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February 16, 2024

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Outdated? That’s not so

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Until four years ago, Kerry Szymanski had never spent a minute at a sewing machine.

But in 2002 she decided the best way to meet people was to take a class. “I started taking sewing lessons,” said Szymanski, of Fort Lauderdale, “and fell in love with it.”

So much so that she now owns Sassy BB, where her MBA and marketing background meets her newfound sewing skills. Along with sewing the purses that her customers design, Szymanski, 37, gives lessons to a generation of women – and men – discovering the joys of bobbins and seam allowances.

Blame “Project Runway,” the hit Bravo reality show that airs at 10 p.m. Wednesdays. It has done for sewing what “Sex and the City” did for … well … single women living in Manhattan. “Project Runway” turns cutting, draping and transforming fabric behind a Consew industrial sewing machine into high drama.

Other signs that sewing is everywhere:

– In Style magazine recently showed readers how to transform last season’s styles into this season’s. (Prairie skirt to bubble skirt, anyone?) Real Simple magazine featured a four-page spread on sewing basics.

– New how-to books make sewing sound hip. Consider “Sew Subversive” (Taunton, $14.95), which teaches you how to turn a T-shirt into a tote bag, or “In Stitches” (Chronicle, $24.95), which includes instructions for a fabric tunnel for your cat.

-Teen and tween sewers are led by Emily Osment, the 14-year-old actress who plays Lilly on Disney Channel’s “Hannah Montana,” who specializes in halter tops.

-Those ubiquitous home-decorating shows might not show the Singers, but the new pillows didn’t get done without a sewing machine. Call it aspirational sewing.

Today’s sewers are motivated more by fashion and individuality, and less by practicality and economy.

In other words, sewing doesn’t mean a First Communion dress or formal draperies. Instead, the national Home Sewing Association reports today’s 35 million sewing enthusiasts are “embellishing” and “adapting.”

“It’s not like we’re making clothes from scratch,” said Allison Whitlock, the thirtysomething host of “Uncommon Threads,” a daily show on DIY Network. “What girls and guys are doing is going to vintage stores and buying that shirt where the collar is a little too big or the fit isn’t quite right. And then we’re reconstructing them and adding our own flair to them, updating the style.”

Will Breto, a hairdresser from Hollywood, Fla., starting taking sewing lessons with Szymanski just after Labor Day.

“I needed a hobby,” said Breto, 42, who has watched his seamstress mother sew since he was a kid.

He recently saw a pair of $175 designer jeans that featured a rip and visible patches. With his newfound sewing skills, Breto re-created the look with a pair of $20 jeans from Target and a dip into his mother’s fabric scraps.

Sewing was once a necessary life skill, not unlike cooking and caring for kids.

Just ask Elouise Crowder, president of the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., chapter of the American Sewing Guild. “I learned to sew when I was in elementary school,” Crowder said, as she was hard at work on a new valance for her living room.

At 59, she is a third-generation sewer. Her grandmother could make a dress on Friday to wear to church on Sunday. Crowder’s mother tackled complicated couture patterns. Crowder believes she continued to sew because at 4 feet 11, it was difficult to find clothes that fit. It was also less expensive.

Now, some sewing machines cost as much as a down payment on a car. “They want $5,000 for a machine,” said Crowder, who said a very good one can be had for less than $300.

While Crowder has seen membership in her Guild chapter slide from 650 to 357 in the past 13 years, she’s hopeful about the future. Among her recent students was a 13-year-old who wanted a haute couture theme for her bat mitzvah. “We did 10 tables with full-sized garments as centerpieces,” said Crowder. “She had her hands on all 10 of the outfits.”

At Calico Corners home fabric store in Boca Raton, Fla., the average customer age gets younger every year.

“I think it’s because of the exposure and interest generated by HGTV and the Internet,” said Claudette Bublak, a Calico Corners employee for 33 years. “I’m watching a lady with her child right now. Our core demographic would be 30 to 50. Twenty years ago, it was a lot older.”

Mariella Adrian has taught sewing at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale for the past eight years. Born in Cuba and raised in Puerto Rico and Miami, Adrian said that in Latin southern Florida, sewing skills are respected. It’s still common to have special occasion dresses custom-made.

“There are lots of very good designers working in Coral Gables who make a living doing special occasion work,” Adrian said. “First Communion, Sweet 16 and bat mitzvah.”

Enrollment in the fashion program at the Art Institute has grown from 125 students in 1995 to 288 this year. Adrian said only 30 percent know how to sew when they arrive at the school.

“I was the one who brought sewing into the house,” said Dominique Farquharson, 20, a fashion design major from Coral Springs, Fla. Her sister Heather, 21, is enrolled in fashion merchandising and the two hope to one day open a studio. Their mother sewed buttons and hemmed skirts, but the first sewing machine they purchased was for Dominique in high school.

Most home sewers have no intention of becoming designers.

Jamie Bohne-Richardson, 37, a stay-at-home mother from Fort Lauderdale, went back to her sewing machine after a 20-year hiatus, taking lessons to freshen her skills. Recently, other mothers at her children’s school complimented her newest creation: a purse.

“They buy Chanel and Coach,” said Bohne-Richardson. “I told them that I’d just finished making this with my sewing teacher. Some people go shopping for a treat. Mine is to sew.”

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