Mikayla Turner shows the students in her garment sewing class the underside of her dress where she has sewn pink stitches to hem the raw edges.
“I’m always happy to whip my butt out to show some serger stitches,” Turner, 30, said, sparking laughter throughout the room.
Turner is one of the instructors at Domesticity, a fabric shop and studio in Lauraville where she and others show people how to set up sewing machines and walk students through making garments like hand-quilted vests, shirts and trousers. They will also teach people how to make a pattern from clothing they own. They work from the upstairs studio where natural light shines on the cutting tables and large industrial machines.
These are not seamstresses or fashion designers, but everyday folks who sew for themselves or their loved ones without the goal of making money from their wares.
Many trends are driving people to turn to sewing: They want to be better stewards of the environment or they want to save money. But a more common reason is that they can’t find clothes to fit. Traditional brands often makes styles that are “straight,” not made for curvy, womanly figures, leaving wearers with gaps in their jeans or pant cuffs dragging on the floor. In some cases, women find themselves too slight for traditional sizes. Tired of depressing trips to department stores trying on ill-fitting clothes, many are making their own.
Sewing puts the wearer in the driver’s seat as far as fit, fabric, and design. Plus-size people often find themselves at a loss when they are shopping off the rack. Size inclusivity has become a huge issue, with books devoted to the topic.
Normandie Luscher, an illustrator and educator, started sewing because she “would imagine something and not really find anything like it.” As a plus-size person, she was frustrated by the selection and quality of the clothing she found. After learning to sew, she realized that her clothing quality was just better.
“I love sewing because if I made it, I can know better how to fix it,” Luscher says.
Renee Christopher-Boardley commuted from Annapolis to attend Turner’s class at Domesticity. She enrolled after taking an intro class after finding that many ready-to-wear garments didn’t fit her slim, narrow frame.
“My husband learned to sew from his grandmother and he’s sewn beautiful suits and outfits, but I always had trouble with it and I’ve always wanted to make clothes that fit me well,” she said.
Turner began sewing as a small child with her brother, but got really into it after getting laid off in 2020. To keep herself busy, she turned to sewing and remembered why she always loved it. She’d had difficulty finding a job that fit her, anyway. Taking the time to regroup gave her the time to realize what she really loves doing, teaching sewing.
As an educator, she hopes to inspire more people to make clothing that works for their bodies. For her, garment making is about body liberation, not just body positivity.
“Making my own clothes has been the most body-affirming thing,” Turner says.
She’s learned a lot of different ways to sew for herself. She says she is tall and she’s fat. For her, making clothes has also been about learning what works. She doesn’t like really tailored garments, preferring loose linen dresses. She is always learning new ways to fit her body that are functional and stylish.
Cecilia Traini tried to learn to sew from her mother. The lesson didn’t quite stick, but the desire was still there. “I have a curvy body and I want clothes that flatter the body without some of the quirks of plus-size fashion retailers.”
Still, problems with size inclusivity can be found even in the sewing industry. Turner has found that certain patterns that instructors use, known as big 4 patterns, don’t actually accommodate larger people.
She prefers indie pattern companies. She said that many of these companies are meant to cater to beginners, since many people are pushed into home sewing as beginners because of the dearth of plus-size clothing. When companies create a pattern, they typically begin with one size in mind then grade up or down based on that size.
“Some patterns simply aren’t graded to fit my size, which is frustrating,” Turner said. All of these considerations happen before a wearer even tries on their garment to adjust for fit. Fitting is an even more tedious process, especially if one doesn’t fall within the typical size range.
Pattern companies like Cashmerette cater to plus sizes by drafting patterns at a “straight” size and another at a “plus” size. Turner’s favorite pattern company, Muna and Broad, will draft a pattern for a person if they find their size is not represented.
Renee Samuels, 46, is someone else who started making clothes for herself because she can make clothes that are unique and fit her body well.
Samuels has been sewing her own garments for 20 years. She came from a family of sewists from the Caribbean — her paternal family is from Jamaica while her maternal family is from Grenada. Growing up there, sewing clothing or hiring someone else to sew a garment was the main way to get clothing.
In 2002 Samuels joined Pattern Review, an online sewing forum that features reviews of patterns and machines. She started sharing her creations online through her blog under the name “Miss Celie Pants.”
“I saw ‘The Color Purple’ on Broadway and there’s a song about Celie’s pants, and I just started crying,” she says of the name.
Since then, she has built international community with her sewing. She has appeared on podcasts and has maintained her blog for over a decade.
Her wardrobe is about 90% “me made,” a term home sewists use to show off their completed projects.
Sewists seem to feel a generational connection with other sewists in their family. Luscher notes that whenever she sews she feels like her mother.
Dr. Victoria Pass, an associate professor at the Maryland Institute College of Art, said that such ready-to-wear garments date back to the Civil War.
“We really start to see the rise of ready-to-wear when people had to clothe their enslaved property,” Dr. Pass says. Before ready-to-wear slaveholders would have to commission a professional to clothe their slaves. Professional seamstresses were timely and expensive.
These clothes continued to soar with the invention of more modern textiles like synthetic silks or polyesters. Now, many clothes are a textile blend: cotton and linen, linen and rayon, rayon and polyester.
These blends make clothing cheaper to produce but also have an added benefit of making some clothes easier to fit. “I always remind people when talking about textile history to remember that knits allow clothes to stretch and accommodate a larger size range,” said Pass.
Size inclusivity is an issue that has plagued fashion. Stores like Ashley Stewart or Lane Bryant are known for prioritizing plus-size clothing. Lane Bryant has been making plus-size clothing for nearly 100 years, beginning with maternity clothing and then moving to “stoutwear,” now called plus-size. Plus sizes are not new in ready-to-wear clothing.
Stores like Old Navy have used size inclusivity for marketing and then pulled their lines when sales didn’t reach their goals. Few stores place plus-size fashion as a priority, which is why so many sewists have been pushed to take up sewing.
“I love being part of a tradition of making, and the community of makers both past and present,” said Lisa Robey, one of Turner’s many students.