Page last updated at 09:21 GMT, Thursday, 1 October 2009 10:21 UK

Needlecraft is sew this year


Making and mending around Britain

Has the recession really led us to make do and mend instead of just throw away? That's the question Mary Jane Baxter will be trying to answer for a series of reports for the BBC's Newsnight. In needlecraft at least, people are already cottoning on.

Tony Bulford is wiping the perspiration from his forehead as yet another customer hands over their machine hoping the tension or puckering problem they're experiencing isn't terminal. The Sewing Machine Centre has been at the same spot on Deptford High Street in south east London since 1947 and although Tony's father retired some 10 years ago, people still ask after him.

Over the last few months business has been booming and the shelves are crammed with sewing machines.

"I don't know why it's so busy," says Tony. "Recently there's been a big rise in the number of people dusting down their old machines and taking up sewing again. I've got a two-week waiting list for repairs."

Make Do and Mend
Mary Jane Baxter (below)is making and mending her way around Britain for BBC's Newsnight
Mary Jane Baxter
Find out more about Mary Jane's journey on Newsnight on Friday 2 October 2009 at 2230 BST on BBC Two
And you can visit her stall at London's Greenwich Market on Saturday 3 October 2009

Sew-It-Yourself as it's become known, is on the rise. Tesco recently reported that sales of sewing machines had reached two a minute and even Top Shop is selling Stitch Your Own stationery and books on Make Do And Mend.

But sewing isn't something people are necessarily learning at school. Whilst it's still taught at primary level, sewing and textiles are optional for those aged 11 to 14, where they're part of the design and technology curriculum.

The Crafts Council wants to reinvigorate the teaching of these basic skills in our schools. A new project called Craft Club, launched last month, will see volunteers go into schools to pass on their knowledge. Katy Bevan, learning and resources manager at The Crafts Council, believes it's vitally important.

"Research shows that 3D tasks help improve literacy and numeracy," she says. "And whilst craft skills can make great hobbies, we've also got to think about training youngsters to go into the creative industries of the future."

Yet the lack of formal sewing teaching may help explain why adult classes are proving so popular at the moment.

Kirsten Scott, head of fashion and millinery at the Kensington and Chelsea College, in London, has seen a rise in the number of adult learners joining classes.

70s relaunch

"There are definitely lots more people signing up for basic sewing," she says. "We've had to put on extra sessions every term for the last three terms. They fill up almost instantly too. It's amazing."

The Sewing Machine Centre
Thimble when you know how - London's Sewing Machine Centre

There's evidence elsewhere of a spike in interest. Ed Colley, a spokesman for the website Hotcourses, notes there are 300 sewing classes on the organisation's database.

"I had a look to see how often people were searching on the keyword 'sewing'. We've seen a 15% increase in searches for sewing courses in 2009, compared with the same period last year," he says.

So what's behind the boom?

Kay Mawer recently re-launched the cult 70s label Clothkits which used to produce distinctive cut-and-sew clothing kits for kids. The Chichester-based company's new range of kits is proving popular she says. And it's all because of a change in attitude, she says.

"I think that generally home craft went out of fashion. The 1990s in particular were all about money, slickness, and what you could have done for you as opposed to what you could do yourself. Now we're much more interested in how things are made, valuing quality over quantity.

"This is happening in many areas, from sewing to growing your own veg or making food from scratch. I also think women are empowered enough now to enjoy sewing without any stereotypical associations or Victorian attitudes."

But the tough economic times can't have hurt the resurgence in people picking up needle and thread either. Unable to afford the designer dress of our dreams we're customising high street clothes to get the same look. Programmes like Twiggy's Frock Exchange on the BBC and Channel 4's Gok's Fashion Fix have all helped fuel this trend.

Hessian bags

Duttons for Buttons has been trading for over 50 years. The business was started in Harrogate by owner Drusilla White's father, and now she has two other shops in Ilkley and York. Drusilla sells over 12,000 different types of buttons from all over the world.

Sewing class
The way it was - sewing class at a school in 1956

"We've had a very busy summer. People will buy a cheap top and then treat themselves to some unique buttons to make it special. We recently launched a hessian shopping bag with a button print on it that customers can decorate themselves. They can use Grandma's button box or buy their own buttons to sew on. It's romped out of the door! We thought we might sell the odd one or two but we've sold 500 since March and have just re-ordered."

Back in London, Caroline Marx, owner of Barnett Lawson, has been busy managing her vast underground haberdashery emporium which supplies fashion designers and theatre companies with enough trimmings to sink a pantomime dame. But many of Caroline's customers are not professionals, they're people wanting to make themselves stand out from the crowd.

"Everything has become so ubiquitous that people are striving for individuality, particularly amongst our younger customers," says Caroline. "They're not shy about customising a plain jacket with trims, knowing it will be transformed and become unique. This mood of creativity is recession-linked because necessity is the mother of invention. People are making do and mending as a way to save money. Since Gok and the economic downturn we seem to have been run off our feet!"

Mary Jane Baxter will be spending October making and mending her way from London to the Midlands, Yorkshire and Scotland to find out if the current vogue for make do and mend is more than a fad.

She will be relying on her make do and mend skills to fund the trip.

Do you know of anyone who is living by make do and mend? Or someone who needs Mary Jane to lend a hand in exchange for board and lodging? Send your ideas using the form below.

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