Making It Their Own: Sewing in the North Country

People of all ages take on their sewing machines to make and mend their own clothes


Story and photo by Eva Mizer

Diana Murray is milling about her first-floor sewing store. It’s Monday night, and time for her weekly sewing class. Even before they arrive, she has a lot on her mind. “See this box?” she asks, pointing to a box on the floor filled with various garments, “a woman went through all of her clothes and brought in the ones that didn’t fit right so I could alter them for her.” Over the box, a huge machine rattles and shakes. It’s an embroidery machine; a massive, serious piece of sewing convention that now works away at embroidering an apron. “I need two done for Wednesday,” she explains.


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A tape measure waits patiently to be used in a project.

Growing up, Murray was surrounded by her grandmother and mother who sewed very often. While she attended college, her desire to make her own clothes inspired her to minor in home-education. Later, when she married a military man, she would travel around with him, taking sewing classes anywhere she went. "You can always find something new," she explains with a smile.

"Now it's more expensive to make your own clothes," she explains.

Rampant globalization and monopolization of the clothing industry has led to multiple problems for people wanting to make their own clothes. "Companies have gone under in the fabric industry," Murray sighs. Stream-Line Button, Atlanta Textile Co., and Landell Warren Co. each have faced financial difficulty in the coming years. "Streamline Button just declared bankruptcy about two years ago," she explains, "and Atlanta Textile Co. was a good supplier of fabric, but they can't make a living that way anymore."

Since manufacturers moved across seas, importing fabric into the country makes it more expensive for consumers to buy. "Now it's more expensive to make your own clothes," she explains. But the high cost goes hand in hand with quality. When American companies and factories shut down and moved overseas to hire cheap labor, they routinely choose cheaper, lower quality fabrics to make their clothes with. To avoid this entrapment of both lack of quality and originality, many people are turning back to the tradition of sewing their own clothes. However, different generations handle this ongoing cycle differently.

"I see a lot more people starting to sew now," she pipes from her sewing machine.

When Murray was young, most people made their own clothes because buying them in department stores was too expensive. "You would only buy one or two outfits a year," Murray recalls, so making one's own clothes was not only a priority, but almost a given. Now, she explains, most people don't even know how to sew a button back on their shirts. People from Murray's generation come to her wanting to learn to do simple fixes and alterations to patterns. One of Murray's students is 83 year old woman is currently attending her lessons to learn to alter her clothes. Once, a pilot once came to her asking her to teach him how to sew a button on so he wouldn't have to run to the tailors every time one came loose or fell off. Aside from the button sewers and alteration-makers, most of her older students are more or less hobbyists.

Racheal Hooper and Gyllian Rae Svensson of The Bobbin Sew Bar and Craft Lounge of Burlington, Vermont, have noticed an upsurge in people taking sewing classes to make their own clothes. "We absolutely have noticed an upsurge in interest … among the younger generations to rediscover these lost arts," Svensson says, "we teach classes to boys and girls, men and women and everyone else from age eight and up."

The Bobbin, based on the outskirts of Burlington, is an eco-friendly shop dedicated to being engaged in their community. The shop hosts weekly private lessons, group EcoSew workshops, community outreach in schools and nonprofits, design and host private parties, events such as Craft With The Band, and fundraisers for non-profits. The Bobbin, promoting sustainable crafting, only uses recycled and vintage materials for classes, workshops and custom product lines.


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Amanda Prenoveau works on her sewing while Pedro, Murrays French poodle, watches.

A girl in Murray's class looks up. "I see a lot more people starting to sew now," she pipes from her sewing machine. Her name is Amanda Prenoveau and she is a senior in high school. She pulls out a bundle of blue denim fabric from her colored bag and lays it out. Murray helps pin a paper pattern for pants onto the fabric for her to cut around. She explains that a lot of girls she knows have taken up sewing to learn the simple fixes and to alter or design something to make it unique.

Often times, the styles in stores look the same as stores compete for business of the current fashion. However, if a style doesn't work for someone, that person is out of luck, which is why many girls learn to sew to make a custom fit or their own designs. “People are looking for a fashion [outlet],” Prenoveau explains, as a way to express themselves through their wardrobe.

"You can see it all over the Web," Svensson says in regard to the growing demand for such an outlet, "[you can see it] in communities such as Etsy and Artfire, [as well as] local Craft Mafias."

 

"...my students new to sewing are often shocked by the details, mathematics and complexities involved in the creation of a piece of clothing."

 Although gaining widespread popularity, sewing is not something that can be picked up without practice. "We're just altering patterns right now," Murray explains about Prenoveaus work. Prenoveau just started sewing in the beginning of summer, but has already been to a fashion school in New York City and plans to continue her education in fashion design. She dreams of making her own designs and patterns, but for now she is taking it slow and learning the basics.

"Americans are really out of touch with the basics of clothing construction and fabrication," Svensson explains. "We have no knowledge or respect for how long it takes to create an article of clothing and the skills involved, and my students new to sewing are often shocked by the details, mathematics and complexities involved in the creation of a piece of clothing."

Sewing is an art that can be sculpted and a skill that can be honed. What used to be a general part of every-day life has transformed into an essential skill that many have taken up to customize, create, and fix their own clothes. But no matter what the age or skill-level, Murray winks, "There is always something new to learn."

Do you sew? What do you sew?