Sewing Is No Longer Just Your Grandma’s Side Talent … The Sewing Industry Has A Rebirth

How the sewing industry has changed…from necessity to custom luxury, the expanding genre of crafting, embroidery and the rebirth of modern quilting.

How the sewing industry has changed…from necessity to custom luxury, the expanding genre of crafting, elaborate embroidery and the rebirth of modern quilting

Popular shows like Project Runway remind you of the skill and talent that goes into modern sewing. Here designer Dom Streater has to make it work for the seventh challenge of Project Runway. Photo by Barbara Nitke

Sewing is now an option to share your creative talents. In the past Grandma sewed more out of necessity rather than as a creative release. Think about how this reflects in society today. Traditionally, women stayed at home to take care of business at home. Mothers and grandmothers alike stayed at home and fixed holes, torn clothing, and darned socks rather than simply throwing them out. The harsh lessons in the Great Depression was “save and fix” because you never knew when materials and skills would come in handy. This leads to my next point.

Repurposing garments to give them a second life. I remember two beautiful winter coats that my mother created for my sister and me out of my father’s dress uniform coat. Great fabric is the key to a great garment. This takes me to my next thought on repurposing of coats, aprons, dresses, scraps of fabrics and ties.

Repurposing using coats, aprons, dresses, scraps of fabrics, and ties is no different. Quilt with the fabrics available. I have a quilt my grandmother made from wool jackets and coats. Many have even taken ties and create a masterpiece silk quilts that are absolutely divine. This was also during the time when aprons were worn while working in the kitchen to protect a smart kitchen frock. These well-worn aprons would be gently pieced together into family heirlooms. Some even included quilt squares made from seed bags and flour sacks. Use what you have and make it work.

In days past, if one needed a coat or a dress, it was more often than not made at home. Likewise, quilting bees were events that allowed friends to gather at the local church to share in the event to help a member of the congregation. These are largely events of days gone by.

This is not to suggest that it no longer exists. Indeed, there are still a number of national contests to promote sewing and quilting such as the Make it With Wool Fashion Design contest, or the American Sewing Guild’s Anyone Can Win. No doubt there are myriad local groups around the country that get together to promote sewing and quilting. The point is that it no longer enjoys the pervasive status it once did since it is now more an option than a necessity.

Sewing was once also taught in secondary schools as part of the home economics program. Unfortunately, many schools are no longer able to support these programs due to budget constraints. Now, sewing machine retailers, fabric stores and design schools fill the training of sewing around the world. Professional teachers also give one-on-one classes for in depth understanding of techniques. It is a requisite skill for design majors around the world and has been gaining popularity with shows like Project Runway.

fashionTechnological advancements have had a tremendous impact on all industries, and the sewing industry is no exception. When one compares the sewing machines of the 19th century, or even the mid-20th century, to the capabilities of current machines, it is very clear that the early machines were meant to serve a very practical function, whereas the machines of today not only can perform all the basic functions, but really fuel the creativity in the user, thanks to computer advancements.

Being one fortunate to have been on the cusp of these transformations, I have been able to witness the changes firsthand. Gone are the days when one had to hand crank or use a treadle to drive one’s machine. In 1980, I was on the team that launched the world’s very first “writing” computerized sewing machine to the World, the Husqvarna Viking 6690. It could sew letters and numbers, had programmable buttonholes (so you can sew the same buttonhole 100’s of times and adjust the width and type, even a button hole for stretch fabrics, programmable stitch patterns, non oiling with sintered steel bearing and a carbon fiber jam free floating shuttle. These were remarkable back in the 1980s and continue to evolve to make sewing easier for busy lives and gave us myriad opportunities for creativity even then.

Many of the sewing machines today have longer necks that can accommodate quilting and a bulky roll. With the advent of the embroidery machines, many are incorporating these new techniques into the quilts as well.

For anyone that has grown up around a sewing machine, no doubt they could remember being told not to touch or adjust the tension discs. I recall one time turning it too far and ended up with a handful of discs. The newest innovation is the deLuxe Stitch system, which giving you stunning results on both sides of the fabric and even works on sheer fabric, you can sew more beautiful stitches but with less effort and best part is it’s fully automated. It works by using a two-stitch system, which I find amazing. It allows for thread portioning and thread tension and measures the fabric thickness to portion the correct amount of thread for every stitch. When the thread tension is active, the tension discs will maintain the right amount of tension on the needle thread, so that the machine portions the optimum amount of thread for every stitch, this is a sewing breakthrough, which is a hidden treasure for anyone that has ever sewn.

For the ease of changing sewing machine feet, instead of using a screwdriver, many of the machines now have easy snap on-off feet with marking for techniques and sewing accuracy.

Another great feature is The Sewing Advisor and embroidery Advisor features. These are automatic settings and expert advice for optimal sewing and embroidery. It actually selects the best way to stitch for every fabric. Using a touch screen on the sewing machine you enter the fabric type, weight ad sewing technique and the exclusive sewing advisor feature will take care of all the settings – stitch, stitch width, stitch length, thread portioning/tension and presser foot pressure. It will also recommend the presser foot, needle type and size of needle. No guesswork and it’s instant, we know how valuable time is.

For those that love embroidery, you no longer need to do it by hand or even free hand on the machine. There is a wealth of designer diamond machines that can create patterned and even your personal designs in marvelously perfect machine embroidery. You can set up design, see it on a digital display or download a program from a USB stick, push start on the machine and walk away. You need to thread the machine for each new color, but the machine works like a design genie while you step downstairs to get a cup of coffee. The possibilities with machine embroidery today are endless. Grandmother’s wooden embroidery hoops worked well in her day, but you’ll be pleased to see these new machines in action. They also have hoops that will allow you to incorporate textured ribbons and threads, embroidery cutwork with chisel point needles and the latest technique felting embroidery with a barbed needle sewn on the inside of a garment were the needle pulled and felts the base fabric through, with no thread used. There is even an embroidery technique that looks like velvet.

Over the years, fabrics have changed and the machines have had to adapt to these new fabrics. In the 1960s stretch sewing came to America by Kerstin Martensson, and I had the honor of having Martensson attend my first style show in 1979.

Anyone sewing back in those days would remember the silk jersey dresses and the new fabric Quiana. So having a stretch stitch added to your machine was needed for the new designs. Think of the Diane von Furstenberg silk jersey wrap dress from 40 years ago, knits were all the rage and are again. The sewing machines added stretch and overcast stitches to allow the home sewer to have some of the same capacities as the ready-to-wear garments.

Today instead of only repurposing, we can benefit from the globalization of ready-to-wear at reasonable prices. Take a garment and add our own personal touch of embroidery or fit.

Of course, garment making is a treasured skill when you can make your own using a designer pattern from Ralph Rucci or Halston, fine cashmere from Italy, which we can order, online via online stores or from a trip to Mood Fabrics in New York. Noting that custom sewing is not a cheap venture but one that can offer the best of the home that home sewing can offer. You can create the garment that is in your best colors, best line design and fit you to a T. This is something we have in common with Grandma’s day. The pride in sewing will always be critical to every project; I like to call this type of sewing “Custom Luxury.”

One fun trend for modern sewers is to repurpose Grandma’s wedding gown and create a baptism dress, baby bonnets and even a ring bear pillow for future weddings. Heirloom sewing is very popular and will be treasured for years to come.

Another breakthrough has been the home serger. This is a remarkable machine that sews one seam, completes an overcast edging and trims the fabric as you sew. Some of the first sergers in the field 30 years ago were hard to work with and even more difficult to thread. I recently purchased my own and it is computerized and thread and tension problems have all been solved.

Finally, if you have your grandmother’s sewing machine, please by all means keep it. In fact, take it in and have it serviced. These machines are wonderful, not only for sentimental value but also for their stitch quality. One feature I love about a single straight stitch machine is the quality when topstitching is the perfection of line, with no needle deflection. For best results, keep one of these old machines around just for the straight stitch.

Sewing features on the new machines today are brilliant time savers for the modern man or woman. It’s time to explore the world of sewing, if you don’t know how, take a class and open your creative senses and your love of sewing, since sewing is an art and life skill. Many grandmas’ today are in these classes. I don’t expect we will be seeing you make the Bob Mackie gown made from the curtains for Carol Burnett in the famous ‘Went with the Wind’ sketch (the gown included the curtain rod on the shoulder of the gown), but if so inclined, you should try. Happy sewing my friends.

cindyCindy Ann Peterson, AICI FLC is an internationally recognized image and style coach, designer, author, trainer, educational consultant, fashion editor and speaker dedicated to the advancement of professionals in business. She is the co-author of My Style, My Way: Top experts reveal how to create yours today and The Power of Civility: Top experts reveal the secrets of social capital and Founder/President of Design and Image Transformation of Washington, DC, focusing on helping professionals define then refine their image in tune with their professional goals helping build successful and rewarding careers of significance. Peterson is Universal Style certified, certified Image Consultant from the Fashion Institute of Technology and professional certification from AICI. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Apparel, Textiles and Design, and Business. She has served as tailor-on call to President Clinton and Former Educational Consultant and Regional Sales manager for Husqvarna. An Examiner editor and featured by The Wall Street Journal, the Palm Beach Post, Vogue Bridal, Country Living and Hawaii Public Radio as top media source on career and workplace issues, she has appeared in leading newspapers and magazines and on national radio and television.  Visit and connect with Cindy on: Twitter @CivilityInStyle, FB, and LinkedIn.

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  • My granddaughter is participating in Distinguished Young Woman of the year. She hopes to use her talent for sewing as her “talent” for the competition. She has won many awards for her sewing. Can you give me any ideas on showcasing this talent for the competition?
    She needs to do a 90 second talent presentation. Or where I can find ideas to showcase this exceptional talent?

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    And i am glad reading your article. But should remark on some general things, The site style is ideal,
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