Rebecca Chambers wants her students to think twice before picking up the cheapest pair of pants they can find at the mall during holiday clearout sales.
Before the last bell rang at Shaftesbury High School to signal the start of winter vacation, Chambers’ portable classroom was packed with masked teenagers concentrating on various stages of the tedious jean-making process.
One 16-year-old was cutting out a paper pattern to produce a pair of pants that will be tailor-made for her. Peers took turns folding and ironing raw indigo fabric. Others were at rows of sewing machines to stitch what will soon become the pockets of their high-waisted denims.
Students occasionally muttered or sighed — sure signs of frustration amid the meticulous work that requires problem-solving aplenty.
"Not only do they get a lot of practical skills for sewing and constructing garments, but they also get some appreciation for how much work goes into the garments they wear," said Chambers.
The textiles teacher wants her students to be asking questions, such as, "If your pair of jeans costs you $30, how is that store still making a profit?"
Over the last five years, Manitoba has rolled out a new fashion design and technology curriculum for grades 9 to 12. Sustainability, citizenship and consumer responsibility are key themes.
Students now learn about the fashion industry "through design and illustration, marketing and merchandising while acknowledging the environmental and social justice influences on local communities."
The sector is one of the highest-polluting sectors on the planet, not far behind the oil and gas industry.
Grade 11 student Alysha Finnson has learned about everything from the massive amount of clothing that ends up in landfills annually to the poor conditions garment workers in industrial nations face to make a living.
"Being in this class and learning about it has changed my perspective a lot — that’s why I like buying from thrift stores, so I can reuse stuff and make my own clothes," said Finnson, 16, who signed up for a home economics class in Grade 9 to learn how-to patch holes in fabric.
Like many of the Grade 11 and 12 students currently making jeans under Chambers’ supervision, Finnson said she has continued to take textiles courses because of how much she respects her teacher.
So far this semester, the upper-year class has already designed miniskirts and sewn T-shirts. The ongoing jeans project is, by far, the most complex. This year marks the first time Chambers has tasked her students with the challenging technical assignment.
"I’ve been stuck on this step (making pockets) for three days," said Grade 11 student Angelin Hou. While the 16-year-old admitted the project has put her patience to the test, she said the course is "always fun."
Jessica Walker echoed those sentiments during a pause in assembling her jeans, which will be of the indigo, high-waisted, wide-leg variety.
The Grade 11 student said she’s thankful to have been able to attend in-person classes full time in the fall, following a year of alternate-day instruction in 2020-21.
The start of the pandemic saw what should have been her first experience with sewing cancelled. The 16-year-old wasn’t able to sew pajama pants in Grade 9, so she is now determined to finish a pair of jeans.
"I really appreciate being able to make something more detailed," she added.
Should students have to shuffle to remote learning temporarily in the new year, Chambers has reassured them they will be able to make up for lost time over lunch hours in the second semester.
The teacher said she has seen how beneficial it is for students’ well-being to make things with their hands.
"These students have been put through the wringer as far as social connection (disruptions), anxieties around COVID and the pressures of having to interact exclusively online for over a year," she said.
"I can see in them, when they can settle in and work on a project, how much calmer they are."
Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press