Louise joined West Kent College in 2006 after a decade spent as a London-based fashion designer whose work regularly appeared in well-known high street stores. She is course manager for the college’s extended art diploma in fashion and textiles
Why and how did you become a fashion and textiles lecturer?
I’d always loved fashion but never considered a career in it before realising in a ‘Eureka’ moment that it would let me do the things I actually enjoyed doing most! After A-levels, I did a one-year art foundation course and then completed a fashion and textiles degree at Manchester Metropolitan University. I worked in the industry for more than 10 years as a designer in London for high street stores such as Miss Selfridge and Top Shop. In 2006, after a break to have a family, I found a part-time role as a technician at West Kent College’s fashion department. I was then asked if I’d teach, finished my PGCE teacher training in 2009 and became course manager. It all happened so quickly but it was great to get back into fashion and feel that buzz again.
What helped you adapt from an industrial to a teaching environment?
Adapting to teaching and working with teenagers was a bit daunting at first but, once I recognised I could not assume any previous knowledge, it became easier. I had to break things down into manageable chunks for the students and use different teaching methods to keep them all engaged. As a creative person, I fortunately found it quite easy to think up different ways of approaching topics.
How do you keep up to date with changes in fashion?
Each year we go to Graduate Fashion Week and see all the collections there. I use the internet and fashion magazines to help keep up to date with the latest fashion trends and other news.
What’s your main role?
I mainly teach level 3 students on a two-year course. Most start aged 16 but we also get mature students along with those who have tried A-levels but find they are more interested in the specific subject area of fashion and textiles rather than studying a range of A-level subjects.
I plan the curriculum and develop projects both to hold my students’ interest and meet the diploma’s requirements, and I ensure we maintain robust and fair standards in assessing and verifying students’ work. I need to give students regular feedback to ensure they keep progressing on the course and this involves one-to-one and group tutorials. I see each student from an average year intake of 15 two or three times a term and hold group tutorials on general subjects such as British values.
The course is almost unique in the UK in introducing pattern-cutting and garment-making to this age group, an area normally only covered at degree level. This ‘hands-on’ element is what really pushed me towards teaching; we could see our students got most excited about the course when they could watch their own garment ideas come to life and see an outcome.
It’s a steep learning curve - often our students have not seen or worked on sewing machines before but they still do incredibly well. More than two-thirds go on to university courses, while others enter the industry’s retail side or take on junior buying or merchandising roles.
What’s a typical day?
I normally start teaching at 9.30am and finish at 5pm as that works better for this age group - two sessions in the morning and two after lunch. During class sessions, we’ll introduce and demonstrate new skills and hand out information they can use to practice, experiment further with and extend. It’s about building up skills and developing ideas.
What syllabus areas do you cover?
The syllabus covers everything from design techniques, how to apply your research to develop design ideas, and an introduction to different textile and fabric manipulation techniques through to practical sessions on pattern cutting, how to make patterns for students’ own designs and progressing through the technical stages of putting a garment together. I teach much of the production side in small sections so by the end of the first year they are ready to put all their skills together in design, producing patterns and making up garments.
Describe a couple of typical tasks?
In a normal, non-lockdown year, we’d now be busy organising our end-of-year fashion show, which is a fantastic celebration of student work being shown on the catwalk. Last year we visited Great Dixter Gardens in East Sussex (which inspired an Alexander McQueen collection) to inspire our students’ designs. This year we were asked back to exhibit the results of our visit but Covid-19 put paid to that!
What do students like most about the course?
Hands-on, practical activities and the freedom to be as creative as they like - it’s great to see their garments come to life in class and on the catwalk. Seeing a 2D idea on a page become a garment on a person is really exciting.
What’s the most challenging aspect of the job?
Constantly balancing the time you want to devote to your students and their learning experience and the time needed to complete a lot of necessary course paperwork in the background.
Any achievements you are proud of?
I'm proud of the way the course has developed. When I arrived, the outcomes were not quite as professional as they are now and I think we have really improved the course. The work produced by our group of mainly 16- to 18-year-olds is stunning, extremely creative and professionally finished. Some arrive lacking in confidence - they may not have had the best time at school - and then at college they come to life and really progress.
Personal qualities/skills you need?
Patience, understanding and an ability to recognise the different needs of each individual student. You also have to show real enthusiasm, passion and a sense of excitement about the course and know your subject in detail.
Any teaching tricks of the trade?
Sometimes my students can feel a little low; and then I’ll often let them choose their favourite tracks to play as our background music during practical sessions. A short chat at break-time can also give them a lift - it makes such a difference.
A relevant degree along with professional industrial experience that helps keep things real for the course and students. You’ll also need a teaching qualification, often sponsored by the college because lecturers with an industry background and to start without a PGCE but then work towards one in their spare time outside teaching hours. My own PGCE took two years and included a number of late nights as I also have two children!
Any advice for would-be fashion lecturers?
Ask yourself if fashion is your passion.
A key question for interviewees applying for a similar job?
What do you enjoy doing in your spare time? - I’d hope their answer includes something related to fashion and shows the passion they need to become a good teacher. For instance, I love going to exhibitions, galleries and fashion shows, and scour through Vogue magazine every month. I spend much of my spare time following my interest in fashion.
What spurs you on to work each day?
It’s seeing my students progress, really engaging with their subject and having pride in what they have created.