Learning to sew gave me the inspiration to go into a STEM field

Sep 13, 2016 at 12:30 p.m. ET
Image: Kris Atomic/Unsplash

I have loved sewing since I was a kid. My mom and I camped out in the back corner of our house every October making my Halloween costumes each year. They ranged from making an Amelia Earhart leather cap and aviator scarf, to Hermione’s robe from Harry Potter. Later it evolved into designing and making my own clothes as well.

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I did not realize until college exactly how much sewing had prepared me for a career in engineering.

Image: Erin Winick

Studies have shown that girls can be discouraged from entering the engineering fields because of a lack of spatial skills that are acquired at a young age. This is often a product of girls not being provided with building and 3D-focused toys and computer programs. However, sewing helped to fill that gap for me.

At its heart, sewing is the construction of two-dimensional pieces into three-dimensional shapes. Sewing is all about putting together multiple flat pieces of fabric in order to create a full garment that fits around a body. And this is no easy task! The pattern pieces can be complex and you need to be able to visualize the final product from the start. Designers have to create these patterns from scratch, which is like building your own jigsaw puzzle piece-by-piece with only an idea of what the final picture will look like. Essentially, you are creating a three-dimensional model in your head, and then making it into a reality by hand. Take a look at the clothes in your closet. All of the different seams and shapes that make it up, the changes of direction in the fabric, and shear number of pieces will give you a new appreciation for them.

Image: Erin Winick

When you begins sewing for the first time, you normally start with patterns, pre-printed shapes on thin paper that come with directions on how to put them together. Think of it as a building kit for sewing. As a better understanding of the craft is gained, deviations from patterns allow you to develop your own creations. As you do this you are creating something brand new, which is what engineering is all about: creating new things and solving problems.

This was an extremely hands-on process that gave me the opportunity to learn about the process of making and design. My passion for making things is what led me to major in mechanical engineering in college.

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Image: Erin Winick

Now as a mechanical engineering student at the University of Florida, I have been able to take advantage of my passions and lessons I learned from sewing. I have used my knowledge of fibers and fabric types in my materials class. I used my knowledge of creating three-dimensional objects by hand in learning how to construct three-dimensional computer models of mechanical items. I expanded on my knowledge of operating small sewing machines to learning how to operate large machinery like mills, lathes and 3D printers. I even got to combine my love of sewing with 3D printing in my company, Sci Chic, which makes 3D printed jewelry and fashion.

My work area may seem a little odd to some, containing a sewing machine, 3D printer, calculators, tire pressure gauges, calipers, fabric, and tools. This is not a normal college apartment desk. However, because of how one encouraged the other for me, I love letting my sewing influence my engineering, and my engineering influence my sewing. I think it is time we embraced the similarities in these fields and allow each to elevate the other to the next level.

In the meantime, I would also encourage children, both boys and girls, to learn to sew. Not only does it teach useful life skills, but it inspires creativity, hands-on learning, and paves the way for the makers and engineers of the future.

Image: Emily Huber

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