I am a practical person (in all senses of the word). So when I graduated from university, almost exactly 10 years ago, and found that my degree in English literature was not going to take me where I wanted to go, I decided to start sewing for a living instead. I ditched Chaucer, Keats and Heidegger, and became a dressmaker. And I was pretty happy with my decision. But for some reason, some people seemed to see this as a big step down.

I felt that this was a little unfair. After all, if nothing else, it’s not as if dressmaking is EASIER than doing English literature. Far from it. Dressmaking is hard. It takes brains, and consideration, and concentration. And the ability to think abstractly about complex physical forms. You need maths, and a bit of geometry, and years and years of physical practice before you get any good.

And, although you can’t get a degree in it, there are plenty of other, more practical qualifications you can get, if you wish to sew or make clothes for a living. But none of them enjoys the same social status or ubiquitous recognition as an academic degree. No purely practical qualification does, it would seem – no matter how difficult it may be to attain, or useful it is once you have it.

In my experience, this is because Education is a world where a lovely lie is dispersed all around every day like a blown confetti of hallucinogenic powder. And even if you know it’s there, you can’t help breathing it in, just a little, year after year. We all know what the lie is. It’s a big and complex one, but it circles around a few simple premises – one is that being ‘clever’ is inherently, just, well, better than, say, being good at something practical, like woodwork, or gardening, or fixing cars. Then there’s the idea that good grades, teacher’s praise, and eventually the upper echelons of the academic world itself are all the highest and best goals that one should and can aspire to in one’s intellectual life. And, ultimately, the almost unspoken but very broadly hinted at promise that academic qualifications are the best kind of qualifications you can get, and will always get you jobs. (This last one, as many students and graduates of the last ten years will probably tell you, is basically demonstrable hogwash. And it has made a few people quite angry).

Perhaps this is a good place to make a few clarifications. Sometimes, when I bring this subject up in conversation, people like to point to the Fashion degree. So I think it is important to explain that the Fashion degree, like many arts based degrees, is not a practical course, or a practical qualification. I mean by this, that you are not necessarily taught practical skills like dressmaking, pattern cutting or tailoring to a professional level while you are doing it, and when you graduate, your degree will not qualify you for a job in those fields. The difference is comparable to the difference between someone who has an architecture degree, and someone who is a builder. Many Fashion students and graduates are so far removed from being able to actually make their own designs, that they in fact employ dressmakers and sample machinists to do the work for them. (I know this because, for some of them, the dressmaker or machinist they employed, was, well, me). If you are interested in reading more about this interesting difference, please have a look at my other post about British Fashion Designer Giles Deacon, and how (he claims) he cannot sew a straight line.

Teachers are also sometimes keen to point out that in the classroom, most teaching involves some kind of ‘practical’ element, especially in the pre-16 school years. But that is not the kind of ‘practical’ I am talking about here. Nor am I talking about art and design, at least in their manifestations within the traditional school or university environment. No, I am referring specifically to the practical vocations, and the particular skills and expertise that they entail. And these are quite different from anything you will learn on an academic course of study.

For example, when I studied English, at school and then university, I learnt all kinds of skills that one might call practical – organisation, team work, research skills, time management, data collecting etc., and even touched upon some artistic skills like graphic design and drama. And all these are very useful skills to have, and formed a basis for my learning, and may be applied generally to all kinds of jobs, and to daily life, and I’m very glad I’ve got them – I certainly use many of them when dressmaking. At university I also learned about some of the practical processes, like rune carving, text illumination and engraving, that make up the history of English language and literature – although I didn’t actually get to physically try any of them – because obviously they inform and underpin our understanding of the subjects.

However: I was not taught how to bind books, set type, use an industrial printing press, make pencils, emboss leather or fix a broken typewriter. Because although those things are all related to the written word, they are not part of the subject ‘English’, and they do not hold a significant place in academia (or, for some of them, any place at all). If I wanted to learn how to do one of them as a vocational skill, I would have to go somewhere other than the school classroom or university lecture theatre to do so.
And if I wanted to get a job doing any of them, I would certainly need more than my English literature degree to get hired. And – obviously – it would be an insult to suggest to a practitioner in one of these fields that their professional skills, honed over years of training and specialised practise, were comparable to the ‘practical’ skills you can pick up while studying the classics at university or doing GCSE coursework at school.
That is the kind of practical I am talking about, and I don’t think I am imagining a pretty major difference between it and the various things that you are taught on an academic course of study, useful as they may be.

And I don’t think it is wrong that there be a certain amount of separation between them. After all it is perfectly alright to study the content of a book without simultaneously trying to learn how to make one, and appropriate sometimes to try and concentrate on one thing at a time. The issue I have begins and ends, not with the fact that the two activities are different from one another, but with what happens when people, cultures or institutions express the idea, explicitly or implicitly, that the person who reads the literature, is inherently superior to the person who made the book. And claiming that the ‘practical’ in the academic classroom is in some way equal to the ‘practical’ at the work bench, is, when you think about it … doing exactly that.

Sometimes, when I began dressmaking as a profession, I couldn’t help but wonder why all this was the case. Why did a remunerative, practical skill, which required a lot of thought and learning and experience to deliver, not qualify for the prestige and recognition, and, well, respect conferred on an academic degree? Especially while the thing I HAD gained my degree in, when it came to its actual function in the real world, was in practical terms so valueless in comparison?

My knowledge of English lit., on it’s own, was not going to put food on my table. Dressmaking could. Didn’t this count for something? Why does academic always seem to trump practical in our estimation – even if and when the precise inverse is true, in real-world terms? Why do so many of us always seem to think this way? Why is ‘clever’ always better?

For me, it definitely wasn’t. I have had many ups and downs in the years since I left university, and tried many different avenues in my search for the right direction in life (if there really is such a thing). Some of them were intellectual, some of them were even whimsical. But, in the end, practical always won.

I should perhaps say at this point that I do not regret my education. Quite the contrary. I am immensely grateful for every moment I spent discovering the great pieces of writing I have read, being shown the amazing artworks I have seen, learning the facts and theories I have been taught about the world, and experiencing the thousand other things I was lucky enough to experience, and becoming who I am. But forming my career, such as it is, by using a different, more practical area of my brain does not undermine all that, and in my opinion it certainly wasn’t a big step down. In fact, it hardly even felt like a big step. I love English. But I also love sewing. And in my head the two fit together and are intertwined beautifully. They always have been, as two of the many disparate but adjoining threads that make up my Self – just like everyone else’s.

It is only in the world outside my head, in the culture and society we have constructed for ourselves, that these threads seem to be so roughly segregated, and dragged apart. Only there do we have to compartmentalise our thinking and behaviours, to fit into the various spheres and hierarchies we occupy. Only there are these two basically indeterminate lumps of my grey matter accorded such different status, while delivering such a juxtaposition of actual value. And I am getting tired of it.

Even now, 10 years later, I have come back to where I started, and things haven’t changed a bit. So here it is. My attempt to level the playing field, if only for my own piece of mind. I’m going to say it.

Kids, listen. It’s all a lie. Clever ISN’T always better. Practical is important too. Practical is valuable. Practical is an option that an intelligent person can take.

I once was an English graduate. Now I am a dressmaker. I work, I think, I learn – and I make dresses. And there is really nothing wrong with that at all.

By Natalie Bramwell-Booth

First published on The Dressmaker Diaries, June 2015