Sewing notions for an intermediate hand sewing techniques course taught by Louisa Owen Sonstroem at the Tatter Textile Library in Brooklyn.
“I think when times are stressful, handwork is a way to cope,” says quilt designer and author Becky Goldsmith. “It can take you out of your head and give you something pretty to look at, and it allows you to make progress on something when nothing else is happening.”
This may explain the uptick in interest in hand sewing during this pandemic year. The craft world has welcomed new books, online classes, kits, and more, all focused on the age-old tradition of pulling a needle and thread through cloth with our fingers, one stitch at a time.
Goldsmith’s new book, Hand Sewing: A Journey to Unplug, Slow Down & Learn Something Old, is among these new releases. Over the course of a quilting career that began in 1994, she’s published over three dozen books and says she’s never tried to follow trends. “But this one feels more centered,” she says, “like I’m on trend because I’m part of a trend.” Lynn Ford, the Manager of Digital Marketing and Public Relations at Goldsmith’s publisher, C&T, says sales for hand sewing books have shot up over the past 12 months and are staying up.
“Books we published in 2016 on this topic are still best sellers for us.”
Becky Goldsmith’s new book shows readers how to make a single quilt using various hand-sewing techniques including English Paper Piecing, applique, hand piecing, and hand quilting.
Besides the meditative stress-relieving qualities, the desire to sew by hand is, for some, also driven by nostalgia. Liz Aneloski, who edited Goldsmith’s new book, points out, “Hand stitching takes you back to a simpler time before we were so dependent on technology.” And that, of course, brings us to Cottagecore, a fashion aesthetic that’s been developing online over the last decade, but came to the fore in the last year. Cottagecore is the summation of aspirational nostalgia for the pastoral life, including self-sufficiency (or at least an imagined ideal of what that might look like.) Stitching clothing and quilts by hand fit right in.
The Cottagecore vibe has found viral popularity on TikTok, where a younger generation is now being introduced to sewing and other handwork. Maggie Schmidt, a young sewist who creates TikToks under the account @magpieatelier, has 58,400 followers on the platform who watch as she hand-stitches historical-inspired garments. Her October 2020 TikTok demonstrating how to make corset stays has 452,100 views. “Worth every second,” remarked one of the hundreds of commenters. “Thanks to this I just bought the pattern and the fabric. I have never sewn any clothes before,” wrote another.
A reflection of values
For many makers right now, though, the draw to hand sewing goes deeper than just aesthetics; the act is representative of real-world concerns. “I think that people are more and more aware of where their clothing is coming from and hand sewing is truly a way to slow down and be thoughtful about making,” says Sarah E. Woodyard whose company, Sewn, is entirely devoted to the art of hand sewing garments. Woodyard apprenticed for seven years at the Margaret Hunter Millinery Shop in Colonial Williamsburg where she learned 18th-century dressmaking techniques and now shares her skills through workshops, both online and in person. “It corresponds with a heightened concern for worker’s rights and environmental issues relating to the clothing industry,” she says.
Woodyard points to Natalie Chanin as leading the way, showing consumers and the fashion world that it’s possible to sew modern garments by hand. Through her brand, Alabama Chanin, she’s released The School of Making books, a series of comprehensive guides to hand-making garments and home goods. She also produces kits of fabric and thread to complete garments that are stylish and sophisticated.
Louisa Owen Sonstroem self-publishes a hand-bound book about hand-sewing earlier this year. It sold out in minutes and there are hundreds of people on a waiting list to receive a copy of the second printing.
Photo courtesy of Louisa Own Sonstroem
Economics and portability
Economic factors are likely also at play in the upsurge of interest in hand sewing. Goldsmith points out that it’s an affordable entry point into garment making or quilting. “Young people may not have the money to drop on a fancy sewing machine, but they still want to make things,” she says. “That’s how I was when I started in my 30s. I didn’t have the disposable income, but I could sew.”
For the older generation (Goldsmith is 65) she says there’s a different appeal. “If you’ve made a bazillion quilts all of this ‘fast, fast, fast’ creating…how much of that stuff do we need?” Plus, she says, sitting for hours in front a sewing machine can stress the body while resting on a comfortable chair to hand stitch is more relaxing.
“As much as I adore my sewing machine, I also really love sewing by hand,” say quilt designer and teacher Blair Stocker. She highlights another benefit of hand sewing: it’s portable. “I can do it camping (even though I don’t camp), in the kitchen while I’m watching dinner in the oven, or while watching a movie,” she says.
Sewist Alexis Bailey began creating her Fibr & Cloth Studio kits that include a curated selection of notions ideal for hand sewing, after going on an overseas trip and missing her craft. Looking at a knitting kit, she realized she could create something similar for other makers like her who needed a portable project. The kits sell out almost as soon as she can get them into her shop.
Of course, hand stitching lends a unique specialness to a project that is hard to get when you sew by machine, and is certainly absent in ready-to-wear garments. “I like to think of hand sewing sort of like your own handwriting,” Stocker says. “The spacing of the stitches, the cadence of your movements. All unique to you and you alone. When you look at a vintage piece, a quilt, a garment, for example, it’s the hand stitches you see in it that make you look more closely at it. The sewer’s handwriting.”
Louisa Owen Sonstroem has pursued advanced coursework in pattern making and fashion design from FIT and spent years working in technical design at Macy’s, where she also ran a mending workshop for employees. She now does technical design for Eileen Fisher. Soenstroem’s love of hand sewing led her to create a 200-page hand-bound book on the topic called Hand Sewing Clothing: A Guide. When she released it in January of this year, she wasn’t sure how it would be received.
“I feared no one would jump for the idea of slowly stitching clothes. But from the moment I posted about the project on Instagram, enthusiasm grew,” she says. “Partly, I was discovering a hand-sewing community that already existed. But I also believe that it is a movement and that it’s growing.”
“In a moment when so many people yearn for slowness and individual empowerment, hand sewing clothing seems to be a rallying point.”
Sonstroem’s book sold out (in just 19 minutes, she says) and there’s now a waitlist of over 350 people eager to get a copy of the next printing.
Before COVID, Sonstroem taught hand sewing classes at Blue, the Tatter Textile Library in Brooklyn that hosts a wide variety of stitching classes. (Woodyard taught there, too.) When the pandemic hit everything went online and even more stitchers were able to access instruction from home. Hand sewing classes, books, patterns, and kits struck a chord during this stressful year, one that these makers hope continues. The benefits are far-reaching.
“I encourage people to hand sew for 15 minutes a day as a way to ground themselves and reconnect to their body,” says Woodyard. “Hand sewing can be extremely therapeutic. My tag line is ‘remember what your hands can do’ as a reminder to others, and myself, what humans are capable of creating with our bodies and simple tools.”