A Stitch in Time

The Baltimore Sun

With sophisticated machines rivaling the cost of a small car, patterns of every description available on the Internet and inspiration from such popular TV shows as Project Runway, sewing is suddenly cool.

At Baltimore City Community College, demand for the basic clothing construction course has risen steadily - four sections are being offered this semester, up from two last year. The average age of students is early 40s and the number of men, currently at 25 percent, is growing.

Longtime program coordinator Sally DiMarco says her students are "looking for better-fitting garments and a better quality of fabrics and construction than what is generally available in the stores."

Lisa Greb, director of public relations for Jo-Ann Fabric and Craft Stores, reports that fourth-quarter 2007 sales for all sewing products rose 10 percent and that enrollment in the company's Sewing I class, consistently the chain's most popular crafting class, increased 34 percent last year.

Some say the renewed interest in sewing is part of the overall resurgence of the craft movement, sparked by Sept. 11 and the return to the home. Others say the surge in sewing popularity comes from Project Runway, and, indeed, the sewing industry is promoting the show along with its products. Simplicity Patterns offers a Project Runway line, and the latest ad from Blank's Fabrics, a 104-year-old Baltimore-area institution, entices customers with the slogan: "Find Your Inner Designer."

But many of today's hobbyists aren't sewing their creations on the Singer your mother or grandmother used. Instead, they are stitching garments on machines with computerized embroidery functions and Internet capability - and some with price tags of more than $10,000.

At Bear's Paw Fabrics in Towson, instructor Spanky Rykiel teaches sewing software classes for students whose ages range from 20-something to 90-something.

Rykiel, 75, came to work at Bear's Paw 10 years ago after technology eliminated her job as a quality engineer at Westinghouse. Sewing since age 8 and with a wealth of experience conceiving and constructing bridal gowns and designing clothes for the Ladies Professional Golf Association, Rykiel quickly realized the computer-aided technology could help expand her creativity.

"I'd rather have a sewing machine than a diamond," says Rykiel, who replaces her top-of-the-line machine every year with the latest model and software.

Mount Washington mainstay A Fabric Place, which has been catering to serious sewers for 40 years, stopped carrying patterns because of the growing use of pattern software and the availability of patterns on the Internet. Burda, a major mainstream fashion pattern company, rocked the sewing world last year by providing patterns for free - one need only download and print them.

Patterns that yield perfectly fitting garments save time, money and frustration - fueling the popularity of the hobby. The software of the moment, Bernina's My Label, delivers a suite of 20 custom-fitted patterns.

Susan Hodges, 55, a Baltimore writer and serious sewer, has a top-of-the-line sewing machine and pattern software that allows her to produce exquisitely fitting garments. Software for the machine allows her to embroider on the clothes images she scans into the computer.

"It's the perfect union of right and left brain," she says.

At the Maryland Institute College of Art, fiber majors celebrate that union as well. Their creative talents earned them admission to this top-ranked art school, and certainly mastery of the department's garment-industry equipment and pattern-making software, rivaling anything found on New York's Seventh Avenue, can lead to stable paychecks beyond commencement.

"My students transition seamlessly between the high-tech and the hand," says Annet Couwenberg, chair of MICA's fiber department.

But for all that's new in the world of sewing, the inherent pleasures and benefits of this art and craft - creativity, customization, self-sufficiency, sustainability, following a family tradition - remain the same, no matter whether one uses a fancy machine or makes a garment by hand.

In fact, some students at MICA prefer to bypass the roar of speed and strength of the machines for the intimate connection, sense of control and comfort in the rhythm of a needle and thread.

Students such as senior Juliet Hinely prize clothing that "looks like your hands made it."

She learned to sew from her mother and now mostly recycles and customizes garments - she calls it "collaging" her wardrobe. "Many designers are trying to make things look handmade," she says.

Getting started

Baltimore City Community College

Fashion Design classes and degree program

Address:

710 E. Lombard St., Baltimore 21202

Information:

410-986-5522 or bccc.edu

Maryland Institute College of Art

Fiber classes and degree program

Address:

1300 Mount Royal Ave., Baltimore 21217

Information:

410-669-9200 or mica.edu

Bear's Paw Fabrics

Classes, fabric, trimmings, patterns, notions, sewing machines

Address:

8812 Orchard Tree Lane, Towson 21286

Information:

410-321-6730 or bearspawfabrics.com

A Fabric Place

Fabric, trimmings

Address:

6324 Falls Road, Baltimore 21209

Information:

410-828-6777 or afabricplace.com

Blank's Fabrics

Fabric, trimmings, patterns, notions

Address:

9017 Red Branch Road, Suite F, Columbia 21045

Information:

410-730-6920 or blanksfab.com

Jo-Ann Fabric and Craft Stores

Classes, fabric, trimmings, patterns, notions, sewing machines

Information:

joann.com

Simplicity Patterns

Project Runway patterns, patterns

Information:

simplicity.com

Threads Magazine

Articles, tips, patterns

Information:

taunton.com/threads

Vogue Patterns magazine

Articles and patterns

Information:

voguepatterns.com/indexmag.htm

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