are old and not well maintained.
Much of the work is done sitting down, in one location, and may include fine detail work that can be time consuming. The work may be tiring and tedious and occasionally can cause eyestrain. In some cases, tailors and dressmakers deal directly with customers, who may be either pleasant to interact with, or difficult and demanding.
This type of work, however, can be very satisfying to people who enjoy using their hands and skills to create something. It can be gratifying to complete a project properly, and many workers in this field take great pride in their workmanship.
Tailor and Dressmaker Career Outlook
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, employment prospects in this industry are expected to decline through 2014. Factors attributing to the decline include the low cost and ready availability of factory-made clothing and the invention of laborsaving machinery such as computerized sewing and cutting machines. In fact, automated machines are expected to replace many sewing jobs in the next decade. In addition, the apparel industry has declined domestically as many businesses choose to produce their items abroad, where labor is cheap and, many times, unregulated.
Tailors and dressmakers who do reliable and skillful work, however, particularly in the areas of mending and alterations, should be able to find employment. This industry is large, employing thousands of people. Many job openings will be created as current employees leave the workforce due to retirement or other reasons.