Vancouver fashion programs design their own take on virtual learning

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      Whether it’s learning to feel the difference between textile fibres or to steer an industrial sewing machine, fashion education comes with a hands-on element.

      So what does that look like during social distancing, as instruction pivots to more e-learning? And how will that education shift as the entire fashion industry grapples with the challenges of fitting and producing garments during a lockdown that’s only gradually loosening? Local institutions are in the midst of finding that out, getting creative amid COVID-19 measures.

      At Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s Wilson School of Design, where the fashion-and-technology bachelor’s-degree program shifted quickly online mid-March, one hands-on assignment in making menswear morphed into an exercise in creating technical specs for an overseas manufacturer. “So instead of being an in-house sewer, they were doing technical drawings and patterns and orders of operations,” explains faculty member Jessica Bayntun. “They put all this effort into the technical packages.”

      Elsewhere, Bayntun had students submit video walk-throughs of their fashion-illustration sketchbooks, instead of physically handing them in, a project that offered new insights into their work.

      Grad-class design students faced a special challenge as they wrapped up their final collections, normally displayed in a big spring catwalk show. The faculty’s Lesley Pollard had a few days’ leeway in March to try to make sure the students had sewing machines at home to finish the projects.

      “I was surprised at how many of them actually had industrial sewing machines," she says. "With the collections some of them came up with, there were some really interesting ideas that were a little different than they intended. Without certain machinery, there was more handiwork. It was a slightly different creativity—especially with some of the knits. It’s a lot harder to sew a knit at home. I was amazed at how they were finishing some of these things.”

      Students submitted the designs not physically, but through a photo project. “It was amazing how well you can see the truth of a garment in a photo,” says Pollard, who had the students shoot the pieces hanging, from both front and back, right-side out and inside out, along with close-ups of crucial details like hems and collars. “The light sort of points to an error when it’s hanging on a hanger. And the surprising benefit was it helped take them away from it—they’re too close to it sometimes. It helped them look at it from a distance.”

      How else might the situation outside the school’s doors affect the curriculum? For one, Bayntun is set to launch KPU’s first online sewing course—a how-to on constructing a woven shirt, with free downloadable pattern.

      And she and Pollard are interested to see how students turn to cutting-edge technology like EFI Optitex software at the school. Among its “socially distanced” attributes: displaying virtual samples in a 3-D digital environment that allows students to make quick alterations at the click of a button—“an avatar that can virtually stitch a garment together,” as Bayntun puts it.


      At VCC, fashion students have been looking at the way this moment is changing the needs of the market.

      Over at Vancouver Community College’s fashion design and production program, coordinator Andrea Korens explains how shifts in the industry prepared her team well for the changes that are happening now. “One of the great things about working in fashion is we are so poised for a pivot already,” she observes. “I think we had less stress than other programs.”

      Theory classes easily moved to virtual learning, and the school has found creative ways—both high- and low-tech—to translate more hands-on instruction with social distancing.

      One example is VCC’s Fashion Cycle 4 collaborative garment-production class for custom clients. Though it had to be put on pause because of COVID-19, instructor Jason Matlo and producer Brenda Gilbert decided to donate their time to hosting a Zoom-based “What’s Next for Fashion” series. “They’re meeting with students every week about what’s coming up next in the market given the current climate, to keep them inspired and engaged,” Korens says.

      Elsewhere, Korens has used a simple tactic message to get into the tactile world of teaching fabric and textile studies right now. “I am actually mailing them pieces—I’ve got swatches and I send them to them in the mail,” she says with a laugh, pointing out that, as she’s based at home, the fabric pieces are sitting all around her.

      With large studio space at VCC and the chance to return with social distancing in the fall, she looks forward to finding ways use to the classroom with some new approaches.

      “We do all our teaching on professional equipment…and you have to turn things inside out and look at it from different angles,” she says. “There are certain things you just can’t learn without having someone there, going through with you step by step. There’s a reason the garments are not made by robots. Each garment has its own problem that hasn’t been solved before.” That means the school is installing cameras to show close-ups of sewing and other work, and looking at altering floor plans and adding sanitization.

      Curriculum may adapt, too. Because VCC’s programs include noncredit courses for industry upgrades or general interest, it’s pivoting to look at what COVID-19 will do to the sector and what it can offer contentwise.

      “What problems out are there in the industry right now?” she asks.

      One of the first installments planned to start June 1 will be an e-class called Solving Fit for Online Customers—an issue, as people fear contagion, and a complicated act of communication involving measurements and size charts. Doing it right can also reduce shipping costs and increase sales and customer satisfaction, she points out.

      As with instruction in other areas, all of it’s a work in progress—one that will require, as ever, direction from the industry that is also having to evolve online, outside the halls of the bricks-and-mortar school. “We will be reaching out to the industry association to say, ‘Are there needs that are emerging that we can help you with working collaboratively?’ ” Korens says.