The iPod generation in stitches
Young people discover a traditional domestic art tailor-made for them – sewing.
SAN FRANCISCO — After eight years of hard work and perseverance, Salma Khan landed a job at one of the country's top accounting firms. But as the soon-to-be college graduate finished up her academic career this past semester, she realized she needed a creative outlet – something to occupy her time other than just numbers and net assets.
That's why every couple of weeks Ms. Khan gets together with an instructor at the Stitch Lounge here, where she is learning the finer points of straight seams and buttonholes. Khan is taking up sewing. "My creative side had been put on hold, so before I started my career, I wanted a hobby," says the 26-year-old, who just finished her first project – a green and pink dress made from a pattern she altered to include cap sleeves and pockets.
Khan is part of a growing trend among young people – yuppies, Gen. Xers, Millennials – who are rediscovering a domestic art once identified more with their grandmothers. Indeed, not since the 1950s has sewing been so "in."
Boutiques like the Stitch Lounge, where they rent machines by the hour and teach sewing classes, are sprouting up from New York to Illinois to Texas. Sewing machine sales aimed at novices are rising. The Home Sewing Association, a trade group, now claims 35 million enthusiasts – with the fastest growth in recent years coming from females aged 12 to their early 30s.
"Sewing is a 21st century manifestation of multi-tasking," says Glenn Altschuler, an American studies professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. "I see students sewing in my classes."
Several factors underlie the renewed interest. One is the popularity of "Project Runway," the cable TV show about fashion design that has made the craft look cool, if not something of a contact sport. In this age of you-are-what-you-see-on-TV, it is making sewing appeal to younger and younger kids. Hope Meng, one of the owners of the Stitch Lounge, says they get a lot of 12-year-old girls who watch "Project Runway" and request to have their birthday parties at Stitch.
Sewing is also a way for people to express their own individuality. At a time of off-the-rack-everything and a Gap on every corner, many people want to create their own wardrobes – and put their stamp on them. Topstitching and ruffles, in other words, may be the new tattoos. "I want to make my own clothes," says Christina Kelley, who works at a day-care center for dogs and who is also taking a sewing class at the Stitch Lounge.
More broadly, sewing lounges and clubs offer people a social network and personal contact that many don't get in the high-tech age of IMing, online chat rooms, and blogging.
"I think young people are looking for new social outlets, and sewing certainly does that," says Sharon Wirth, who teaches an introductory sewing course at Iowa State University in Ames. "With garment construction and quilting, even knitting, I think a very big component is the socialization. People are learning a lot about coping skills, patience, and persistence. You learn some real life lessons with sewing."
Certainly Ms. Meng and her two childhood friends, Melissa Alvarado and Melissa Rannels, were aware of this when they opened the Stitch Lounge in 2004. They had been thinking about starting some sort of arts-and-craft shop for several years, but finally narrowed their concept to sewing. More than anything, they wanted to create a place where people with all levels of skill could congregate. "We want people to find their own place in the sewing community," says Meng.
The result is a boutique with fur-covered lights and orange-sherbert walls in San Francisco's hip Hayes Valley neighborhood. There, amid shelves filled with fabrics ranging from metallic to mohair, sewing machines whir throughout the day.
Unlike some sewers in the Leave-It-To-Beaver generation, many of today's young enthusiasts want to redesign already owned clothes as a way to express their inner seamstresses. Consider, for instance, turning a pair of pants into a skirt. "People want clothes that look original," says Meng. "How much more original can you get if you take a vintage shirt and turn it into something else?"
The Stitch Lounge is something of a citadel to refashioned clothes. The three owners are about to come out with their second book that explores reconstructing new clothes from existing closet stock, and the window of their store features a host of reengineered goods – a black mohair jacket lined with flame-red fleece, for instance, and a turquoise skirt with a black velvet waistband.
For photographer Dawn Pavli, the concept of refashioned clothes is what drew her to Stitch. A collector of vintage dresses, Ms. Pavli signed up for a beginner's sewing course. She hopes to take the skills acquired here and apply them to what's on her hangars at home. "I'd like to alter my clothes, just to make them more personal and more interesting," she says.
The majority of people who come to Stitch are like Pavli: urban professional women ranging in age from 20 to 40. About 10 percent are men.
At first Meng and her partners thought that the bulk of their business would come from machine rentals. But many wanted classes. Moreover, roughly 25 percent of those who take a beginning course continue on with more advanced classes, such as one called "zippers, casings, and buttonholes, oh my!"
On a crisp San Francisco morning, Hannah McDevitt is taking a novice class through a review of the sewing machine and basic stitching techniques. Then it's on to the flat-felled seam, a common joint similar to the stitching found on the side of jeans. After a brief demonstration, the students are on their own with their bobbins.
"I cut it a little close," says Ms. Kelley, inspecting her piece of white muslin "practice" fabric, laced with two lines of blue stitching.
As the students ply their skills, Ms. McDevitt circles the tables providing tips and encouragement. A sewer since she was 9, McDevitt also knits, crochets, and quilts. She's enjoying watching sewing's renaissance from her perch beside the bolts of fabric. "I love it when people are just thrilled to be making something," she says.
One who has turned out to be a quick study is Khan. After just a couple of classes, she's able to make small clothing items, such as a white shrug. "It didn't take that long and people loved it," she says.
The women in the basics class this morning are taking on a new challenge, too – a pillow. At the cutting table, the student seamstresses pick through fabric remnants. Pavli chooses a simple design that will use two green swatches. Another student opts for a yellow woven fabric with a paisley print sash, complete with a button.
They carefully cut out their pillows, pinning all the pieces together. Then it's back to the machine for top stitching, a bit of stuffing, and then the final seam to close the hole. When the class is over, each one leaves, pillow proudly in hand. "I loved it," says Pavli. "It really gave me confidence."