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What Is a Seamstress?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 02, 2024
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A seamstress is a person, usually a woman, who makes a career out of sewing, mending, and designing garments. Most seamstresses today work in department stores or independent boutiques, and are chiefly in charge of alterations and amendments to already-made clothes. Centuries ago, however, these professionals were often employed by well-to-do families to make clothing from scratch. Though the job has changed over time, much of the training has stayed the same: seamstresses must typically spend a lot of time studying fabrics, textiles, and fashion, and must usually train under more advanced professionals before striking out on their own.

Training and Apprenticeship

Needlework and garment creation is a skill known traditionally as a trade. Trades are different from office positions or professional careers, which are known as knowledge work, primarily in terms of education: it does not usually take any formal schooling to be an excellent seamstress. Most modern garment workers hold high school and often even college degrees, but this sort of education rarely has any direct bearing on effectiveness or success.

Much of the learning needed to be a good seamstress happens on the job. Apprenticeships — where an accomplished worker pairs with a novice to teach key skills — are common. Seamstresses in apprenticeships rarely make much money, but they gain many valuable experiences that they can translate into independent work later on. In most cases, all that is needed to break into the field is an interest in sewing, some natural aptitude for work with clothing, and a mentor to give advice and guidance.

Career Origins and Society Status

Seamstresses offer an important service to society, but they are rarely considered elite. This has not always been the case, however. In most civilizations, those who were able to create attractive clothes and fitted garments were originally in very high demand. In mercantile societies, garment creators were and sometimes still are some of the best-paid members of society.

Before clothing could be created on assembly lines and in low-cost factories, seamstresses were often the only people with the skills needed to help people look their best. In the 17th and 18th centuries, skilled seamstresses were often prized, and wealthy families throughout Europe and the industrialized world made a practice of retaining talent to live and work on their estates.

A seamstress in such a setting would typically be responsible for designing and making all of the family’s clothing, as well as many of the garments needed for servants and other help. While not ever members of the nobility themselves, seamstresses who were part of noble or otherwise well-to-do households typically commanded a great deal of respect.

Mending and Alterations

The bulk of any seamstress’ work is alterations. One of the downsides of mass-produced clothing is that so-called “standard” sizes do not fit all people. Clothes that are too big or too small can often be altered by a seamstress to get a perfect, and flattering, fit. Alterations can also be useful to customize garments. Seamstresses can add flourishes like ribbons, sashes, sleeves, and belts to help give ordinary clothes a more unique look.

Mending is also a very important part of the job. When favorite clothes begin wearing out, it often takes someone with special skills to revive them and keep them looking sharp. Some problems, like fallen hems and minor holes, can be fixed at home; other issues, like major stains, rips, or threadbare sections, need professional help. Seamstresses are often just the people to call.

Specialty and Bridal Services

Many modern seamstresses find a profitable niche in the bridal and special events sectors. Most wedding gowns need substantial alterations before they will fit a bride precisely, but working with the thick, layered fabric of most gowns is not as easy as it seems. Wedding dress shops often employ a seamstress specifically to work with customers, and skilled workers often also strike out on their own to open independent bridal alteration shops.

There is often also a niche for creating made-to-order gowns and suits for special events. Seamstresses who work in fashion houses or with major design labels often specialize in this sort of work, creating unique looks suited for specific models’ bodies. Some elite members of society also seek out this sort of work, often for formal events and black-tie affairs. People who have the money to pay for it often enjoy having clothing specially made for them, so that their outfits are unique.

Relationship Between Seamstresses and Tailors

Many of the jobs undertaken by seamstresses may also be undertaken by tailors. In today’s society, both of these people usually do comparable jobs: when a gown needs mending, either a tailor or a seamstress can do the task; the same is true for a suit made to order. Traditionally, however, seamstresses only work with women’s clothes, and tailors only with men’s. Similarly, seamstresses are usually women, while tailors are men. These distinctions still exist, but are often somewhat blurred.

What Does a Seamstress Do?

A seamstress is someone who creates, repairs, and alters clothing. Seamstresses may work independently or as partners in an alterations shop, or they may be employed by a clothing store, a fashion designer, or a film or theater costume department. Depending on their skill level and experience, seamstresses do everything from hemming pants to replacing a stained sleeve to sewing an entire outfit or costume. Some seamstresses even design garments from scratch, sketching ideas on paper and then drafting patterns, though many use pre-made patterns or work under a costume or fashion designer.

A seamstress who works for a clothing or department store focuses on altering garments sold at that store to fit each customer’s individual measurements, while one who works for an alterations shop or a dry cleaner not only alters clothes but can also repair rips, replace worn or stained pieces of fabric, and add or remove embellishments such as ribbons, beads, and cuffs. In addition to alterations and repairs, independent seamstresses may make costumes and other garments either to sell as-is or to fulfill a customer’s request. Seamstresses who work for a fashion house or a costume department make specific items under a designer’s guidance as well as altering and repairing pieces as necessary. Many live theater and dance companies don’t have the budget to commission new costumes for every show, so they rely on seamstresses to make temporary alterations to rented costumes or to refresh their stock of reusable ones.

Seamstress vs Tailor

Traditionally, tailors were men who worked with men’s clothing (especially suits), while seamstresses were women who worked with women’s clothing. In today’s society, the distinction still exists to a certain extent (the person who does alterations at a men’s clothing store will likely be a man whose title is “tailor,” while a bridal shop will likely employ a woman whose title is “seamstress”), but most seamstresses and tailors can work with both men’s and women’s clothing, and some women choose to use “tailor” rather than “seamstress.” Many job postings use both titles as well. Interestingly, the term “seamster” has been used for centuries to refer to both men and women, but it’s fairly obsolete today.

What Skills Does a Seamstress Need?

To begin with, a seamstress needs a good working knowledge of fashion and of the immense variety of fabrics, notions, and sewing tools that are used for making clothing. Seamstresses need to be proficient in both hand and machine sewing and able to use different types of sewing machines and sergers. They must also know how to take measurements and how to lay out, mark, pin, and cut patterns and fabric. Pattern drafting can also be a useful skill, though many seamstress jobs don’t require it. Customer service is also part of the role; even seamstresses who work for fashion houses or costume departments rather than retail shops need to be able to interact pleasantly and effectively with the people who will be wearing the garments they work on. Seamstresses who own their own shops (whether brick-and-mortar or entirely online) also need business skills such as inventory management, bookkeeping, marketing, and time management.

How To Become a Seamstress

Many seamstresses start by sewing at home for fun, but a career as a seamstress usually requires formal training. It is possible for a seamstress to use informal lessons, online tutorials, and lots of practice to build up a line of specialized garments sold directly to customers (especially now that costumes are popular with both adults and children for many occasions beyond Halloween), but this is not a typical career path.

Training can take several different forms. Seamstress work is considered a trade, and while a college degree is usually not required, formalized courses are offered through many community colleges and other institutions that focus on vocational education. Some of these programs also offer certifications (such as the Master Sewing and Design Professional, or the Master Alterations Specialist, though there are others as well). Finishing such a program can take anywhere from a few months to more than a year. Even a brief glance at job postings for seamstress work shows that practical experience is crucial to getting hired; it’s common and usually a good investment to undergo an apprenticeship with an established independent seamstress or business. During an apprenticeship, a new seamstress learns the necessary skills through individualized instruction and by working under close supervision. Seamstresses who plan to open their own shops may also choose to take courses in various areas of business administration.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Practical Adult Insights researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By MrsPramm — On Nov 02, 2012

@KoiwiGal - I'm not going to defend sweatshops, but I do want to point out that in many cases the people working there have only two options, work or starve. It's nice to think that buying "ethically" will solve the problem but in that case they are reduced to only one option.

I try not to buy too many clothes anyway, since I really enjoy making them myself. In another life, I might have been a seamstress (although I'm not sure if the average seamstress is well paid anywhere in the world).

By KoiwiGal — On Nov 02, 2012

@Ana1234 - The sad truth is that in many countries it's not a matter of being gay or straight, male or female, but a matter of how desperate you are. Which, unfortunately, means plenty of women do go to work at a seamstress job the world over. It's unfortunate, because those jobs are in sweatshops.

Even young children are often required to work at these places, where they do fiddly work for long hours in poor light and close conditions.

It's a far cry from the designer seamstress jobs we think of when we see kids going to design school. And the sweatshops are making clothes for designer brands, so they can call them "handmade" without having to actually spend money on making them.

Try to buy ethically sourced clothes. They often aren't that much more expensive and you know the money is going towards someone who had control over their own life and job.

By Ana1234 — On Nov 01, 2012

@anon52723 - Not necessarily. In most countries, being a tailor is almost always considered a man's work. I don't know why it traditionally became considered woman's work in the Western world, but men have been making clothes for centuries.

There are plenty of gay men who work in construction sites and there are plenty of straight men who work as tailors. People should stop using stereotypes when it comes to gay folk, even seemingly harmless ones like this, as it really helps to foster a "them vs. us" mentality.

By anon134573 — On Dec 15, 2010

How much do seamstresses make in Anchorage Alaska?

By anon52723 — On Nov 16, 2009

I have a mate who wants to be a seamstress but he is male. does this mean he is gay?

By anon37370 — On Jul 19, 2009

if seamstress means making dress or a tailor,how do we call a one who makes car coverings?

By somerset — On Feb 12, 2008

During my college years I worked in a seamstress shop that consisted of four main positions. The first one was the pattern section where material was cut and prepared for sewing. Second section would start sewing and when needed send their partially done clothing to the third section for ironing. Very often seams would have to be ironed before the garment could be completed. Once the item was completely done on the sewing machine it would go to the fourth section where it would be finished by hand, anything from button, to button holes to hems had to be done manually.

Each section was staffed with a group of ladies who specialized in that particular task, but there were enough opportunities to cross train and learn the other skills, even though some were more difficult to learn than others.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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