Button & Snap

Apprenticed as a woman’s bespoke tailor and …tired

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Hi there… remember me? It’s been forever since I last posted.

I have been struggling to write the last few months. I worked so long on the same project, Marie Jokerette’s dress, that after a while, I couldn’t convince myself that anyone would be interested in continuing to hear about the same project.

So even though I kept taking pictures and even started a few articles, I never finished them. I don’t know if anybody was following the project and reading the – admittedly – long, over-detailed and complicated posts I was writing. Or if anybody wants to see like 10 posts on the same project. Please tell what you think.


In other news, I started an apprenticeship here in Germany as a women’s bespoke tailor this September. This is a unique opportunity – and something I’ve been avoiding for 6 years.

You see, here in Germany,  tailoring (and many other technical/artisan jobs) are taught in a three-year program of apprenticeship to a tailor. This is supplemented by classes in design and the technical intricacies of fabric, fibers, patternmaking, etc. Not anyone can call themselves a tailor, or costume designer, or stitcher – they need to complete the apprenticeship and pass exams to be certified.

The shop where I’m apprenticing.

I waffled for a long time before going for the apprenticeship because I already have training through my theatre degree and years of experience in theatre costume shops in the US.  As I saw it in my early twenties, doing a 3-year apprenticeship seemed like wasting years of my life.

However, I’ve logged years of working in service jobs since then, so now I see things differently. Spending a couple years in an apprenticeship to do what I love doesn’t seem like too long. Nevertheless, it is stressful to trade in my steady paycheck for a stipend that is a fraction of what even a minimum-wage job pays *le sigh*.

And because open apprenticeship positions are few and far between nowadays, I’ve got a two-hour commute, each direction, using public transport. So I’ve been spending 70 hours a week commuting and working, a grueling schedule, powered mostly by instant coffee, that has eaten all of my free time. There is an end in sight – I’m working towards getting a German driver’s license by the end of 2016. Then I will have only an hour commute in each direction.

But enough complaining. I’ve been in the apprenticeship for 2 months and I’m trying to learn as much as I can. And I’m finding that it has a different emphasis than my theater training. For one thing, the apprenticeship is focused on very traditional sewn details. To start with, I’ve been practicing hand-sewn buttonholes, bound buttonholes, arrowhead tacks – all new to me, since these time-consuming techniques wouldn’t even be visible to an audience when the actor was on-stage. (At an opera I worked at, our mantra was “”50 feet and an orchestra pit” whenever we got caught up in miniscule details.)

Some of my practice pieces: hand-worked buttonholes, arrowhead tacks, bound buttonholes.

On the other hand, the tailor I’m apprenticed for is very detail-oriented. None of the pockets in this picture are up to snuff, for instance:

(Which is not a complaint. I’m here to learn. Otherwise, what would be the point?)

Welt pockets, with and without pocket flaps.


The dark pocket with the curved flap is my favorite. The striped one took forever – and the stripes still aren’t quite lined up!


The apprenticeship is focused around making classic garments: blouses, skirts, blazers. I’ve made two blouses so far. My first one was striped with contrasting ruched details.


The tailor chose the fabric and the design (it’s hers to wear now), though I designed the pocket myself.




Cuff placket with hand-worked buttonhole.


The buttonhole on the collar stand is worked from the inside since the collar is meant to be worn open
Bound buttonholes down the front placket.


The second blouse I made was the same pattern in a bolder print. It has fewer extra embellishments, but I got to design the pocket on this one as well.




Neat and tidy cuffs, if I do say so myself.


So that’s my life at the moment, at least until I get my driver’s license.  I’ve been slowly inching my way through a couple of my own projects on the side, and I’ll try to post about these sometime soon.

  • Meredith Newman

    Super awesome, Helen! As someone who spent 3 years in residency on a tiny stipend in order to do what she loves, I can promise you it is worth the investment! You won’t regret it! Great job!!!!

  • Bernice

    This sounds terrific! Thank you for sharing these details. I look forward to reading more…when you get the chance to post! Good luck and hang in there with that commute.

  • Meigan

    Wow, what a great opportunity and experience. I’d love to see more details as your apprenticeship continues.

  • Holly Brown

    Hello! I recently began following you, lured here by the Jokerette thingy. I don’t know for everyone else, but I follow a lot of seamstresses for different reasons and ten detailed posts about different bits of a garment sound very interesting to me. Being a usabound sewist myself, the apprenticeship sounds fascinating as well!!
    Personally, I say, write what you want! People will read or not, as they so choose but your opinion matters most.

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