Adults busy at a sewing class at Thimble Fingers.
All photos courtesy of Sherry Reese.
The floodwaters of Hurricane Harvey stopped about three blocks from, in Houston, Texas, in the summer of 2017. And though the shop itself endured the storm without damage, the neighborhood it’s part of did not.
Sherry Reese opened the studio in 2004, shortly after she graduated from a fashion design program. She’d spent a couple of years teaching after-school sewing classes at private schools, and eventually realized that she could teach far more students if they came to her, rather than her toting four sewing machines by car from school to school.
Focusing on teaching
Her plan was to bankroll her fashion-design work by teaching classes at her studio, but the teaching ended up taking over. “I didn’t really feel like I was letting something go,” Reese recalls about her decision to focus on teaching rather than designing.
“I love working with children, and I love the teaching, and I love sewing. I very happily allowed it to take over my life. I decided this is my calling, so I went ahead and rolled with it.”
Enough parents of her students started asking for lessons that she started offering classes for adults, too. Over time, her clientele grew so that about half of her students were between eight and fourteen years old, and half were adults. (Reese explained that once children hit adolescence, other activities take over their lives, and if they’ve taken classes with her since they were children they’re usually quite proficient at sewing by the time they’re teenagers.)
A particular challenge Reese has faced in her education-based business was managing student expectations about their own availability to attend the classes they signed up for. She notes this is a specific challenge amongst her adult students; her child students attend all of their classes, and they arrive on time.
But Reese found that her adult students who always managed to get their children to class on time struggled to be able to commit to their own classes, often due to the variable demands of parenting and work. Handling student requests for make-up classes put a significant strain on Reese’s time and energy.
So she changed how she arranges adult classes. Students now purchase six classes at a time, which are good for six months. She publishes a class schedule, and students can select classes according to their own availability. If their availability changes, they simply cancel and rebook at another time.
During a time when there seems to be weekly news of another craft shop closing, this kind of adaptability – of hearing and responding to students’ needs and of seeing challenges as opportunities for innovation – can feel quite refreshing.
And adaptability is exactly the thing that’s keeping Thimble Fingers going in the aftermath of the Hurricane.
Though adults from throughout the sprawling city of Houston travel to the shop for classes, the vast majority of children Reese has taught have been from right nearby in the neighborhood. When the neighborhood flooded, it was devastating. As families have had to cut out non-essential spending and focus on rebuilding – or have moved away – Reese’s children’s classes have stopped filling up.
So Reese is taking stock and making changes. She’s noticed a growing trend amongst adult students expressing a desire to go beyond sewing basics to learn how to make clothes that fit their bodies. Reese has referred such students to other teachers in the past, but she’s now dusting off her fashion-design knowledge and is working on credentials to teach pattern fitting herself. She’s also responding to the cosplay trend by offering classes geared toward this particular DIY crowd; she’ll stretch beyond fabric-based projects to teach things like how to make your own armor.
Having just relaunched the studio’s website with functionality enabling class purchasing and managing registrations, Reese is looking ahead to continuing to meet her student’s sewing needs while increasing the resilience of her business.
Kim Werker is a Vancouver-based writer who is building a community of creative adventurers.