The creation of clothes to protect us from the effects of changing weather conditions, harsh elements in the environment and potential injury was born out of necessity but, even from the very earliest records, what was worn reflected gender, body type, age and location.
Understanding the production processes for creating clothing is an aspect of the Australian Curriculum often overlooked, being tucked away in the Design and Technologies subject. Underpinning clothes production are the fibres that make the fabrics. Fashions may then determine which fabrics are the most popular in creating the latest styles. Now enter the couturiers - fashion designers: artists creating clothes especially to fit and suit the desires of specific clients.
So, what fibres are used for fabrics and how does fashion impact their production? Understanding more about this is the basis to becoming a fashion designer! The art of making clothes!
Where do some common natural fibres come from?
If we focus on a few common natural fibres - cotton, wool and silk - our inquiries lead us to consider the cotton plant, animals like sheep, and the silkworm.
Fibre is the raw material from these sources which is drawn out and spun into yarn. Yarn is then woven or knitted into fabric.
Cotton grows on bushes. After it finishes flowering, fruit appears called bolls. These have a protective cover around the cotton seed. Inside this cover, surrounding the seed, is white, fluffy lint. This is the cotton fibre.
Source some cotton balls, cotton thread and some scrap material made from cotton. Get the children to investigate each of these and see what connections they can make. Try pulling out the cotton ball and twisting it. Cut the scrap material to create raw, fibrous edges. This quick clip From cotton to shirt gives a quick overview of the process. You might like to find other video clips on how cotton is made, depending on the age of your children.
Wool comes from a sheep’s back, or sometimes from other animals like alpacas. These are the steps in the production of the fibre: shearing, cleaning and scouring, grading and sorting, carding, spinning, weaving, and finishing.
With a class, allocate groups of students to investigate one of these steps. Through pictures and drawings, each group then teaches the rest of the class about that particular process.
Silk is a shiny fabric with its natural fibres being made by silkworms. Silkworms are caterpillars which become moths. The process from caterpillar to moth involves the silkworm wrapping itself up in a cocoon. This little ‘sleeping bag’ is made from one long thread of silk wrapped around and around.
There is an audio link on this webpage; you can listen rather than read about the Secrets of Silk Production. Children can create a diagram that demonstrates the life cycle of the silkworm. They could also raise some silkworms themselves and see the final cocoon spun of silk.
Seasons determine what we wear. Starting ‘at home’, children think about what they like to wear. When are clothes made from cotton most appropriate? When would it be best to wear clothes made from wool? Can they think of clothes that are made from silk? Try to find examples of different types of clothes made from these products. How do they feel and why might they be good for these situations?
Draw and paint scenes for each season. Consider the vegetation at that time of year and the weather. Then draw children engaged in an activity relevant to that season wearing all the appropriate clothes!
Synthetic fabrics are made by humans using chemicals - a bit like strands of plastic twisted together. Many modern fabrics combine natural and synthetic fibres. Polyester is one example. What are swimwear and bike shorts made from?
Students find as many labels on clothes as possible and record what they are made from. At home, they could broaden this search. How many different fibres can they find? What are the most common combinations? Can they feel a difference in the fabrics?
Traditional clothes worn by indigenous people from around the world, many years ago, were sourced from their environment and handmade, without the factories to produce the fabrics we use today. Furs and skins or hides, from animals they killed for food, kept them warm.
See if students can work out how to create ‘clothing’ using things like sheets and towels. Let’s play dressups. They can use ties and scarves to try to hold things together. They can come up with their own ideas and then need to be able to explain what traditionally sourced material they are pretending to use.
Cultural clothing is often recognisable. This may be worn in modern times at special events or festivals. Searching online produces a vast array of pictures depicting National costumes of the world. Communities bring out these costumes as a way to educate others about their history and share their heritage. Most of us can trace some of our ancestry back to a culture that has a special costume. It might be a Scottish kilt, a Japanese kimono, Austrian lederhosen, Korean hanbok or the Moroccan djellaba.
Children could draw costumes relevant to their own heritage or find a picture of a costume they like, and draw that. A challenge could be to create the outline of the costume (even provide this to the students) then use coloured paper or cut up actual fabric (!) to stick on as the clothes.
Party costumes come in all shapes and designs. From animals to princesses to superheroes. These are for fun to humour our diverse imaginations, whether we are young or old! It might be for a birthday, for Halloween, or for a part in a drama production or a movie.
If you can get hold of some advertising mail, children can cut out pictures of costumes and create a visual story on a large piece of paper or card adding in their own backgrounds. Or maybe they have a costume or two in the cupboard which they could put on and create their own play or movie.
Fashion is not so much about the necessity of clothing, but the choices we make. Over time this has been dictated by resources, technologies, religious and cultural beliefs, money, personalities, attitudes… This is where our creativity comes to the fore.
In the Middle Ages, clothing was determined by a person’s status in society. In the Renaissance, dressing for the wealthy took ages with corsets and layers of undergarments and petticoats. Clothes were made from expensive fabrics like silk, velvet and brocade. The Victorian era saw women’s dresses with bustles and hooped skirts.
In the last century, different fashions marked each decade. The miniskirt and bell-bottom pants of the 1960s, padded shoulders and platform shoes in the 70s and 80s…
When did women start wearing trousers and why? How does haute couture differ from ready-to-wear fashion? What were the early styles of Chanel? How did she influence fashions? Why might Dior’s early dresses have had such small waistlines?
Encourage the children to draw designs of clothes from what they see as ‘a really, really long time ago’, or the ‘olden days’ of their grandparents, then fashions for their parents and lastly design what they would like to wear themselves now or in the future. A timeline of fashion.
The supply of source fibres and the production of the fabrics that are in most demand to make our clothes are intertwined with environmental concerns, economic issues, lifestyle and design choices.
Water for cotton growing is a major concern because so much is needed for each plant: an environmental and sustainability issue. Where does the water come from? How can it best reach each plant? How does this affect the soil and others’ need for water? What positive steps are being taken?
A practical problem with modern use of pure wool products is how we wash and dry these clothes in this fast-paced era where both parents are often working. This has resulted in the introduction of modern fibres often containing synthetic elements. Is this good or bad and how sustainable are the source fibres? Should there be more synthetic fibres? What are the possibilities and issues for the environment?
Then the production processes of these fibres, fabrics and clothes can be cheaper in some countries than others. So what happens in a global crisis, when access and trade between countries becomes difficult or impossible? How can we ensure access to fibres, to fabric production, and creation of clothes?
Students select an issue like those mentioned above, research this and develop some plans or designs that might address the concerns. Use diagrams to help explain thinking and ideas. Perhaps there’s a need for futuristic fashion designs that will help ensure sustainability of fibre sources in ways that ensure sustainability of our environment. A portfolio of design ideas for the future of fashion.
These are just some ideas to help guide your own lesson preparation, to stimulate discussion with your students, or chats at the dinner table. Artventure and Art Eye Deer both have art lessons that could be used through a study on Fibres, Fabric and Fashion. Search for ‘sheep’, ‘seasons’, ‘culture’, ‘clothes’, ‘fashion’…
Encourage your children to think about the design of their clothes and how they could be improved or changed. Teach them how to sew with a needle and thread, and then on a sewing machine. Show them how to knit. With the development of technologies to mass-produce our clothes, the need for homemade or handmade clothes is no longer there but the art in creating them can be so rewarding.
Teacher and Artventure Blogger