Mirror, Mirror: Sew it yourselves: Fashion designers are learning the old-school skill

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At Butcher's Sew Shop, Zachary McClain works on a serger, a machine that finishes raw fabric edges. "Our philosophy is that we want to teach people how to make things that are better than what they find in stores," the shop's owner says.

Tiffany Labhen unfurls a bolt of ivory satin on her work table, carefully smooths the pattern over the fabric, and starts measuring.

She's trying to determine how wide she should make her trumpet skirt's seam allowance - an important detail of a well-made garment, because without this extra room, future alterations are all but impossible.

"I'm learning everything that goes into an evening gown," said Labhen, a 26-year-old customer-service rep by day and creator of formfitting women's wear line TieNel Fashion by night.

Labhen is one of seven students learning the couture way to snip and stitch during a Friday-night evening-wear class at Old City's Made Studios. She ultimately wants to make bridal gowns.

"Learning how to sew is important, because it's teaching me all of the aspects of the business," Labhen said. "I know good quality."

An interest in sewing arose with the greater DIY movement that began at least five years ago, but its status as a crucial skill for self-trained fashion entrepreneurs is recent - and growing.

With few professional pattern makers and sewers left in the U.S. workforce, it's becoming essential for the next generation of American fashion designers to learn high-level sewing - especially if, as most millennial designers do, they want to create small batches Stateside. (For the last 20 years, most affordable manufacturers have been overseas, doing mostly long runs). In other words, designers can't just conceptualize a collection and easily hand it off to a team of competent sewers.

"This is a fundamental skill for me," Max Wolf, 24, said as he put a zipper in a pair of banker's plaid trousers one recent Sunday afternoon during a nearly all-male class at Butcher's Sew Shop in Bella Vista. Wolf hopes to be a menswear designer and plans to apply to the Fashion Institute of Technology this year.

"Our philosophy is that we want to teach people how to make things that are better than what they find in stores," said Mali Petherbridge, 32, owner of Butcher's. "About 30 percent of our students want to start businesses, and we are trying to give them the know-how to follow their passion."

The increased interest in sewing is reflected in the growing number of sewing machines sold worldwide, according to a January report from Global Industry Analysts Inc. in California. The global market for sewing machines is estimated to reach 30.8 million units by 2020, up from about 23.7 million last year.

"Sewing is really a socially relevant hobby," said Vanessa Parrish, director of brand coordination and communications at Singer, the more than 160-year-old sewing machine manufacturer near Nashville.

Not only is Singer developing and manufacturing more "smart" sewing machines - those with touch screens that control stitching and bobbin-threading - Parrish said the company has had an increase in sales, which she thought was an indicator that people are using the machines for more than just a hobby.

"Thanks to the Internet, people may not need the money to open a space, but they have to know how to make a decent garment," Parrish said.

Tricia Fleishman, co-owner of the 82-year-old Fleishman's Fabrics & Supplies in Philadelphia, says business at her Fabric Row store had increased 50 percent since 2012.

"We get a lot of independent designers in here who make their own creations," Fleishman said. "Between the universities and the sewing schools and the YouTube videos, we stay pretty busy."

An online community of sewers, as well as fashionable posts on Instagram, also helps make the skill cool again.

Popular websites from Thread Theory to Grainline Studio sell patterns, offer tutorials, and provide a forum for satisfied sewers to post finished products.

Philadelphia bloggers Andrea Brown of Four Square Walls and Maddie Flanigan of Madalynne teach sewing techniques on their sites, and offer one-day, in-person workshops where students go home with a finished project - spandex leggings, bras, tote bags.

"The same way we go to Sweetgreen and get a custom-made salad, we want things made our way, and you can't find that at Forever 21," said Flanigan, 27, who works out of a Fishtown studio; her specialty is lingerie. "People want things that are custom, unique, one-of-a-kind, and there is an entrepreneurial twist to everything."

Sewing enthusiasts are excited about the new respect being paid to their old-school skill. But because of sewing's soiled, sweatshop history, they acknowledge the trend is a long way from replacing the profession in once-robust factories - even if newbies are learning how to finish buttonholes and expertly sew wrinkle-free silken linings into fitted blazers.

Yet even New York Fashion Week is paying attention to the maker movement - at least in name. The once-indie Milk Studios Made Fashion Week will partner with IMG, longtime producer of New York Fashion Week, to host the spring 2016 collections in September. The joint venture is another sign that where things are made is increasingly important to people.

In the Philadelphia sewing community, Made Studios owner Rachel Ford is at the forefront. A former pattern maker and stitcher for Opera Philadelphia, Ford, 33, needed a way to make extra money when a slowed arts economy cut down opportunities for work.

Three years ago, Ford started offering expert-level sewing technique classes, and within a few months, she had to turn to friends in the opera community to sign on to teach when her evening wear, corsetry, and tailoring classes sold out. (Petherbridge taught classes at Made Studios before opening Butcher's Sew Shop a year ago.)

"There was so much excitement. I realized I needed to add introductory, intermediate, and advanced classes, as well," Ford said. Made Studios now offers 11 courses - including basic sewing, pattern-making, and tailoring - that range from $395 to $650 for six to eight weeks.

The people who take Made classes, Ford said, are interested in sewing to further their entrepreneurial dreams but ultimately want to hand that work to manufacturing facilities. Until the workforce exists here, local designers are finding other ways.

Last year, Elissa Bloom, executive director of the Philadelphia Fashion Incubator at Macy's, asked Ford to help make manufacturing accessible to the program's designers in residence.

Ford experimented and trained 75 local women from Bhutan, Burma, Iraq, and Sudan who had formed an immigrant enclave in South Philly and were looking to find work in sewing.

Some of the items they made during the pilot program are now in stores, and Ford is looking for other ways to offer training to increase the number of qualified sewers in Philadelphia - but it's all a work in progress.

"I'm a sewing educator, and at the end of the day, people are learning a skill, a good skill, a skill they can earn an honest living doing," she said. "A skill that is needed."


ewellington@phillynews.com

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