Make and mend: how the sewing machine got hip again
Fred Konrad is hunched over a sewing machine in his flat overlooking Wellington's bush. The 30-year-old pulls items he has made out of his wardrobe - a couple of pairs of trousers, a velvet embroidered jacket, and a few shirts.
Today, he's wearing a white $5 t-shirt he reinvented in front of the television last night, hand painting a lightning bolt across the front. The university student began sewing his own clothes as a teen, frustrated that nothing in the shops fitted his lanky, two metre frame - making his own clothes is both a necessity and a hobby. "I've always been a creative, crafty person. The only problem is that I can point out every flaw in these trousers, every bit of overlocking that's not perfectly neat," he says, pointing to the black trousers he dons today.
Konrad is part of a sewing and craft renaissance happening here and around the globe. Sewing machines are whirring as the art of whipping up clothes has become fashionable again.
Sewing groups get together regularly to stitch their creations, such as "stitch 'n bitch" groups and the Wellington sewing network. Bloggers like Wellington-based Kat Hardisty, of Modern Vintage Cupcakes, run sewing challenges and sew-alongs. Fabric technology and fashion design courses are popular in secondary schools, while the days of just making a pillowcase in home economics are a distant memory.
Observers say that from the early seventies, the sewing machine became viewed as a symbol of female oppression. A whole generation was steered away from sewing machines, while other domestic arts were also neglected.
DIY FASHION REVIVAL
That began to change from the early 2000s, when homemade clothes became celebrated again as organic vegetable gardens also began sprouting in backyards. Slow fashion and conscious consumption is also fuelling this sewing revival - in Britain, one 2011 report found that sewing machine sales were higher than ever before, as Britons embraced a "make and mend" mentality.
Conrad's maternal grandfather was an upholsterer, and his mother taught him to sew when he was quite young. Passionate about hand sewing, he pulls out a pair of jeans he stitched with handmade patches. "I was part of the 2000s indie scene, when op shopping and DIY was like a deliberate rejection of mainstream ideals, which new clothes and branded clothes came to represent," he says.
Maryanne Cathro, owner of the Made Marion textile and craft store in Wellington, thinks the trend for homemade fashion has been accelerated by the internet, as sewing and craft bloggers can now share their creations across the globe at the click of a button. A blaze of purple in a dress she recently made, Cathro began sewing her own clothes to cater for her plus-size frame which she says is poorly served by mainstream fashion stores. "I love colour and quality fabrics and those things stop at size 12," says the 51-year-old.
While her mother's generation sewed out of necessity, Cathro thinks her own was discouraged because the domestic arts were seen as demeaning. Although her mother, an artist, coached her how to make things, Cathro says: "The girls went to cooking and sewing classes and the boys did woodwork. Most of the girls in my sewing class hated it, but I really enjoyed it. Those were the days though when you spent two weeks learning to sew a pencil case at school and that was about it."
In one corner of the Made Marion store, Leimomi Oakes teaches half a dozen students how to sew in a basic sewing class. Pulling out pieces of fabric, the sewing teacher hails from Hawaii, where she lived on a remote island, Molokai, making her own clothes because there were no clothes stores. Running sewing classes four nights a week, they fill up quickly, with participants returning to learn to make everything from corsets to lampshades and cushion covers. "It's either about being creative or being frustrated with the clothes in shops, that they don't look right or fit right, or they're not a good quality."
Also a textile and fashion historian, Oakes blogs about her creations as The Dreamstress, drawing about 10,000 hits a day. With 12,000 followers on Pinterest too, she blogs about contemporary sewing and historical fashion.
Oakes also belongs to the Wellington Sewing Bloggers network, which has about 30 active members, including Hardisty. When they get together, they wear their creations and share insights about new products and what they're up to. She also sells one of her own patterns on her website, under the Scroop brand. "I started making them for my students because we couldn't find commercial patterns that they liked."
Living in an orchard on the edge of Havelock North, Sophie Parsons inhabits a world that runs according to the four seasons. While the 17-year-old's brother and sister are studying engineering and statistics at universities overseas, Sophie got the creative bug. Her mother was a prolific knitter, teaching her daughter how to work a pair of knitting needles. At the age of 9, Parsons found a sewing machine at her school and learned how to use it, making a skirt for her Year 5 teacher. "She wore it twice!" she says laughing.
That fuelled Sophie's interest in art and design, and she began making her own clothes and upcycling op shop garments, also teaching herself how to embroider and weave by watching a tutorial on the internet.
In late August, all that hard work came to fruition when she watched her award-winning creation saunter down the catwalk at the country's most prestigious fashion event, New Zealand Fashion Week. Chosen out of hundreds of entries and 12 finalists, Sophie won the Brother Design Stars supreme award for her silk jumpsuit and white knit jacket with chunky handwoven wool sleeves, an outfit inspired by Greenland's Inuit people.
In its third year, the competition encourages school students in Years 7 to 13 to enter a fashion or craft item and this year the theme was "Shine Bright". At Iona College, Sophie is just one of two materials technology students in Year 13, a subject she says is often frowned on as schools push academic subjects. But the course is about much more than pumping a sewing machine pedal, she says.
Her award-winning garment was a sign of how textiles and fashion design are taught in schools today, emphasising theory and critical thinking. Knitting the sleeves of the jacket, with embroidered beads on the back and the sleeves, she spent hours making it: "the time went so quickly because I love what I do".
"A big part of what we're taught in our course is about sustainability - not making things for the sake of it. The culture of Greenlandic Inuit people is to live close to nature, working with natural elements. By living in harmony with nature and working together in communities, Inuits are sustaining a no-waste, natural existence, which is being lost in modern life."
TURNING A HOBBY INTO A CAREER
At Massey University, fourth year design students Kristen Meaclem and Olivia Balle are hard at work. Their long desk in one corner of the fashion design workroom is lit up by dazzling fabrics and sequins, all once waste products. Balle, a textiles major, has been punching sequins out of discarded coke cans, and making fabrics out of old chip packets.
The honours students are reclaiming discarded items for their 'maximalist' garments. They're not sure if they want to be fashion designers as such, but both are keen on design careers. With 43 fourth year students this year, it's where Taranaki-born designer Sean Kelly, the winner of Project Runway in 2014, learned his craft.
Meaclem, a fashion major from Blenheim, makes the patterns and the textiles, while Balle creates the designs and sews them up. Says Meaclem: "Fashion design is always a conflict for me, as I want to make new things but I don't want to buy new fabrics. I'd rather find ways where I can do both of these things." Growing up in Auckland, Balle learned to make crafts at Brownies, raiding her mother's cupboards for scraps of paper and ribbons to make her own Christmas cards and decorations.
In Blenheim, Katie Romagnoli is making money out of this craft revival, with her bespoke pattern range, Papercut Patterns. Romagnoli was just six years old when she began filling a notebook with her fashion designs. Laying out her own clothing on newspaper, she traced around the garments and made her first patterns when her friends were playing with their dolls. At the age of 11, she made her first proper garment with a commercial pattern, and filled her wardrobe right through high school. With a fashion diploma behind her, Romagnoli had a lightbulb moment in 2008 while working for the Auckland Fabric Store, when the idea for her business was born. "I constantly had young stylish girls that were really into fashion asking me where they could get current, up-to-date sewing patterns. Because I had always drafted my own, I hadn't really noticed the massive gap in the market."
Her business was born at a time when the "big four" pattern makers - Simplicity, Vogue, Butterick and McCalls - dominated fabric shops. Today, the Nelson-based pattern maker sells 31 patterns that can be downloaded online or sent around the country.
For those who choose to turn a hobby into a career, Massey University fashion school co-ordinator Sue Prescott says the quality of what is being produced is so much higher today, which she attributes to the bounty of tools and equipment available. In the student workroom, laser and water jet cutters, along with 3D printers, fill the space amid work benches. Says Prescott: "Craft is different now...there's not just a needle and thread, and a bit of felt, glue, and a hammer. Now everything is all smoothed and beautiful."