Visiting WEA Sewing and Dressmaking Classes in Byker

(Thursday 16th February 2017)

I stepped off the bus in Newcastle’s East End and walked a few unfamiliar paces. As I turned the corner, I saw St. Martin’s Centre, a light, many-windowed community building standing brightly before me in the early February sunshine. This was to set the tone of my visit. WEA tutor, Lyn Davison, warmly welcomed me into the class as the students chatted over cups of tea and sandwiches – they were taking a short break after the morning sewing class and before the afternoon dressmaking. Although some students had left after the morning session, new students were arriving to join the eager few who had stayed for the afternoon session.

When the dressmaking class began I felt like I was in a sunny, sociable kind of textile factory. There was a large cupboard full of material, buttons and thread, and a long central table the students sat around, each with their own sewing machine and supply of tape measures, scissors and garments. As the work got underway, a hubbub of chatter and laughter rose above the constant thrum of the sewing machines. The ladies in this all-female group talked about their projects, joked with one another and caught up on their news. The group has been going for a long time and it seemed like a strong network of friendship and support. I met some new students who said they had been instantly welcomed into the group, and given the peer support they needed to feel quickly confident and comfortable in the class.

When I asked the students about their projects, many were keen to tell me what they were working on. One lady was making a top to go with the trousers she had already made, and another was making a dress for her daughter. One lady was re-lining a leopard print jacket, while another was following a ‘sixties summer dress’ pattern. Lyn had a flipchart at the front of the class listing the students’ names so she could work her way around the group democratically, and provide any one-to-one support that was needed.

After speaking to a few of the students I soon came to understand that Lyn is highly skilled in all manner of sewing techniques, and her students are extremely appreciative of her in-depth knowledge and, more importantly, her patience, support and considered advice, as they each tackle their own textile ventures.

Everyone said they were delighted with what they had learned. Some had previous sewing experience and were looking to develop their skills, others wanted to nurture a hobby for their free time. One person had set up her own business selling bespoke bags, while another showed me an array of projects, from waistcoats for her son to curtains, dresses, jackets, wash bags and cushions, all completed to an expert standard. For several students I spoke to, the class was a reason to get out of the house once a week. Others mentioned that embarking on challenging sewing projects had improved their memories. Lyn and the groups’ ambition and infectious enthusiasm are clearly strong motivating factors.

Emma, a local artist, found that learning the craft of sewing was extremely useful for furthering her career opportunities. Her art involves painting onto material, but now she is able to sew, she no longer has to rely on a textile artist to do her work. She had considered doing a textile degree, but this was not conceivable with a busy lifestyle and young daughter, so these WEA classes bridged that gap. Another lady mentioned how useful the classes are because they allow her to be resourceful. She now knows how to take up trousers, re-line garments and even make blinds for the bathroom, all of which save money for a single mum and perpetuate sustainable living. One lady working on a patchwork piece said she had started making the item 20 years ago but had given up. Now she is ready to finish the job and, with Lyn and the group’s support, hopes to pick up where she left off and match the sewing skills of all the other women in her family.

By the end of the session I was overwhelmed with techniques, from overlocking linings to rolled hem finishes. There were invisible zips, smooth finishes, attaching sleeves, appliqué and pockets. It was a full on session for Lyn and I do not know how she managed to address the wide variety of projects, but she saw everyone, giving each student a nugget of advice to steer them in the right direction.

I left inspired, not only by the quality of the class, but by the enthusiasm and friendship that existed between the students.


Emily Nicholson

WEA Staff Member