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September 2008
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Master Seamstress Certification Program

Zulma Berrios, of Providence, has a dream. The human resources manager for Armbrust International jewelry company wants to be a fashion designer with her own business.

“I’ve always loved fashion,” Berrios says. “I would like to be a fashion designer and create beautiful designs for my clients.”

Berrios says she already has a vision of her showroom, a beautiful place where pampered clients would feel like “princesses and divas.”

Berrios recently was sitting with a dozen other women at the Greenwich Club on Post Road in East Greenwich at an orientation session for the Master Seamstress I certification program, offered by the University of Rhode Island’s Alan Shawn Feinstein School of Continuing Education.

The year-long course, taught by Diane Martin and Mabel Wagner, is now in its 23rd year. Martin and Wagner assume that students have a relatively sophisticated knowledge of sewing to start with, and teach how to make and fit patterns, learn sophisticated tailoring techniques and work with a variety of different fabrics.

About half the women at the orientation were taking the course, which costs $995, because they wanted to make clothes for themselves and members of their families. The other half, like Berrios, had career applications in mind.

Hallie Larkin, of Swansea, Mass., for example, runs a historical costume business out of her house, specializing in 17th- and 18th-century garments, called “At the Sign of the Golden Scissors.” As she waited for the orientation to start, Larkin was busy sewing a pair of women’s sleeve ruffles.

Larkin, who has a day job working for the Massachusetts National Guard, said she sells her colonial outfits to historic re-enactors and museums. She’s on the board of the Costume Society of America and teaches at the American Textile History Museum in Lowell, Mass. She said she was interested in the Master Seamstress course because she wants to make her own clothing patterns, which she could then market.

“I would like to do this [make historic costumes] full time,” she said. “I’m building a foundation now, so I can do this full time when I retire.”

JoAnn Kunitz, of Barrington, works for Hasbro as a designer for boys toys. Already a graduate of URI’s Department of Textiles, Fashion Merchandising and Design, Kunitz said she’s taking the Master Seamstress program to get a better feel for three-dimensional apparel construction, which will help her on the job. (After all, GI Joe doesn’t go into battle naked.)

Diane Cormier, of Jamestown, who refers to herself as a self-employed stitcher and seamstress, has a master’s degree in historic textiles from URI. But she found that the available jobs were mostly in museums, and museums tend to be in cities. Cormier said she doesn’t like cities. So she found jobs sewing.

She sewed spinnakers for Shore Sails, worked on fabrics for boat interiors, stitched upholstery, and now does garment alterations out of her home.

“If it goes into a sewing machine, I sew it,” she said. Cormier said she has wanted to take the Master Seamstress course ever since it started, but never had the right combination of time and money — until now.

Cormier said the course should not only help her technique, but also allow her to connect with other people who sew.

“This kind of work allows you to be flexible, but you can be very lonely,” Cormier said.

Along with the Master Seamstress I program, URI’s continuing education program also offers Master Seamstress II, although it’s structured differently. Instead of a single, year-long program, Master Seamstress II offers a series of eight-week modules on subjects such as evening wear, knits, shirtmaking , pants and even “intimate apparel.” A stained-glass course has participants make two matching panels, one in glass and the other in fabric.

Students can take each course, which cost $236 each, separately. To obtain a Master Seamstress II certificate, students need to have finished Master Seamstress I and then complete at least three of the courses offered for Master Seamstress II.

Diane Martin, coordinator for the seamstress certification programs, said there are job opportunities for seamstresses — in clothing stores, bridal shops, even theater companies. “There’s definitely a demand,” she said. “If you can sew, people definitely want you.”

Not everyone taking the course planned to use their sewing commercially. Donna Sarmiento, of Waterford, Conn., a project manager for AT&T, said she’s always had an interest in sewing, but didn’t make clothing for herself because she had trouble fitting the garments. Lately she’s been doing a lot of quilting, and now she’d like to get back to sewing for herself. She has five daughters, she added, and she’s sure they’ll be after her, too.

Martin, of North Smithfield, who also teaches in the Department of Textiles, Fashion Merchandising and Design on URI’s Kingston campus, is a graduate of the School of Fashion Design in Boston. After graduating, she went to work for Philippa of Boston, a bridal gown manufacturer, and then for several apparel manufacturing companies as a pattern-maker, including Stevens Sportswear in Worcester, Mass.

When Stevens moved South, Martin turned to teaching. “I never thought I would teach, but I felt comfortable teaching something I knew,” she said.

Part of the Master Seamstress program involves making a hand-sewn tailored jacket. That portion of the course will be taught by Mabel Wagner, who said she’s been sewing since the time the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. (Admittedly, she was just a young girl at the time.)

“It’s not unusual to call me a slave driver,” she told the class. “There’s a lot of work. But it’s in January and February, and what else are you doing except sitting at home and avoiding the snow? And you’ll be amazed at what you turn out in the end — you won’t believe you made it.”

Wagner said she grew up on a farm in Putnam, Conn. She originally studied to be a registered nurse, but didn’t stay with it. In 1984, when she was 51, she got a degree from URI’s textile department and has been teaching since the Master Seamstress program started.

Like Wagner, many of the women in the program have been sewing since they were young girls.

Linda Yeaw, of Scituate, said she’s been sewing her whole life, starting with clothing for her dolls. Yeaw, who works for Jo-Ann Fabric and Craft Store in Warwick, said she wanted to take the course in order to fine-tune her sewing skills.

“There are fabrics I’m not used to, and techniques I’m not used to,” she said. “I’d like to be able to create something of my own.”

Yeaw said she might want to go into business for herself some day. She also has three granddaughters, and she’d like to be able to make clothing for them.

In the 23 years since the program began, Martin said, she can remember only one male student, who took the course in 1990. She said he was a little person who had trouble finding clothes that fit. There are male students in the URI textile, fashion merchandise and design program, and Martin said men are welcome in the Master Seamstress program.

For information about the program, call Diane Martin at (401) 762-0960 or e-mail her at”> For registration or financial assistance, call Annie Tella at URI, (401) 277-5050.  Read the entire article in the Providence Journal.

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Author, Instructor & Pattern Designer


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