Thursday, July 4, 2013

Lessons From 4-H: Introduction

Yes, you read that right. I'm doing a feature month on lessons I learned about clothing from participating in the 4-H program.

For those of you who don't know what 4-H is, the simplest definition I can give comes from Wikipedia:
4-H in the United States is a youth organization administered by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), with the mission of "engaging youth to reach their fullest potential while advancing the field of youth development." The name represents four personal development areas of focus for the organization: head, heart, hands, and health. The organization has over 6.5 million members in the United States, from ages five to twenty-one, in approximately 90,000 clubs.
4-H was started in 1902 and was originally meant to introduce new agricultural technology to youth in rural areas. The intent was to encourage participants to "learn by doing," an idea that is still present in the organization to this day and is, in fact, the organization's slogan. One of the main ways that we "learn by doing" is 4-H projects that are judged and exhibited at the county fair.

Over the years, 4-H expanded its reach beyond its agricultural roots. Agriculture is still present, certainly, and most people who have had contact with the program know that one of the project areas is livestock. However, there are now literally hundreds of topics that project areas can explore including "Self-Determined," a catch-all for projects that do not fit into the other project areas.

So what does this have to do with clothing?

A lot more than you might think.

4-H has three projects under the "Clothing and Textiles" project area that are absolutely relevant to the alternative fashionista: clothes you make, clothes you buy, and fashion review. The point of the fashion-oriented projects is to help participants:
  • Discover their unique style
  • Discover what looks best on their body, how to make it or where to buy it, and how to care for it.
  • Express themselves through creating and planning an exciting wardrobe.
  • Develop skills to purchase and make clothing.
  • Learn how to use equipment to make and care for your clothes.
Essentially, the 4-H clothing projects are about self-expression through clothing and learning new skills of budgeting, coordination, and creation.

Clothes you make is exactly that: clothing you have created yourself. This is where young seamstresses discover how to make anything from a pair of elastic-waist shorts to a full suit. Clothing is judged on construction and, sometimes, whether or not the person doing the sewing challenged themselves.

Clothes you buy is actually much more difficult than it sounds. This project area involves not only buying a new outfit but establishing, either through a booklet or through some sort of visual aid, how the different pieces of that outfit fit into the existing wardrobe. This isn't a project area that's just about shopping. It's about estimating cost per wear, creating a workable wardrobe, and budgeting.

Fashion review is probably the trickiest area to figure out because it seems like it's the shallowest. Participants are judged based on how their outfit is coordinated, how well the outfit suits the wearer, and how well they model the outfit. Participants are judged privately and then model their outfit on stage at a later date. However, fashion review also requires a heck of a lot of confidence, which is more what it's about than the clothes themselves.

And, of course, I should explain where I fit into this craziness.

I was a 4-Her from first grade (the rule, at that time, was "first grade or age seven") through my freshman year of college, also known as "grade 13."  I spent thirteen years of my life working on 4-H projects and trying to "make the best better," as the motto goes. Many of those projects were part of the clothing and textiles project area.

I learned a lot about clothing through my time in 4-H and, since it's July and that means county fairs are popping up all over, I'm going to share some of that with you.

If you want to know more about 4-H, I'd recommend looking at their website, especially if you're young enough to participate yourself. I cannot say enough about how this organization helped me become the person I am today.

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