Technology has relieved people of many chores: scrubbing shirts on a washboard, making butter in a churn, stitching clothing by hand. But on a Saturday morning in May, seven students gathered around a workbench at 3rd Ward, a craft education work space in Brooklyn, to learn how to sew moccasins.
“You have to remember: A shoe is transportation,” said the instructor, Kat Roberts, as she tugged at a scrap of brown suede a student had chosen to construct a pair of shoes. “You don’t just want it to look good.”
Fabian Grateroles, 30, a freelance art director, traced a silhouette of his right foot onto a swath of oatmeal-colored muslin, the pattern based on a Florsheim design by Duckie Brown. It was his second sewing class in a year, this one spurred because he could not find Duckie Browns comfortable enough for his size 7 foot.
“I’m not going to pay $400 for a shoe that doesn’t fit,” Grateroles said with a sniff as he stitched together the muslin mock-up with a needle and black thread. Besides, he was having fun.
“I usually spend my whole day in front of a computer,” he said cheerfully.
Once the domain of apron-clad matrons tasked with domestic busywork, sewing, like knitting before it, is making a comeback. At 3rd Ward, the number of monthly beginner classes has doubled to four. Purl in SoHo offers popular sewing seminars. The number of members at BurdaStyle, a 5-year-old social network for sewing novices, grew to 753,184 in mid-May, an increase of 47 percent from a year earlier, the company said.
And sewing-machine sales are booming, with sales in the United States expected to top 3 million in 2012 at SVP Worldwide, the maker of Singer sewing machines, up from 1.5 million a year more than a decade ago.
While some of the craze can be chalked up to the popularity of reality television shows like “Project Runway,” sewing instructors say students in their 20s and 30s, particularly women, are embracing sewing also as a form of self-expression and a way to assert their independence.
“What once was considered a womanly task is now a way of defining oneself,” said Patti Gilstrap, an owner of Flirt, a clothing store in Brooklyn that teaches introductory classes in alteration and skirt making. Customers have inquired about sewing gloves, swimsuits, even a wedding dress, she said.
“Students don’t want to reproduce something from Target or Wal-Mart,” she said. “They want to make something that is unique to them.”
Like devotees of good cooking, sewing fans are learning from television shows and social-sharing websites (like Pinterest) devoted to do-it-yourself projects.
“I used to teach sewing to kids, and they were so aware of all the television shows like `Project Runway’ because of their moms,” said Jamie Lau, an editorial and e-commerce manager at BurdaStyle. “People now have the vocabulary. They know what draping is, or an A-line skirt.”
Among the new sewing enthusiasts is the actress Katherine Heigl.
“My mother sewed, but it seemed not that cool,” Heigl said in a telephone interview. “Then my sister and I started following Pinterest.”
That sparked an interest in making baby clothes for her two daughters. So Heigl’s mother bought her a sewing machine and gave her a few pointers. Heigl’s first project was a bumper for the crib of her second daughter that was made from green and white fabric the actress bought online.
“You can certainly find them cheaper to buy,” Heigl said of the bumpers. “But it turned out so beautifully, the piping and trim, I am not going to get enough of this.”
Sewing, Heigl said, is both more stimulating and more relaxing than one of her previous pastimes, knitting.
“It’s actually therapeutic,” she said. “It requires a different kind of attention and focus.”
Don’t expect to see her on the red carpet in Heigl couture, however — though she said she would consider making T-shirts.
“I’ve struggled to find the absolutely perfect T-shirt,” she said.
Those who get into sewing to save money, though, might be in for a surprise. Beginners’ classes can cost as much as $175 for eight hours of instruction; a specialty class, like moccasin making, $300 or more. And while group classes have gained in popularity (30 percent of 3rd Ward’s attendees are men), so too has individual instruction, which can cost $150 an hour.
Laura McCracken has given private sewing lessons in Brooklyn Heights for six years; her two-person evening classes, $85 a student, have a waiting list of a year. (Day classes have only a two-month wait.)
About 70 percent of those students, she said, are professionals, such as lawyers, doctors and finance executives. The remaining 30 percent are students who want to go to design school and must learn how to sew before being accepted.
“My students tend to be wealthier,” McCracken said. “They have good incomes and, once they learn to sew, they understand what goes into making a garment.”
As a result, they become more-discerning consumers.
“They know what’s quality and what’s not,” she said.
Then there is the joy of rediscovering an activity from childhood and leaving any previous ideas associated with it in the past.
Back at 3rd Ward, Madonna Brown, 51, an assistant, was cutting out a pattern for a pair of green midcalf leather moccasins she hoped to wear next winter.
“I took sewing lessons as a child because my parents made me do it,” she said. “Now I feel like I’m coming back to what I’ve known as a kid and I can really enjoy it. It’s OK to be the cook or be the person who sews. Really, it’s fine. It’s OK.”
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