DIY firms rent equipment, lend expertise to would-be crafters

Rashida Webb loves shopping for vintage T-shirts at thrift stores, but not all of her finds fit well. Others could use a little extra embellishment.

While she has had a tailor alter her vintage clothing, the practice got to be expensive. What to do? The Reservoir Hill resident enrolled in a sewing class at SJ Fabrics and Sewing Studio in the Midtown-Belvedere neighborhood.

"For all the money I pay to get [clothes] altered, I could pay to take a class to do it myself," said the 29-year-old hairstylist, as she prepared to add a lining to a handbag she was making from scratch.

The sewing shop is one of several Baltimore-area businesses that rent equipment and lend expertise to customers who don't want to spend a lot of cash on expensive hardware, be it a sewing machine or a drill press.

And they're right in tune with many Americans who want to make things, not just buy them.

Last year, Americans spent more than $29 billion on craft supplies, including sewing and woodworking materials, according to the Craft & Hobby Association, a trade group that represents manufacturers and retailers of craft materials. More than 50 percent of U.S. households participated in craft activities in 2010, spending an average of $470, the association reported.

In Lauraville, Beth Dellow of Beth's D.I.Y. Workshop teaches basic woodworking and home improvement classes. Students — or anyone — can also pay by the hour to use the workshop, which has a table saw, drill press, jigsaw and joiner, among other equipment.

A Lauraville resident who used to work in construction lent her his table saw and other tools because he didn't have room for them, said Dellow, who started the Harford Road workshop in 2008.

Hamilton Trimm, a recent Baltimore resident who's originally from Alabama, regularly stops by to make picture frames for photographs he shoots. He said he appreciated the cooperative approach.

"It's a lot of investment to have tools, so a place like this is nice," he said.

In Station North, would-be printers can take part in letterpress and screen printing workshops at Baltimore Print Studios, founded a year ago by Kyle Van Horn, 30, and Kim Bentley, 36.

Van Horn and Bentley also rent their letterpress and screen printing equipment to art school graduates, designers and others who want to make their own posters, wedding invitations, cards or T-shirts.

Some of their customers "have jobs that are not creative," Bentley says, adding that the studio serves as a welcome outlet.

"They come in and want to do something with their hands," she said.

Asher Epstein, managing director of the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business, said the DIY firms were using a business model similar to that used by "made by you" pottery shops, which allow customers to personalize their own dishes.

"It's interesting to see it applied to different crafts," he said, describing the DIY endeavors as "alternative sources of entertainment at a low price."

The DIY business owners rely on more than just customers for revenue. In addition to giving workshops, Baltimore Print Studios prints and sells its own posters. Dellow stocks hardware supplies and makes signs, in addition to repairing furniture and other items for customers.

Dellow, who has worked as a carpenter, machinist, welder and teacher, said she wanted to help people preserve the character of Baltimore's older housing stock.

"I want homeowners to be able to take things into their own hands and do it safely and easily," she said.

In addition to teaching classes, former home economics teacher Valarie Carter, 61, sells fabric and notions at SJ Fabrics and Sewing Studio, which she opened in 2010 with her daughter, September Jones, a makeup artist.

Carter makes custom clothes and window treatments and also does alterations. In addition, she rents her Singer sewing machines by the hour along with space for designers who want to do fittings. Previously, Carter offered sewing lessons and made custom wedding fashions out of her home.

She said she was surprised by the demand for classes at the studio. So many people want to sign up that would-be students now must leave a deposit to reserve a space, Carter said.

None of the Baltimore-area DIY businesses received grants or financial assistance to get started.

Carter said she refinanced her Owings Mills home. Dellow used a small inheritance from her father to jump-start her endeavor. Baltimore Print Studios made a poster that went viral after a blogger picked it up. (It read: "We have a strategic plan. It's called doing things.")

The sewing and print studios say they are breaking even, although the print studio's Bentley and Van Horn still work other jobs. Dellow, 58, said she continues to do home improvement jobs four days a week to keep her woodworking shop open.

Dellow says she takes steps to maintain a safe environment. If a customer isn't familiar with a tool at the workshop, she said, she will do the work. "It costs a little more to have me push something through the table saw, but it's worth it," she said.

During a recent visit to an SJ studio class, Carter offered patient advice to Webb and her roommate, Tiffany Keeling, 26, who were sewing linings into handbags.

Keeling, a massage therapist, said she wanted to make stylish jackets that fit her. "I always have problems finding clothes in my size," she said.

She also likes stylish pants: Once she completes the beginners' course, Webb plans to advance to the next class to learn how to make herself a pair of leather pants — which can cost many hundreds of dollars off the rack.

"I'll spend $200 and learn to make it myself," Webb said.