The Post Recession Fashion Industry: Sewing Circle Rebellion

SeriesPart 4: The fashion industry is emerging from its cocoon post-recession, a changed sector where consumers are more cautious, manufacturers are on their toes and designers are struggling to stay afloat doing business as usual. In this five-part series, we take a hard look at the fashion world, speaking with industry leaders, luminaries and experts. This week we ask: Did the recession birth new DIY designers tired of being branded with corporate logos?

In times of economic despair, there will always be a surge in the use of hands to quell the storm of financial uncertainty and to give meaning to otherwise challenging lives. During the Great Depression, people were advised to acquire “productive activities,” to make good use of idle time being out of work and to maintain solid work ethics that rewarded them with a sense of fulfillment and a feeling that they could still, in fact, be productive members of society.

Post recession, one has only to look at the number of DIY sites that have become popular and the micro trend of sewing and knitting groups to know that a cultural shift is happening. Within the confines of craft, there now lies an inherent rebelliousness that you usually only see in punk, indie music or street culture. Women working with their hands to teach others (or even alone in their own homes) are leading a movement against being branded, and taking how they dress themselves as a form of protest.

Juliana Sabinson, a freelance sewing teacher and artist, is one of those people.

Anne Wilson’s Local Industry

Sabinson says while her desire to create and teach the art of sewing is to promote empowerment. Her own story is inextricably linked to her dislike and distrust of contemporary clothing and the companies behind it.

“I try and think about all the socioeconomic systems behind my purchases and at a certain point buying clothes seemed no longer a sustainable option, not to mention the majority of it is so badly made,” says Sabinson. “So I make not only to fulfill a creative desire and to externally express myself, but also as a political act, a small and artistic protest against a largely unquestioned system.”

She’s not alone. Many people are coming out of the woodwork post-recession in protest that they are not a brand and refuse to be catered to as one. This rounded consciousness that applies to fashion, along with food and home, is burgeoning a sewing renaissance that professional women as well as homemakers are part of to take a stand against corporate forces that got us into the recession in the first place.

Sabinson says it’s not all rebellion, however. When people are sewing and using their hands they are not only building a level of muscle memory, they are quieting their brains and giving themselves a space in which to be a designer.

“They are designers simply because they’re creating,” says Sabinson, who teaches her students to first create in their heads then execute the design. She likens it to a “leap of faith,” which makes them feel at ease and able to think more creatively.

“For me, the most important goal in all my classes is to build one’s confidence and willingness to fail and start over.”

Though unemployment and economic uncertainty have helped fuel design growth, some say the economic downturn has in some ways been beneficial, because more consumers have turned to channeling the comforts of tradition.

Caroline Weaver, VP of North America Marketing for SVP Worldwide, the world’s largest sewing machine company and source of the SINGER®, HUSQVARNA VIKING® and PFAFF® sewing machine collections, says if you look at a brand like Singer’s 150-year history, during times of economic slowdown and depression, people will always gravitate towards hobbies and because of that, micro trends like sewing will flourish. In the case of the under-40 crowd, these sewers-cum-designers are just starting to realize that modern day sewing machines are not their grandmother’s gadgets.

“These machines are highly, highly automatic and that’s what’s appealing to the under 40 crowd. The machines make their own button holes, thread themselves, and provide constant tension. These are the machines with millions of lines of code. Nowadays, you’re not just paying for a sewing machine, you’re paying for a computer and having  a sewing mentor in your machine.”

The Wall Street Journal’s Anjali Athavaley reports that in the post-Project Runway world, sewing enthusiasts are finding the old-fashion craft comes with apps, Twitter and high-tech machines. This is a whole new generation used to smartphone technology and the simple push of a button to instantly gratify their every need for information.

BurdaStyle, an online social community using the web to bring the craft of sewing to a new generation of designers, hobbyists, DIYers and anyone looking to sew, is a popular part of this generation. BurdaStyle Creative Director and Editor Alison Kelly, who was also on Season 3 of Project Runway, says the current DIY movement was certainly proliferated by reality shows like Project Runway.

Alison Kelly, Season 3 of Project Runway

“Before them, I think fashion design was a mystery to many people, the face behind a fashion label often remained unknown (except of course by die hard fans), and now many fashion designers have become celebrities. It’s a wonderful thing, inspiring people to create, and these reality shows are so interesting because one can witness the creative process first-hand, while drama and competition fuel the fire,” says Kelly.

With over half a million members, Kelly says she’s constantly amazed by the skill and creativity of the BurdaStyle community.
“New projects are constantly uploaded to the site by our members, which triggers a reaction in others to create their own variation of a pattern, and the cycle continues,” says Kelly, adding that the proliferation of the DIY philosophy and the flourishing of reality design shows have encouraged people to reinvent the craft of sewing, and in response, sites like BurdaStyle have risen to the challenge.

Nora Abousteit, co-founder of BurdaStyle, says when she and former partner Benedikta Karaisl von Karais – a fashion designer – came up with the BurdaStyle concept and thanks to what Fast Company calls “her love for interaction and innovative technology,” Nora reinvented an old Hubert Burda sewing magazine into an online icon in the sewing community.

BurdaStyle at Brooklyn’s Renegade Craft Fair

“We witnessed many people over the past four years that started sewing and now are proficient. It is so much fun to see when people improve their skills and take up harder challenges and simply produce more and better work,” says Abousteit.

In addition to budding designers worldwide utilizing the BurdaStyle community, lots of well-known designers have participated in their DIY community, including Wenlan Chia (Twinkle by Wenlan), Alabama Chanin, Samantha Pleet, and Mina Stone.

“We’ve done plenty of pattern contests and produced the ones with the best design. Also, we are publishing a book in the fall which features over 70 of our members who are aspiring designers or already work as one,” says Abousteit, who co-wrote the book with Kelly.
Moving to New York from Germany to create BurdaStyle, Abousteit says she saw a niche that needed to be filled. Her site’s collaboration with all the designers in the BurdaStyle community has truly strengthened the site.
“Inspiration and creative ideas are the most important part of this site, this is why our users come and visit, so we need to offer always something new that’s high quality, we need designers for this,” Abousteit says. “Also, to cater to the taste of different members it is good to work with a variety of designers, of course always keeping in mind our aesthetics and quality standards.”

With over 530,ooo registered members, BurdaStyle is a growing force to be reckoned with.

While all women interviewed agree this post-recession “micro-trend” is all about a new and more aggressive DIY sewing community, they all also agree that it is empowering.

“Consumers are tired of living in a mass produced world,” says SVP Worldwide’s Weaver. “Women are deciding to put signs outside their homes that they do embroidery work for customizing team jerseys and hats to make extra money, our classes are filling up, we’re breaking sales records and people are just so inspired.”

Images: Kheel Center @ Cornell University, A Forest Frolic, Anne Wilson

Amy DuFault

Amy DuFault is a conscious lifestyle writer, consultant and fashion instigator. She resides in Cape Cod, Massachusetts.