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Good to Know: Sold-out sewing machines and quilt subscriptions: Sewing rockets 'off the charts' during the pandemic

Associate Anne Hennig uses a machine to sew

Associate Anne Hennig uses a machine to sew a quilt at City Sewing Room, a co-op in St. Louis, on Dec. 23, 2020. City Sewing Room offers sewing lessons and a monthly membership that includes a work table and storage space.  Credit: TNS/Christine Tannous / St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Margaret Reynolds' sewing output has come in waves. As a new mom, she made color-coordinated T-shirts for her three boys. When she retired, she sewed dresses for her granddaughters. And during last spring's shutdown, Reynolds, 77, dug out her machine again, fashioning reversible masks in florals, checks and polka dots.

The south St. Louis County, Missouri, resident gave "gobs" to friends and family, then moved on to pajama bottoms for her grandkids and pillow covers for her sister.

"It does take a lot of time to sew and figure out patterns," she said. "It's good for the old brain."

During long days at home, new and old sewers alike have discovered — or rediscovered — an enthusiasm for stitching, quilting and embroidery. And that newfound interest has swelled demand in every corner of the industry. Machines, especially midrange models ($400 to $800), have been almost impossible to find. The wait list for repair work is weeks long. Store shelves are bereft of fabric.

It's a dramatic shift after years of steady decline. More young people, and more men, are learning their way around a presser foot and bobbin. Mask-making has been the face of the revival, but shop owners and hobbyists say such innovations as online flash sales and mail-order projects, plus throwbacks like cooperative learning spaces, will extend the trend beyond a pandemic pastime.

Kelly Nicks, owner of local retailer O'Sewpersonal, decided to try what she thought would be a monthly Facebook Live fabric sale in June. It quickly became a standing Monday night event.

"We've had to change our business plan," said Nicks, who has locations in O'Fallon, Missouri, and in Collinsville, Illinois. Five employees do nothing but fulfill Facebook orders in space formerly set aside for classes.

At Jackman's Fabrics in Creve Coeur, Missouri, younger sewers, more comfortable with technology, have been looking for computerized machines to add monograms or customizations to their projects.

"They have a totally different aesthetic, and it really moves the industry along," said store manager Chris Dodson.

Masks drive trend

Fenton-based Tacony Corp. supplies Baby Lock sewing machines to 500 retailers across the United States. Jeff Fuller, its vice president of marketing, can pinpoint the day the industry ignited.

On the first Friday in April, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended face coverings to stem the spread of coronavirus. By the time Fuller got to work that Monday, some of his stores had sold out.

"It was the inflection point in the industry," said Fuller.

Demand spiked to almost 10 times normal. Back orders took months to fulfill.

Fuller expects growth to continue over the next couple years, with mask-making replaced by upcycling of secondhand garments, quilting projects, personalized embroidery and costume-making.

"When the world around you becomes uncertain, people turn to home-based projects," he said.

Fuller learned to sew, too. His first effort was a pair of yoga pants. He said he sewed two left legs on the initial go.

Sue Buerkle of South County pulled her grandmother's machine, circa 1961, from the closet in the spring. The electrical cord was on the fritz, and the thread tension was off. Buerkle took the Singer Slant-O-Matic — nicknamed Elroy for its resemblance to "The Jetsons" cartoon decor — to Just Sew repair shop.

Will McDonald started his one-man operation in a Richmond Heights basement about a decade ago, after tinkering with his mom's machines while she worked on dance costumes for his sister.

"He just listens to it," said Buerkle. "He's like a doctor."

Soon, Elroy was humming again, becoming one of the hundreds of Singers, Janomes and Brothers that McDonald resurrected last year from behind his crowded workbench. "Things really went to a different level," he said. "It's like nothing I've ever seen."

McDonald is one of the few remaining independent repairmen, and, at 32, among the younger. He used to consider it an unusually busy day if he fielded 15 phone calls. His record is now 90.

Kim Moos also received a crush of inquiries early in the pandemic. Cotton Cuts, her mail-order fabric business at Chesterfield Mall, sells monthly subscriptions for quilting projects. But in April, everyone wanted to make masks.

"I expected a rush of cancellations, and that didn't happen," Moos said. "It kind of rocketed off the charts."

Moos repackaged "fat quarters," 18-by-22-inch rectangles of fabric, into mask-making kits. She hired college students to form an assembly line: unrolling bolts of cloth, cutting, folding and packaging. They depleted two years' inventory in a month.

With the supply chain shaken, Moos seized an opportunity to replenish her fabric by buying out the stock of a quilting store that was closing in Quincy, Illinois. Cotton Cuts sold 40,000 mask kits through December. Monthly quilt-box subscriptions nearly doubled.

Moos brought on her first full-time employee in the fall. This month, she moved into a bigger space in the mall. Now, she's trying to anticipate what's next.

"How do you keep people engaged?" she said. "How do you get to that second project?"

'A sanity strategy'

For many hobbyists, the key to mastering a new pattern — or freewheeling without one — is having help nearby. Anne Stirnemann opened her Lindenwood Park co-op, City Sewing Room, in 2015, as a nod to the time of quilting bees, when women gathered to piece a bedspread and catch up.

"It's fun meeting new people, hearing their stories," Stirnemann said. "It's a very soothing hobby."

The co-op offers classes, workspace for rent and secondhand goods for sale. Stirnemann invested in four sewing machines when she opened. The rest — dress forms, steam generators, sergers, crates of fabric and tubes of buttons — has all been donated.

One of her newest acquisitions is a quilting machine with a king-size frame. On a cold December night, Anne Hennig of Brentwood, Missouri, fed a patchwork of triangles in sunset shades through the 11-foot rails, tracing stitches with the help of a computer screen.

Hennig has been quilting for more than a decade. But during the pandemic, "sewing became a sanity strategy," she said.

Juri Ross of St. Louis is brand-new to the craft. She bought her first machine for $35, used, from the Sewing Room in December. Ross, who is studying to be a surgical technician, wants to create her own line of scrubs.

In her first lessons, she learned how to loop the thread, wind the bobbin and pin fabric. "It's way harder than I thought," she said.

The scrubs are still on, but Ross has pushed the launch back to October, giving her more time under Stirnemann's wing.

"There's so many small steps to remember," Ross said. "It's something you have to constantly practice or you forget."

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