An itch to stitch: More take up sewing to make customised outfits

More people are taking up sewing and finding joy in making their own customised outfits

This year, housewife Linda Ng is gearing up for her biggest and most important sewing project yet: her daughter's wedding outfit.

The 51-year-old's sewing adventures began with a simple handbag in 2010. Inspired by her ability to create something beautiful out of simple pieces of fabric, she enrolled in her first garment-sewing class with Fashion Makerspace, a sewing studio in Chinatown, in 2016. In March last year, she made her first cheongsam.

She has made four more cheongsam since - one for herself and one for each of her three daughters - and sews almost every day, often making clothing alterations for family and friends as well as gifts such as baby clothing and shoes.

A cancer survivor who still undergoes treatment once a month, she finds serenity in sewing: "Sewing takes my mind away from negative thoughts and gives me something else to focus on.

"I love creating and making something out of my ideas. And I love it when I see someone wearing my creation and it looks good on her," she says.

She is one of a growing number of people taking up sewing to make and customise their own outfits.

Fashion Makerspace (fashionmakerspace.com), co-founded in 2014 by fashion designers Shareen Lim, 34, and Hailey Lim, 27, ran about 14 sewing classes a month out of its studio in Trengganu Street last year. It now conducts 24 classes a month and recently moved into a space in South Bridge Road - three times the size of the previous location - to accommodate the growing demand.

Ms Linda Ng and her daughter, Ms Lorencia Kan, wearing cheongsam that Ms Ng made. Fashion Makerspace, founded by (from left) Ms Hailey Lim, Ms Shareen Lim and Mr Ken Low, offers classes from basic sewing to pattern making.
Ms Linda Ng and her daughter, Ms Lorencia Kan, wearing cheongsam that Ms Ng made. ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

The sewing studio offers classes from basic sewing to pattern making. A simple top or dress can be completed in a three-hour class, while more detailed garments, such as a playsuit or cheongsam, can take longer than four three-hour sessions.

Ms Shareen Lim says the increased interest is likely due to people wanting to be "more individual and wear something different than what is on the rack in stores".

Part of the appeal of sewing one's own clothes, says Ms Amy Toh, 36, founder of sewing studio, Sew Into It (www.sewintoit.com.sg), is that garments can be made to fit specific measurements and tastes.

One of her favourite items is a cat-print blouse, similar to a $138 version in an online shop, that she spent two days to recreate at home for under $20.

Studio owners say that the Government's SkillsFuture programme - which provides Singaporeans above the age of 25 with $500 to learn new skills - has also fanned the interest in sewing classes. The credit can be used for workshops offered by Sew Into It, Fashion Makerspace and local handmade accessories label Uyii (uyii.com.sg) as well as at schools such as Lasalle College of the Arts and Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts.

Demand is expected to rise.

"Singaporeans are becoming more appreciative of the process of making their own things, so I think interest is only going to increase," says Ms Toh.

Since the start of last year, her workshops have doubled to at least 10 classes a week and she has had to expand into another classroom to accommodate more students.

"I'm not able to keep up with demand. There's a whole generation of Singaporeans who don't know how to sew, so it's hard to hire people who can help. I have to train them first," she adds.

Business has also been swift elsewhere.

The Cotton Shoppe (www.facebook.com/madewithcotton) and Astitchworks Concepts (www.astitch-works.com), which offer sewing workshops, say their business has doubled in the past few years.

In October, Swiss national Katharina Ueltschi, 33, and her Singaporean business partner Lee Yan Ting, 29, brought Bernina, a 125-year-old Swiss sewing machine company, to Singapore to capitalise on demand.

The company holds at least one workshop a week to teach people how to use the sewing machines, which range from $145 to $10,000 each.

Prices start at $30 for a 90-minute workshop in which participants make something simple, such as a drawstring denim bag.

Interest in such workshops is part of the current global do-it-yourself trend, says Ms Ueltschi, who adds that people are looking for new hobbies and something other than being on their phones all day.

The response to Bernina's workshops this month, which are being held at Funan Showsuite, has been "very good". Similar workshops in Takashimaya next month are expected to be just as popular.

While drawing one's own patterns and sewing a garment from scratch can sound intimidating, Ms Ueltschi says there are other ways to make something unique.

"You can use the sewing machine to customise a shirt you bought at a fast-fashion store by adding your own embroidery or patterns and patchwork," she says. "By sewing something yourself, you have the opportunity to customise your items, be your own designer and showcase your creativity."

Customisation was a draw for Ms Ng's daughter, Ms Lovynn Kan, 30, who wants to wear a white pantsuit for her wedding.

Ms Ng will start designing the outfit for her daughter once the wedding date is set - likely in the first half of next year.

"It was a proud moment when my daughter asked me to sew her wedding outfit for her," says Ms Ng, adding that this was what her mother had done for her.

"It will be something sentimental, something for her to keep."


Sew reminder of her mother

Ms Chang Hwee Mian (right), whose late mother was a seamstress, makes clothes with haberdashery her mum left behind. She is wearing a shift dress she sewed.
Ms Chang Hwee Mian, whose late mother was a seamstress, makes clothes with haberdashery her mum left behind. She is wearing a shift dress she sewed. PHOTO: SEW INTO IT

For Ms Chang Hwee Mian, 40, sewing means keeping her mother's memory alive.

Her mum was a seamstress and when she died in 2009, she left yards of fabric and sewing accessories behind. Though the family got rid of some items, two large suitcases' worth remained.

Back then, Ms Chang could not tell the type or quality of the fabric or identify the haberdashery.

"I didn't dare to touch my mum's fabric. Because of her occupation, I believed the fabric she chose might be of some quality and I was scared to spoil it," she says of the piles of patterned, brightly coloured and vintage cloth.

"She may have bought the fabric to make dresses for herself, but didn't get a chance to, so I thought if I could make it into a dress, rather than turn it into a cushion cover or a bag, it would be good," she adds.

But, unfortunately, her mother had been too busy to teach her and her sister how to sew.

Two years ago, a friend told Ms Chang about short sewing workshops at Sew Into It and she signed up. There, the bachelorette learnt the basics - from which side of the fabric is up to how to align fabric grains.

"It's never easy to make your own dress, to measure, cut the fabric, stitch and know which stitch to use. It's quite scary in the beginning, but the teachers are very encouraging," she says.

With her mum's fabric, she made a red skirt and a royal blue blouse, taking two days apiece.

Now, she joins a sewing workshop whenever she has a break in her studies at the National Institute of Education, where she is taking a master's degree in education.

The best part about learning to sew is that she now understands her proportions and can alter her own clothes. "It's a great skill set to have, especially since I sometimes like certain prints or better-fitting clothes than I can find in stores."

Since she sews only on a school break, it means she might not sew anything for months at a time, so the intricacies of zippers and buttons still make her nervous.

Despite this, she made six wearable pieces last year and plans to make five more this year, including a playsuit, with the help of Sew Into It and YouTube tutorials.

Her favourite handmade garment is a shift dress in a flamingo print which she bought in Chinatown.

"I'm very proud of it. I'm just happy to wear it and to use my mum's stuff - the thread and needle she had and the things I watched her use when I was a child.

"There are days when I think of her, but her fabric and sewing stuff are still here and I feel like I'm still carrying on her memory when I use it. It helps me when I miss her."


Sewing as creative therapy

Ms Nurul Farah Niz sews clothes for her four children, including Dania, 11/2.
Ms Nurul Farah Niz sews clothes for her four children, including Dania, 1½. ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO

Two years ago, when Ms Nurul Farah Niz, 39, was six months pregnant with her fourth child, she had a sudden and inexplicable urge to learn how to sew.

Unable to get the idea out of her head, she joined a sewing class with Fashion Makerspace sewing studio and has since made dozens of dresses, rompers and tops for her children aged six, five, three and 1½.

Ms Nurul, who works the evening shift as a ground staff at Changi Airport, pins patterns and cuts fabric to unwind in the early hours of the morning when she gets home from her stint at 3am.

"It is very therapeutic. When I start sewing, I feel calm immediately. I forget about running after four children or what happened on my shift. Everything just disappears," she says.

She sews with her sewing machine on her days off and makes three to four garments a month - mostly children's clothing.

Apart from dressing her children, she also sews for friends, giving them garments for free and asking only for feedback in return.

"I give the clothes away because I love making them.

"In a couple of months, when I have better skills and confidence, maybe I will start selling them," she says.

Her inspiration comes from patterns and colour combinations she sees on Australian and American online sewing groups.

She buys her fabric at Spotlight or in Chinatown, often opting for mid-priced fabrics costing about $17 a metre.

She can make three children's tea dresses with 4m of cloth.

At about $20 a dress, prices are slightly higher than those at fast-fashion outlets, but lower than those at high-end brands, where a party dress typically costs upwards of $40.

"And there is nothing like my dresses' colours or patterns on the shelves," she says.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 19, 2018, with the headline 'An itch to stitch'. Print Edition | Subscribe