What is a Seamstress?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

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.

Seamstresses usually use sewing machines to assemble clothing.
Seamstresses usually use sewing machines to assemble clothing.

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.

Seamstress sewing in a button.
Seamstress sewing in a button.

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.

A seamstress will oftentimes work on altering wedding dresses.
A seamstress will oftentimes work on altering wedding dresses.

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.

Seamstresses typically have the ability to mend ans well as design garments.
Seamstresses typically have the ability to mend ans well as design garments.

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.

Some boutiques have a seamstress on staff to ensure every customer gets the perfect fit.
Some boutiques have a seamstress on staff to ensure every customer gets the perfect fit.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

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

You might also Like

Discussion Comments


@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).


@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.


@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.


How much do seamstresses make in Anchorage Alaska?


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


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


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.

Post your comments
Forgot password?