Follow That Thread
It’s “sew” New Orleans
“Maybe the sewing gene skips generations,” muses Heather Rankin, owner and teacher at the Sew Fabulous Sewing School at 8723 Oak St. (SewFabulousNola.com).
“A lot of kids who come to my summer sewing camps are enrolled by their grandmothers, and for my regular classes I’m getting the moms in their 30s and they’re saying ‘I never wanted to sew before, but I do now.’”
Perhaps it’s the popular television dressmaking series “Project Runway” (or the younger version, “Threads,” where teenaged New Orleanian Grayson Gold’s talent was showcased). Or, maybe it’s New Orleans burgeoning fashion industry, including the style-extravaganza Fashion Week grabbing headlines each spring.
For whatever reason, more New Orleanians are putting needle to fabric these days, and some have been at it for years.
First step for most of them is sewing class.
Back in 1904, Kingsley House was offering sewing classes to its patrons, and schools offered sewing in Home Economics courses. In ’05, The Picayune advertised Madame Clarks’ Sewing School “teaching the S. T. Taylor system” of dressmaking.
The popular course from the 1960s to the ’90s was the “Bishop Method of Clothing Construction” invented by a Pennsylvania home economics teacher. Lydia Trice and Dottie Kostmayer were well known Uptown teachers; Audrey Childress was a popular Metairie instructor.
Sewing classes popped up at D. H. Holmes and Maison Blanche department stores, at Krauss, with a much admired fabrics department, and Halpern’s (an ancestor of Promenade Fine Fabrics on St. Charles Avenue).
Today sewing classes are offered at Hancock Fabrics in Metairie (current instructor Paula Hardin was also a Bishop Method teacher) and at Jo-Ann Fabrics in Metairie, where Barbara Hale teaches (she also teaches pupils to knit and crochet: “If it has to do with the hands I pretty much teach it,” she says).
One difficulty today is buying fabric. As Rankin says, “If it’s something special, I’ll go to Promenade – that’s for absolutely beautiful fabric.” Hancock’s and Jo-Ann fabric stores have a wide range of choices and offer affordable material. Rankin, like many other sewing teachers, makes clothes for herself “I made a lot of little summer dresses this year.”
Designer and sewing teacher Carolina Gallop will check out thrift stores for fabric sources. On the staff of All Souls Episcopal Church at 5500 St. Claude Ave. in the lower 9th Ward, Gallop has offered sewing classes there. She learned pattern making and sewing at a community college when she lived in California and will be taking part in a fashion show at the Blue Nile on Frenchmen Street. (“It’s 1970s themed,” she says.)
There are unlimited possibilities for sewing enjoyment. Marilyn Asher Kline retired last year and took a sewing class. As a class project, she made a burp-pad for the new baby of a nephew in Australia. The gift was a grand success, and she formed a company Baby Burpies (BabyBurpiesNola.com). “Sewing is a form of expression for me – it takes you away,” she says.
Other home seamstresses take on projects and do their own alterations. “I’ve done lots of curtains,” admits Pat Burke, who learned to sew in high school.
Her most ambitious project? “My mother bought some beautiful silk and she asked me to make her a dress,” Burke says. “I asked what the fabric cost, but she wouldn’t tell me ’til I finished.” Luckily, the dress was a grand success. “Had I known in advance, I never would have done it!”
Burke put her sewing skills to work when she had a business selling items decorated with grosgrain ribbons woven into patterns. “I saw a shirt decorated with ribbons and I made one for myself,” she says. Ultimately, she employed several workers to complete orders.
Pat McIntyre, one of three girls, grew up sewing. “I helped with hems and buttons,” McIntyre says. She made her first skirt when she was 10. She quilts (“I’ve even made quilts for my great grandchildren I don’t have yet!”), makes and decorates pillows, presently owns five sewing machines and also knits.
McIntyre’s handiwork comes out at holiday time. “Last year my tree had nothing on it but ornaments I made. My kids said, ‘That’s corny.’ And I said ‘Too bad!’”
People with needles are sharp!