Before the pandemic, Kate Bauer didn’t even know how to sew on a button. But when the Toronto-based PhD student and content creator, who goes by the handle @readwritethrift, managed to score a free sewing machine in October 2020 from a neighbor in her condo building, she challenged herself to learn.
Bauer, whose style skews cheerful and maximalist, set out to sew a “big baby ruffle collar” from vintage ditsy floral fabric she had acquired from Etsy. She downloaded a PDF manual of her sewing machine to figure out how to thread the needle and cobbled together enough instructions from YouTube tutorials and sewing blogs, to shakily transform the textile into a real, wearable accessory. When she finished the project, Bauer felt a bit like a wizard, with the miraculous ability to conjure objects out of thin air. “Honestly, it felt surreal,” she says.
In just over a year, Bauer has gone from fumbling her way through a collar to “forensic sewing” – figuring out how to reverse engineer a garment just by looking at it. Amongst the many things she’s constructed: a collar whipped up out of a thrifted Harley Davidson bedsheet and a voluminous dress made from a strawberry-printed IKEA duvet cover.
If the beginning of the pandemic was marked by an army of amateur sewists dusting off their Singers and Husqvarnas to churn out cloth masks; the longer it drags on, the more it has given way to an entirely new cohort of people drawn to the generative ability to create something out of nothing. Memberships to Seamwork, a community resource for beginner sewers, have jumped by 50% since 2020. Pattern company Muna and Broad saw a 41% sales increase in 2021 over 2020. And Floriane Cabanel, who sells sewing patterns under the name Lysimaque, says pattern sales have doubled in just the past few months. (Though based in France, Cabanel estimates that 90% of her sales are in the US.)
Unlike knitting or crocheting, solitary crafts that are relatively easy to grasp, sewing is not for the faint of heart. Traditionally, the highly specialized skill requires an instructor and is historically passed down from generation to generation in families. It can take years to develop a command of the complex jargon required to reach an advanced level – bias binding, mitered corners – and even after a lifetime of practice, true mastery is rarely achieved. (My mother, who has been a professional seamstress for the past forty years, still attends a couture sewing course each year to learn new techniques even she wasn’t familiar with.) And yet, the formerly fusty hobby has undergone a recent renaissance in which scores of people with no prior knowledge of sewing are increasingly taking up the needle and thread.
“Sewing offers people a different relationship with the supply chain,” says Jimil Ataman, PhD candidate at UPenn studying slow fashion. The modern fast fashion industry is a toxic mess of flammable fabrics, soupy chemicals, abhorrent labor standards to which more and more people are looking at what’s available and rightly opting out. (Scientists who found a children’s jacket purchased from Chinese retailer SHEIN to have 20 times the recommended amount of lead described it as “hazardous waste.”)
For some that means exclusively thrifting and shopping secondhand, for some it means buying pricey labels made in slow batches using only the most pristine labor, but for others resistance manifests in learning how to create garments from scratch. Not only does sewing guarantee that one’s clothing is ethically made (you made it yourself!), it offers the thrilling autonomy to manifest the clothing one envisions and execute it according to one’s exact specifications. Considering the abysmal fabric quality and lifespan of mass market clothing, learning how to sew can be viewed as less of a niche hobby and more of a necessary form of resistance.
“There’s this immense sense of pride that comes with sewing your own clothing,” says Erika Soerens, a content creator in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Growing up in the 90s, Soerens learned basic sewing from her grandmother, never progressing past napkins or tea towels. But when cult eco-brand Elizabeth Suzann shuttered in April 2020 and released their most popular patterns for free download, Soerens raced to JoAnn Fabrics and procure the cheapest fabric possible and set out to make the boxy ‘Harper’ tunic. At the time, Soerens had never sewn from a pattern. But now she regularly shares her DIY projects to the tune of 15K followers on Instagram under the handle @modernconsciouslife. Soerens now vastly prefers the homemade clothing in her wardrobe – not only does it make her feel more “comfortable and confident,” she’s able to indulge in her preference for natural materials like linen. “Why should we be at the mercy of whatever a major company decides the fabric and styles are for that season?”
What’s notable is how little similarity the current revival of sewing bears to past iterations. “There was a time when making your own clothes was thrift,” says Dr. Emma Thompson, whose doctoral research at Queen’s University focused on regional garment sewing practices in Kingston, Ont. In contrast, most of the people drawn to sewing now are primarily affluent and motivated to sew to elevate the quality and fit of the clothing currently in their wardrobes, as opposed to saving money. Between the cost of high quality fabrics and time spent on labor, very rarely is it cheaper to sew something than it is to buy it off the rack. Ironically, the very fact that sewing isn’t done out of necessity, making it novel and unique rather than routine, is part of what drives its popularity.
“Personal style has really come to the forefront of fashion and people are starting to see sewing both as a way to practice sustainable consumption but also as a key route to that deeply personal and individual way of getting dressed,” says Bauer. Beginning in the 1970s, there was a distinct preference for store bought, brand-name items over handmade ones. Thanks to the logomania craze of the 80s and 90s, names like Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Armani and Fendi were impossible to fake at home. “My mom still talks about how much she hated [her mother sewing her wardrobe] because she could never get all the cool clothes from the store,” says Soerens. (This tracks. I can recall a deeply embarrassing adolescent memory dating back to the early 00s involving me stitching a salvaged Tommy Hilfiger label onto a hoodie my mother had made me.) But as NAFTA created a race to the bottom and most store bought clothing became somewhat disposable (or at least, our attitudes around them did), the cultural narratives around handmade clothing as “poor” or “second-rate” have shifted on their heads.
“There’s a renewed appreciation for the quality of handmade items,” says Leila Kelleher, a biomechanics professor from London, Ont. and co-founder of pattern company Muna and Broad. The importance of ritzy brand-name labels have taken a backseat to origin stories – the more unique the better. Provenance has become the most critical element in determining an object’s value – to the point where it’s become virtually impossible for a new label to launch without somehow justifying its existence through some (usually) faux sustainability narrative.
Like every overnight success, the current wave of home sewing was at least 10 years in the making. When Sarai Mitnick started Seamwork, a community resource for beginner sewers with a pattern library, 11 years ago, sewing was very much a niche craft. The only patterns on the market – Butterick, Simplicity and Vogue – were printed on delicate paper, only available at specialty stores and at least three years behind the trends. Similarly, the only widely accessible place to buy fabric seemed to be JoAnn Fabrics. But slowly, indie pattern makers like Birgitta Helmersson and Anna Allen began to offer more fashion-forward designs as well as downloadable PDFs, and fabric stores, where tactility is tantamount, finally migrated online. (Some sewing community favorites include: Blackbird Fabrics, Gather Here, and Fancy Tiger Crafts.)
In tandem, the amount of sewing content online has also risen dramatically, with YouTubers making a living doing “sew alongs” of popular items. Basically any question a beginner might need to ask an instructor has already been answered somewhere online somewhere – and if it hasn’t they can consult the dynamic Instagram sewing community for advice.
As much as sewing represents an important alternative to the flawed system, it’s crucial to acknowledge that it’s far from an easy solution. Many of the flaws that plague the modern fashion system replicate themselves within the craft. For example, Kelleher found herself sized out of conventional patterns so her solution was to found her own plus-size pattern company. And, most sewers need only to glance at their bloated fabric stashes to recognize sewing doesn’t necessarily solve the problem of overconsumption. Dr. Thompson even asks us to question the assertion that sewing is inherently sustainable, asking “Why are we adding more clothing to a world that’s already bursting at the seams?”
All things considered, sewing is definitely here to stay. “With the greater visibility of sewing overall and how it has manifested on social media I think it will continue to grow,” says Mitnick. “The pandemic has really changed how people relate to the material world, to the ways that they spend their time and I don’t necessarily think that’s a temporary change.”
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