I’m still working through my apprenticeship as a tailor here in Germany. Partway through last fall, I was able to skip from the first year to the second year of the program. So, this April, I reached the halfway point of the (usually) three-year apprenticeship – which is marked by a big tailoring exam.
This test is eight hours long. It takes place in a large workshop at the school I attend part-time, supervised by an independent tester. Our task is to write out all the steps for sewing an article of clothing – from memory – and then actually sew the garment. And this piece of clothing has to adhere to very exact specifications set out by Chamber of Craft Trades (HWK).
My boss was in charge of preparing me for the exam – drafting the pattern to fit me, having me make a practice skirt so I’d know all the steps, and even cutting out the actual exam skirt in advance. This reflects the hierarchy of the tailoring business here, where a trained tailor (what I will be after this degree) is expected to sew for a trained master tailor (a position that requires more schooling – and my ultimate goal).
Three weeks before the exam, a letter came that detailed what we had to prepare:
The exam skirt requirements
I would be making a pencil skirt. This skirt had to have pockets, either curved or slanted in shape…
The pocked openings must be topstitched exactly 0.8 cm from the edge (it’s hidden under the fringe here).
The skirt should have a seam at the center front, with topstitching 0.8 cm from the seam as well.
The waistband has to be curved to the body, and exactly 4 cm wide… (it will be measured!)
…with a 3 cm overlap at the center back closure.
The closure, by the way, is an invisible zipper – and a button with hand-worked buttonhole.
The skirt must be hemmed by hand, with a vent at the center back. No topstitching allowed on the vent!
And lastly, it must be fully lined.
Ready for the tailoring exam (or not…)
When the letter arrived, my boss leaned back, relieved. “A pencil skirt is so easy! This’ll be a cinch for you! I’m not worried”
It wasn’t the last time I heard that.
Over the next three weeks, I kept bringing up the test, wondering when we’d get started on a practice skirt. “Making a pencil skirt pattern takes me only ten minutes. It’s as good as done!”
On Friday, my last day at work before the Monday exam. I finally blurted, “I’m flattered that you’re so sure of my skills, but can we at least practice making a vent with lining? I haven’t done that before.”
My boss stared a me blankly, turned, and walked over to the wall calendar. “What?” she cried, “The tailoring exam’s on April 3rd?! I thought it was in May!”
As soon as we got back from lunch, we started working on my exam skirt My boss made the pattern, cut out the skirt, and fitted it to me while I made a miniature version of the skirt out of muslin to learn how a tailor would do the pockets, back vent, and lining.
We were there until 9pm.
Then I got up bright and early on Saturday morning and set about making my own practice copy of the skirt. Though I worked on it every spare moment I had, by Sunday evening I was only halfway finished – and exhausted.
On the tailoring exam, I finished everything I had practiced over the weekend in just a few hours. But by the end I slowed down, struggling to hurry through steps I hadn’t tried out before. Time ran out, and I had to turn the skirt in, unhemmed and missing both buttonhole and button 🙁
An unfinished skirt means that the best grade you can expect is a C. I was so disappointed because I knew that with just a little more preparation, I could have done really well. It wasn’t the grade my sewing skills merited, and it just seemed unfair!
But after spending a sad evening watching cat videos, I decided to finish my practice skirt and make it as beautiful as possible. After that, I would put the whole thing behind me and move on.
Needless to say, what you are looking at is my practice skirt!
In Part 2, I’ll go into more detail about the tailored aspects of the skirt.
[Side note: Since the internet is a place it is easy to harshly judge others, I think it’s only fair to tell you a mitigating detail about my boss: her baby granddaughter was recently diagnosed with blood cancer and has been going downhill rapidly, so she has been more distracted than usual. I’m just hoping the little girl gets better – for her sake, for her family’s sake, and (selfishly, I admit) also for my apprenticeship’s sake. If you’d like to help, she is still looking for her “genetic twin” to be a stem cell donor. Registering with your country’s bone marrow or stem cell drive, such as one from this list, will add you to the pool of donors who could save her life.]