If you're despairing over the rising cost of new clothes and don't see how you can afford anything new for spring, it might be time to dust off that old sewing machine.
Home seamstresses like Margaret Harkins of Harford County estimate they'd have to pay at least twice as much if they were to purchase ready-made garments.
For those who still suffer from painful memories of high school sewing class when that same old seam had to be sewn over and over until the teacher deemed it perfect, there's good news. Thanks to the many innovations in technology, sewing today is easier and faster than it was even 10 years ago.
In addition, the pattern possibilities include a wider range of the top designers, from Donna Karan and Calvin Klein to Carolyne Roehm and Victor Costa. And more are added each season.
As the economic climate continues to look bleak, area fabric stores are reporting a notable increase in business at a time when other retailers are battling losses.
Betty Alford, manager of Jo Ann Fabrics of Patterson Avenue, estimates that "at least a third more people are coming in than a year ago, because everything just costs too much to buy in the stores now."
Monique Bearman, owner of A Fabric Place in Cockeysville, says she noticed a definite increase over the last six months and adds, "Our sewing classes there are filling up beautifully."
The boom in home sewing began even before the recession was announced. Fortune magazine listed fabric retailing as one of "the seven most promising investment opportunities" in its 1991 Investors Guide. Among the reasons cited for the excitement were an increase in home decorating, a weak dollar that drives up the price of imported clothes and a slowing economy, which in the past has led to people making their own clothes.
But it's not just for savings that people are turning to home sewing.
"It's a creative outlet; you get satisfaction from it," says Emily Cohen, spokeswoman of G Street Fabrics in Rockville. "You can also get exactly the garment you want."
She hears complaints from customers who can no longer find the quality and fabrics and variety they used to find in ready-made clothes.
"You can often get much better fabrics if you make it yourself. You see so many blends in the stores today, but if you buy 100 percent wool fabric at $30 a yard, and we have wool at many different prices, you could make a suit for $125-$150. I've seen 100 percent wool jackets in just average styles in stores that cost $200 to $300 for the jacket."
The popularity of the serger sewing machine is a recent phenomenon that also expands the scope of home sewing.
"Until 10 years ago, it was used mostly in industrial settings," says Ms. Cohen. "It's now used by many home sewers as an addition to a regular sewing machine. With a serger, you can do things that used to be very difficult -- such as exercise clothes and swimwear. You can also sew things twice as fast because it can sew, cut and overstitches a seam all at once."
It's important to note that you don't always save money when you sew a garment.
"You can save a lot on a wedding gown, because it's labor intensive, but there are some things you might not save so much on like kids clothes," says Luke Johnson, manager of Dannemann's Fabrics in Timonium.
And one must take into account one's time -- for an inexperienced seamstress, an overly complicated garment could prove a nightmare that takes weeks of time.
But if it takes you weeks of shopping anyway to find an evening gown that fits you, sewing your own might be worth the time.
Tips for beginners
* Keep it simple. Look for patterns designated "very easy" and containing only a few pattern pieces.
* Fashion's newest straight-lined chemises are good starting choices because seams are few and fit is simple.
* Avoid complicated finishing details, such as buttonholes, zippers, lapels and lining.
* Elastic waist skirts are simplest of all and can easily be finished with a ready-made belt.
* If you're not ready to tackle sewing a dress, try updating existing garments with new buttons or adding some trimming such as fringe or lace.
* To learn your body type so you choose the most suitable patterns, send for a Signature Styling brochure from the Sewing Fashion Council, P.O. Box 431M, Madison Square Station, New York, N.Y. 10010.
* For information on sewing classes in your area, call (800) U-SEW-NOW.