Even for men used to mowing and sawing, sewing is a skill whose time has come

October 04, 1992|By Michael Walsh | Michael Walsh,Universal Press Syndicate

Take it from a recent convert: If you want to be your ow interior designer, save tons of money on redecorating, indulge -- your creative instincts and at the same time do something that's instantly gratifying and surprisingly therapeutic, get yourself a sewing machine. For male converts, it can rank right up there with the circular saw and the cordless drill.

You'll marvel at what a remarkable instrument a sewing machine really is. Veteran sewers, of course, will find this laughable because they have known it all along. But recent initiates are surprised to discover that a sewing machine is an incredibly versatile, and eventually indispensable, tool.

Foolishly, I had allowed mine to languish in the closet for three years. It had been one of those Christmas gifts I had impulsively asked for and then, regrettably, got. On a recent rainy weekend, though, I decided to take it out for a test drive. Within 30 minutes I had mastered the techniques for threading the thing and winding the bobbins.

By Sunday night I had a new curtain on the bathroom window, a new shower curtain and trimmed-to-match towels, new draperies the bedroom, a new bedspread and new pillowcases. And I am now on a first-name basis with the clerk at the fabric store.

That I had these new items all for a fraction of what their store-bought equivalents would have cost was rewarding enough. But the real joy was in making precisely what I wanted instead of buying something that was only close. Machine sewing is a surprisingly creative outlet and surprisingly easy to learn on your own. It's also almost instantly gratifying. Once you get the hang of it, you can produce a finished home-decorating project in an hour or two max.

From lampshades to Roman shades, pillows, slipcovers, draperies, towels, seat cushions, duvet covers, tablecloths and bed skirts -- all are projects that can be produced economically by those who have only modest skills. And you can go from novice to intermediate level in just a day or two.

What makes this rapid advancement in ability possible is, first, the machine itself. Modern sewing machines are high-tech miracles that even techno-phobes like me can love. Even inexpensive models offer touch-pad controls, digital readouts and dial-a-stitch features. Some are even self-threading. Some high-end models can be hooked up to a personal computer and programmed to do intricate embroidery and monogramming automatically.

A second factor that can turn a beginner into a near-pro in short order is that instruction books available at bookstores and fabric shops are remarkably easy to understand. Close-up color photographs, illustrations, clear and concise instructions, and glossaries of sewing terms take the novice by the hand. Compared to hooking up an automatic dishwasher, say, or mastering a table saw, learning to sew on a sewing machine is a snap.

A contributing factor to making home sewing an easy-to-master enterprise is the fabric store. The fabric store is the equivalent of a hardware store. All the trims, tools and accessories are there. You'll also find pre-assembled shortcuts such as gathering and pleating tapes that take the labor out of once labor-intensive projects. For men, an additional bonus at the fabric store is the clerk, who, usually quite accurately, doesn't expect a man to know anything about sewing and is therefore apt to be a particularly patient and helpful teacher. In fact, male clerks at hardware stores, auto parts stores and lumberyards should be sent to the fabric store to learn how to deal with customers of the opposite sex.

Fabric stores are also like libraries because they stock hundreds or thousands of paper patterns for decorating projects. In fact, home-decorating projects are getting a lot more attention these days from pattern makers such as Simplicity, Butterick, McCall's and Vogue. Also, more and more high-profile interior designers such as Bebe Winkler and Mario Buatta are designing patterns for home-decorating projects.

Admittedly, I'm a Johnny-come-lately devotee of the sewing machine. But the Sewing Fashion Council, a national trade group, says I'm really on the cutting edge of a national back-to-the-bobbin movement. According to the council:

* Retailers across the country have reported a 20-percent increase in sales of merchandise related to sewing for the home.

* More American households have sewing machines than VCRs, 60 percent to 51 percent.

* Thirty percent of households purchase yard goods.

* Sew News, which has 230,000 subscribers, says its readers spend on average $646 a year on patterns, fabrics and notions.

Earlier this year, the New York Times reported that the Simplicity Pattern Co., one of the nation's big-three pattern makers, sold 15 percent more patterns in 1991 than in 1990. It also reported that the sales of Singer sewing machines increased by 30 percent last year alone. Five years ago, a third of the company's purchasers were first-time buyers; today half are.

The Sewing Fashion Council also says that 30 million American women sew. There are, alas, no statistics for men. But my own informal survey among male friends and business associates suggests that guys are quietly adding sewing machines to their conventional arsenal of power tools.

Like me, some of them have found that learning to use a sewing machine can be a downright liberating experience. It is a tool that gives you a great deal more control over how your own home looks. Its greatest attribute is that it allows you to customize your environment, choosing the colors, patterns, fabrics and details that you find personally appealing instead of having to resort to a limited selection of off-the-rack goods.

Finally, making something for your home with a sewing machine is a gratifying and satisfying experience. And, as far as I'm concerned, anything that makes do-it-yourself interior design a simple pleasure rather than a chore is well worth checking out.

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