Crafty Geeks Launch Sewing 2.0

Lisa Howdin just wanted to combine her two biggest passions – sewing and the internet. But now her downloadable patterns company is doing so well, the Australian could soon stick a needle in her day job.

Howdin, who started sewing when she was five, launched Fitzpatterns two years ago to offer hip downloadable sewing patterns to a generation alienated by the matronly needlework of its forebears. The company is one harbinger of a modern revival in the craft that owes its latest growth to the internet.

‘You can buy paper patterns online,’ said Howdin, a web editor with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation in Canberra. ‘But I found the existing catalogs out of touch with the clothes I wanted and I often found myself at home wanting to make something with the fabric I already had, so being able to download patterns seemed pretty cool to me.’

Once online, Howdin, 37, found a growing wave of people keen to indulge their passion for traditional arts and crafts. Traffic in the United States to lifestyle, hobbies and crafts websites increased 21 percent in just four months from August to November 2006, according to Hitwise. The majority of referrals came from visitors searching for patterns.

The internet has given new life to a spectrum of creative pursuits from painting and knitting to making toys and bags, with zines, communities and marketplaces.

Traditionally passed down through female blood lines and old-fashioned magazines, needlework is often responsible for the kind of clothes today’s fashionistas wouldn’t be caught dead in – but that’s changing.

‘People are sick of chain-store fashion that leaves no room for individuality and quality,’ said Nora Aboutsteit of BurdaStyle, a sewing social network to be launched by German offline patterns publisher burda in January. The site will allow needle nuts to share creations, photos and videos to learn, buy and sell from each other.

Another site, SavvySeams, publishes ‘free sewing patterns with modern flair’ under a Creative Commons license, encouraging users to tweak and redistribute plans for skirts, bags and more.

To many enthusiasts, sewing 2.0 embodies the same search for authenticity embodied in the 19th-century arts and crafts movement. With young women now more likely to be online than young men (.pdf), the new community is ensuring the skill set, once passed from mother to daughter, is not lost.

‘I learned to sew from my grandma,’ said magazine crafts editor Linda Permann, who organizes annual craft retreats. ‘But I picked up crocheting online and I plan on teaching it to a friend in NYC.

‘I take comfort in knowing that I can move to the middle of nowhere and still be in touch with creative people, even if I can’t meet them for coffee each week.’