PITTSBURGH - Home sewing got kicked to the curb sometime in the 1980s or '90s.
Once, every schoolgirl learned to cook and sew, with rows of sewing machines filling "home ec" classrooms. But teens are no longer required to learn to sew in school, "fast fashion" made home-sewn clothing more expensive than store-bought apparel, and more women working outside the home left less time to do crafts for pleasure.
In Pittsburgh, only one store now sells dress fabric exclusively, and several sell mostly craft fabrics. Nationwide, the crafting chain Joann Fabrics and big-box store Walmart are among some 75,000 retail outlets that sell sewing supplies.
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed everything.
"Right now, everybody's looking for someone's (sewing machine) because everybody's sewing," said Tami Sampson, owner of The Fabric Place in Mt. Lebanon.
Suddenly, sewing machines are in short supply - no longer candidates to be abandoned at Goodwill or set out on the curb for trash pickup.
"People are clamoring for them," said Bruce A. Altomari of Altomari Sewing Machine Repair in Scott. "I got to the point where I was not taking machines in. I was swamped."
Some had been neglected so long, they won't be coming back.
"At least half of the machines that came in were not repairable," he said, describing many as being rusted shut and others with missing parts.
Altomari, who has been repairing sewing machines for about 16 years, has never seen a surge of interest like this among non-sewers.
"I've got a lot of guys coming in now," he said. "They know very little."
He's not the only one seeing the trend.
"I was working seven days a week for several weeks," concurred Jeff Bloemker, of Washington County, who repairs sewing machines for businesses, not individual consumers. "It was just insane."
Since he works on his own, he is comfortable having 12 to 15 machines to repair per week. His load soared to more than 30 a week at one point, although the pace has tapered slightly since then.
Gloria Horn, owner of Gloria Horn Sewing Studio in Mt. Lebanon, breathlessly reported that she and her nine employees have been working 14-hour days.
"It's wonderful to be this busy, but it's crazy," she said. "We are one business that has gone up" in the pandemic.
Revenues for her store would be higher if a shipment of 20 sewing machines had not been stranded in Los Angeles. Normally, such machines are in stock and take only four or five days to arrive. This time, her supplier was out of stock, and goods ordered in early April did not reach her until Aug. 8.
"Have you heard about my machine?" a customer standing nearby interjected.
Horn has 40 to 60 more machines on order than she normally would have, and the lower-priced machines at $800 or less are especially hard to come by.
"Everything under $3,000 is on back order," she said.
Quite a few sewing machines used to be donated to the Goodwill store in North Huntingdon, Westmoreland County, said David Tobiczyk, vice president of marketing and development for Goodwill of Southwestern Pennsylvania. The machines tended to sell slowly.
Since the pandemic, the donations of sewing machines haven't changed, but the ones the store has are "going very fast," and phone inquiries have come in about more, he said.
The pandemic-driven sewing trend started with face masks.
"There was this feeling that people needed to do something," The Fabric Place's Sampson said.
Though her business is dedicated to apparel sewing, she has various pieces of elastic for masks laid out on the first display in the store.
Horn makes mask kits that sell for $30 and include the fabric and elastic to make masks. The store has sold enough of these kits to make 100,000 masks, she estimated.
She also sells "Gloria Gaiter" kits for the same price. A neck gaiter is a type of mask that ties around the neck and can be pulled up to use as a mask or pulled down to look like a scarf. The store is getting 20 to 40 orders for the gaiter kits per day.
Horn launched her online store just before the pandemic hit. She also started a thrice-weekly Facebook Live segment at 3 p.m. touting the newest fabrics and services in the store, which is jammed with bolts of fabric and has quilts, blankets and pillows hanging from the walls and ceiling. The store, a repurposed single-family home, has five sewing machines and a projection screen in the basement, where she offers lessons.
"Consumers have more time on their hands, so they've pulled that sewing machine out of their closets and started with masks," said Dean Brindle, chief marketing officer of Nashville, Tenn.-based SVP Worldwide, which makes the Singer, Viking, Husqvarna and Pfaff brands of sewing machines. " ... There's only so much you can watch on TV."
In March and April, "we were literally sold out of machines," he said. The company experienced "at least 20% growth in all brands," he said, and increased production of sewing machines.
"We've put our first online video classes together," he said.
While home decor sewing - quilts, pillows, Christmas decorations and the like - remains the most popular type of sewing project, some "sewists" are venturing into apparel. Mr. Brindle said college students are starting their own clothing brands, mostly personalized athletic and leisure wear.
This trend predates the pandemic.
"Repurposing, reusing and upcycling old stuff into new, personalize treasures is a powerful drive among millennials," retail consultant Pamela N. Danziger wrote in a 2018 Forbes magazine article.
But with the pandemic has come more time and more interest in crafting in general.
Horn said "the young people" - 40 and under - are getting into knit-fabric tops and dresses.
"They want quality, and they want something made well," she said. "And they want (something) a little different. Yesterday, with us, we wanted to be the same. Today, they want to be different."
All this attention isn't exactly unwelcome.
"I'm hoping, as a fabric retailer, that this (pandemic) motivates people to think about their apparel and what they're purchasing," said Sampson, whose shop is along Mt. Lebanon's main commercial artery on Washington Boulevard.
She stocks textiles from high-end apparel shops and also material from abroad, such as Italian prints. One section of her store is devoted to the bridal market with fabrics, linings and high-end lace.
In recent years, fast fashion made clothing disposable. Brands like Zara, H&M, Primark and Topshop emphasized getting clothing to market quickly and cheaply. The resulting clothes follow fads, such as the "boho chic" look of the 2000s, but the pieces degrade quickly and are quickly outmoded. Consumers then discard them.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 5% of all landfill waste is textiles, and that the average American throws out 70 pounds of clothing and other cloth each year.
Home-sewn clothing, by contrast, is not cheap. A lightweight 100% wool dress to be sewn at home will cost about $150 in supplies alone. A retail dress, usually all or partly of synthetic fabric, would run the same price, but with a key difference.
"When we sew things, they last forever," Sampson said.
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