When Martha Moore Porter was a preteen, an aunt sent her a sewing machine as a present. Growing up in Prairie Village, Kan., she came from a crafty family, but her mother didn’t sew. So she taught herself with the help of a babysitter who showed her how to read patterns.
Since then, Porter, who is a now 36 and a textile designer in Brooklyn, would occasionally return to the craft — altering a vintage skirt here, taking in something there. But a couple of years ago, she moved in with her boyfriend, who suggested leaving the machine out in a dedicated area so that she could sew more.
In 2018, she committed to making “12 wearable garments.” The wearable qualifier was to “hold myself to it. It couldn’t be some weird art project. It had to be a piece of clothing I could put out in the world,” she said. She ended up surpassing her goal and sewing close to 40 pieces of clothing, including jeans, dresses, ruffled tops and colorful winter coats with bejeweled collars.
In 2019, she went on to make 52 garments. Porter’s not alone: She’s part of a growing trend of “sewists” — people who sew their own clothes — often sharing their projects on Instagram with the hashtag #Sewist or #MeMade.
Fabric stores have shuttered around the United States, which makes this latest renaissance in do-it-yourself clothes somewhat surprising. But the rise of social media, a backlash against fast fashion, a growing concern over sustainability and a preference for experiences over things has boosted the popularity of sewing for yourself, particularly among millennials.
Suzan Steinberg, the owner of Stonemountain & Daughter Fabrics in Berkeley, Calif., credits a move away from “corporate patterns” toward “indie” patterns, which are more diverse in sizing and style.
Until the Instagram-fueled resurgence, Steinberg said sewing garments at home was a dormant craft. Now, between her brick and mortar store and her online business, she said she sells fabrics and patterns all around the world, from the United Kingdom to New Zealand. Her customers range from ages 8 to 80, and her store boasts a newsletter subscription base of 30,000, she added.
For a lot of people, sewing allows them both a creative outlet and a custom fit.
Kristi Montague learned to sew as a child, and started making clothes for her Barbies. But now as the mother of two, she makes her own clothes when she can’t find something she likes in stores or online.
Montague lives in Henderson, Tenn., and is “long-waisted and broad-shouldered, and I love that I can alter patterns to get a perfect fit. The most recent time I made clothes was for our trip to Hawaii last month — I made two dresses because I couldn’t find what I wanted online or in stores.”
Sewing also had the duality of being both a solitary activity that is highly individualized but feels like part of a group because of the strong online presence of hobbyists.
“I really enjoyed the online community,” Porter said. “It is this form of self care. You’re making something specifically for yourself. It’s going to be the color you want, it’s the fit you want, I could make exactly what I wanted.”
She added that the online sewing community has given birth to women-owned business, from small pattern houses to bespoke fabric stores.
In addition, it’s fun, Porter says. “I really enjoyed putting the puzzle together. It’s problem solving. Even when you’re advanced you have to rip it out and reorder the steps.”
Her sentiments are echoed by Ebony Haight, 40, who works at Google.
Haight loves fashion, including labels like Rachel Comey, Isabel Marant, and Celine, but has made hundreds of her own garments since graduate school eight years ago. She said she’s given many away, and about 30 percent of her wardrobe is handmade.
The one article of clothing she says is worth making are jeans. “I pretty much only make jeans myself or buy vintage Levi’s. It is truly not worth it to spend an entire afternoon trying on jeans to buy a pair that fit when I can spend an afternoon making them. Even a bad pair of jeans you make yourself are better than what you can buy,” Haight said.
Like Porter, Haight taught herself to sew as a child, and disputes the notion that it’s difficult.
“People say it’s so hard, but it’s like cooking or driving a car. You learn the parts and then you put the parts in order and if you like the process, you’ll probably be motivated to keep challenging yourself and keep learning,” she said. “And you’ll be surprised at what you can do.”
Although she can buy clothes off the rack that fit, she appreciates the bespoke pieces that flatter her own frame, which she describes as “broad shouldered” with a “full butt and thighs.”
Many women also find it empowering. It’s helped Haight reconsider her own body image. “I would recommend sewing for a woman who wants to get to know her body more. This is a form I want to create things for. You don’t have to feel bad about how the clothes in the dressing room make you feel you should or could be.”
“When you are shopping for clothes in a store, you tend to think, ‘Oh, my body isn’t right for these clothes,’” Haight said. “As you start sewing more, you think, ‘Hey, clothes should fit my body.’”