21st Century Textiles Curriculum

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A 21st Century textiles curriculum

These questions reflect things I am commonly asked about the textiles curriculum. All opinions are my own and are not linked to any exam board or organisation. Quotes are from key figures in textiles and most were taken from meetings, lectures or events where I heard each individual speak. 

Q1  Why does the textiles curriculum need to be modernised?

It is important to understand that the projects we do, how we teach and the language we use impacts on how we are perceived. Perceptions matter as often others don’t look very deep to find out the reality and decisions on important things, like financial investment and how we are valued, are therefore based on limited facts. If we want to be valued as a subject what we do has to be in line with a modern and dynamic textiles industry, with strong links to science, rather than focusing on textiles as a craft or hobby subject.

There has been a resurgence of more traditional ‘craft’ projects in the textiles classroom, such as aprons, needle books and pin cushions and whilst in themselves they are valid projects, they often reinforce negative perceptions about textiles. My career in education has been all about moving on from these traditional projects to create a dynamic and modern classroom, so for me it is disappointing to see teachers returning to a traditional ‘craft’ curriculum. Focusing on a 21st Century curriculum doesn’t mean we have to lose the traditional elements, and craft can still play a part, but it’s important that these are only a part of the focus of what we do.

Textiles is no longer the eiderdown your mum gave you or the knitwear in M&S

Lorna Fitzsimons, New Economy

There is also an assumption in D&T that students automatically want to make an end product to take home and much of what happens in textiles classrooms therefore focuses on this rather than on the bigger picture of learning. Much of this practical work, however, sits uncollected or unfinished in cupboards with students never really having understood the bigger picture learning that was taking place. It is important to understand that making a product doesn’t necessarily constitute learning nor is it always the fun activity students would like it to be. Ironically focusing on the bigger picture of learning and not always making end products, but perhaps doing more experimental work, can lead to more learning, more student engagement and enjoyment and a more relevant and up to date curriculum.  

Why would I want another speaker for my phone when I’ve already got one? I don’t see the point in what we do. You just make what the teacher says. 

Millie, Year 8 student

Look in the Let’s Learn section of the website for useful activities to help you develop a 21st Century textiles curriculum

Q2  Why is textiles perceived as an easy subject by others?

During my 30 years in education I have fought against the perception that textiles is ‘soft option’. People have told me, including other D&T colleagues, that textiles is easy for a whole variety of reasons; ‘you teach all girls’, ‘it’s just sewing’, ‘you get all the most able students’ are just a small number of the comments I have repeatedly heard.  In fact my interest in how boys learn came about because I was told early in my career that I was only successful because I taught all girls. Needless to say I took that as a challenge and much of my career has been shaped by the work I have done engaging boys in textiles, as well as working with boys across the curriculum generally.

Textiles teachers all know the real challenges of teaching the subject. Far from being easy and a soft option it is a challenging and academic subject that requires the same higher order thinking as history, science and other so called academic subjects. The A level Product Design Textiles qualification is an excellent example of this and I often recommend to teachers that they show their science, IT and Business Studies departments the books we use, along with exam questions, to educate others about how academic textiles is and that it is much more than just fashion and sewing.  

An article in the TES (February 2016 Grading shake up could lead to ‘big drop’ in passes) sums up the inaccurate perceptions of our subject. The article included the table below which  lists the 5 ‘easiest’ and ‘hardest’ subjects, with both D&T textiles and art textiles coming under the ‘easy’ heading (along with art itself being ‘easy’). 

The way this is assessed is fundamentally flawed as the judgement isn’t made by comparing the difficulty of subject content. Instead the subjects in which students tend to achieve low grades compared with their grades elsewhere are rated as ‘hard’, whilst those subjects where pupils tend to achieve high grades compared to their other subjects are rated as ‘easy’. This means that all of those students I taught over the years who were failing elsewhere, but who I dedicated my time to, and used every trick in the book to get them through their textiles exam, were only successful because my subject is easy! That couldn’t be further from the truth and I know that all of my headteachers would agree with me. 

Perception is, however, very powerful and it is important not to just dismiss this table as being inaccurate (even though it is). Perceptions matter and can have greater influence than reality. The move to one D&T GCSE qualification could help change this perception of D&T textiles as it will be less easy for it to be targeted because it is part of a wider subject.  

Both D&T textiles and art textiles are listed as ‘easy’ at GCSE and there is an irony that many D&T textiles teachers are giving the reason for moving to art textiles as being ‘because it’s easier’ and ‘because there’s no written exam’. It's very sad that textiles teachers themselves are choosing to put down their own subject in this way, reinforcing the negative perception that others have. 

We’re engineers – we deal with fibres as our building blocks

Dr Hewitt, Non Wovens Innovation & Research Institute

Q3 Is the UK textiles industry dying?

It’s not just all about fashion …if you catch a plane the filter was made in Leeds

Dr Hewitt, Non Wovens Innovation & Research Institute

No! This is one of the myths that is constantly perpetuated when the evidence shows otherwise. Take a look at The Alliance Report which outlines how the industry is growing, particularly in terms of technical textiles. 

We have real problems finding young people with the talent and work ethic we need to fill vacancies at all levels of the business

Jeremy Graham, Milliken Industrials Ltd

Q4  Why do students need to know about the textiles industry when all they want to do is make something and be creative?

It is important that young people have a wider understanding about how the world works. Making something from a craft perspective has many merits and is important, but 21st Century education has to do more than this by helping students see how things happen in the real world. 

Education has many purposes and one of these is to broaden young people’s awareness of the world around them so they can make informed decisions when living their lives, making purchases and making decisions. Another purpose it for young people to identify what interests them, whether it be in the form of hobbies or for career options. Textiles products are a key feature of everyone’s lives and the textiles industry is a major employer. Textiles is therefore much more than a hobby and it’s essential young people understand the breadth of opportunities available to them and how they interact with textiles products all the time.

There is no reason why knowledge about the industry can’t be taught in a creative and practical way. It’s also important not to assume that all students just want to make something as just as many are interested in how things work in the real world.

We are desperate for textiles designers that want to be creative even though we are a technical manufacturer

Jeremy Graham, Milliken Industrials Ltd

Q5  What does industry & higher education want from students?

On a visit to De Montfort University’s textiles department they stressed the importance of students having a strong understanding of fibres and fabrics and their performance as being the key to success in the industry. They also stressed the wide range of careers in textiles beyond the traditional fashion designer and how students should be aware of newer technologies and developments in materials. They felt a D&T textiles background was now preferred for many of their courses.

A similar visit to Manchester Met emphasised how important it was for students to be given open starting points which they independently researched. They expressed no preference for art textiles or D&T textiles, expressing concern that both qualifications needed to focus more on being less teacher led with less prescriptive briefs. They felt students needed to be taught to be creative and that this was an area for improvement for both art textiles and D&T textiles students. 

Employability, rather than just an enjoyment for making things, was a key word both universities used, and this is something echoed by industrial links I have. Industry links  regularly tell me that they can’t get employees with the types of skills they need and in particular they talk about quality practical skills and a focus on new technologies. 

Feedback from industry and universities indicates that the following are essential key skills young people going into the industry will need. Note that these don’t necessarily have to be examined as part of a qualification and might be evident through interview, sketchbooks, and portfolio work:

  • A combination of understanding a range of traditional materials and techniques along side high tech ones 
  • The use of traditional materials and techniques in new ways (including textiles materials being used to replace non textiles materials)
  • The use of non traditional materials & techniques in textiles 
  • An understanding that the world is constantly changing and that developments such as new ways of doing things, new materials, and things like electronics in textiles are key areas in the development of fashion and textiles
  • High profile of IT whether it be for designing & manufacturing or in any other format
  • An understanding of how the industry works  
  • Sustainable approaches
  • The development of a different type of consumer & market place within a global context
  • An ability to be creative, think differently and solve problems
  • A broad approach to creativity rather than a focus on a narrow area of interest
  • Independent learning skills and a self motivated and inquisitive approach
  • Flexible work ethic & receptive to change within an industry that is constantly changing

We need to communicate to students what industry wants

Dr Goswami, lecturer in textile technology, Leeds University

Q6  What does a 21st Century textiles curriculum look like?

There is no single answer to this and looking at the GCSE and A level specifications is one of the best ways of determining this. Some points to consider might include:

  • Inclusion of traditional techniques, along with consideration of new and emerging technologies and smart and modern materials.  
  • Reflecting the modern textiles industry and the wide range of career opportunities e.g. technical textiles, sportswear, garments
  • A broad approach to materials, including innovative uses of traditional textiles materials, as well as the use of non textiles materials within a textiles context.
  • Opportunities for creativity and innovation
  • Inspiration from designers and artists, both contemporary and historic
  • Consideration of broader issues e.g. sustainability, power usage, circular economy
  • A non gender specific approach that engages all students. 

Useful information

Click here for more on careers in textiles 

Take a look at The Alliance Report which outlines how the industry is growing, particularly in terms of technical textiles.

Take a look at this article on how textiles education needs to keep up with advancements in technology. It comments that fashion colleges have been slower to integrate new technologies than other forms of design education meaning that fashion students are at a big disadvantage when it comes to collaborative work. Sabine Seymour, founder and chief executive of Supa, a biometric data company, says that education needs to provide students with a more diverse set of skills and that many students currently don’t have the technical knowledge required to work in the intersection between fashion and technology. Matthew Drinkwater, head of fashion innovation at the London College of Fashion, says ‘The merging of fashion and technology requires a very diverse skill set — design, coding and engineering. It’s unusual right now to find all of those in one person. So as this new industry is being built, we will need to see the digital designers of the future graduate with a much deeper understanding of those areas.’ Although the article mentions higher education the content is very relevant to what we do in schools and shows the increasing importance of science, technology and computing in the fashion industry.

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