An itch to stitch

Whether for fun or necessity, more men are taking up sewing

Jon Moen isn’t on a mission to encourage men to sew, but he’s not ashamed to be part of that small but growing demographic.

The 37-year-old Spokane resident started sewing about four months ago with a specific project in mind: He wanted to build a better athletic-gear bag than anything he’d seen on the market.

Moen competes in triathlons and packs a bag of exercise clothes and food every morning before heading to his job as a manufacturing engineer. By the end of the day, his belongings get jumbled in the middle of the bag – a problem he hopes his design will solve.

“Sewing’s not for everybody, just like triathlons aren’t for everybody, but I enjoy it,” Moen says.

Sewing has boomed in popularity the past few years, and Spokane fabric-store owners say more and more men are taking sewing classes, buying supplies and enjoying a craft that’s often associated with the other sex.

“Often they want to know how to hem their jeans or fix their work clothes,” says Carrie Jarvis, who owns The Top Stitch on Spokane’s near North Side, where Moen rents a sewing machine on weekends. “Others have an idea and want to build something.”

The interest among men has grown so much at The Top Stitch that Jarvis plans to offer a male-only sewing class in March. She says the graduation gift will be a round of beers at a nearby pub.

Jarvis’ husband, Randy, taught himself to sew one afternoon when she asked him to watch the store for her. She returned to find that he’d sewn a cover for his Alfa Romeo.

Randy Jarvis, 50, says he hopes to improve his skills enough to sew his own ski suit, but it still feels like more of a chore than a relaxing pastime.

“I don’t sew for entertainment,” says Jarvis, an intensive-care unit nurse at Holy Family Hospital. “I sew for necessity.”

Repairing and making outdoor gear seem to be common entries into sewing for many men.

“If you do stuff in the outdoors, your stuff sometimes needs mending,” says Dean Priebe, a forester for a private timber company in Leavenworth, Wash. “It’s not part of the outdoorsman way to throw stuff away when it gets a hole in it.”

Priebe’s mom taught him how to use a sewing machine when he was young, and when he grew up and moved away, buying one seemed as sensible as owning a refrigerator or a saw.

“I got a house, and I got a sewing machine,” he says. “I think of it as another tool.”

Priebe shrugs off any suggestion that he’s breaking gender stereotypes by being a man who sews, and he compares the craft to another hobby of his – brewing beer.

“One hundred years ago, it was the women who were making the beer. It was part of their domestic chores,” he says. “When it became commercial and there was money in it, the men took over.”

Being a male sewer “doesn’t need justification,” Priebe says. “Stuff needs to be fixed.”

Sewing outdoor gear is how Paul Fish, the owner of the 26-year-old retail company Mountain Gear Inc. got his start.

While a high school student in the late 1970s, Fish bought a used sewing machine at a thrift shop and taught himself to make clothing and gear for rock climbing, hiking and backpacking.

At first, Fish sewed to save himself money.

“Then I thought I could build things that were better,” he says.

He began taking friends’ measurements and sewing them custom backpacks.

“That’s how I wooed my wife,” Fish says. “She still uses hers today, 32 years later.”

The young entrepreneur sold his goods in the student union building at Western Washington University, studying by day and sewing at night.

In 1983, he moved to Spokane and opened a small store downtown. Mountain Gear outgrew that space six years later, and now occupies a large building at 2002 N. Division St.

Fish no longer sews the company’s gear, but he has good memories of growing the business in such an organic way.

While he may have put down his needle and thread, sewing has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years.

Between the fall of 2006 and 2007, the most recent year for which data is available, the number of adult Americans who sew grew by 4.6 percent, to 17.2 million, says Rachel Cohen, director of multimedia marketing for SVP Worldwide, which owns the Singer Sewing Co.

That same survey showed that the number of people who own sewing machines grew by 5.6 percent, to almost 68 million.

Cohen suspects sewing machine sales might have dipped in recent months, given the poor economy. Still, she says, “People are looking to crafts that can help them save money, and in the long run sewing can certainly do that.”

The company doesn’t have data about men specifically, but Cohen often hears stories about nontraditional sewers, including a male skateboarder on the West Coast who embroiders intricate designs on his T-shirts.

“He has a hard exterior shell, but he’s extremely crafty with his hands,” she says.

The American Sewing Guild, a nonprofit organization that promotes sewing as an art and life skill, first noticed its membership climb after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

“A lot of people wanted to turn back to their roots,” says Abby Wright, the guild’s communications director. “They wanted to cook with their families rather than eat out all the time. … And a lot of families used to sew.”

The do-it-yourself trend also has been on the rise, and Wright wonders if that might be contributing to the growing interest in sewing among men.

Of course, male sewers aren’t exactly novel. Several sewing-related professions, such as automobile upholstery and sail making and repair, are dominated by men.

And men have been doing home crafts – from quilting to sewing kites – for years, says Vickie Black, owner of Sew E-Z Too and E-Z Knit Fabrics, sewing-supply stores in Spokane and Colville, respectively.

“I’ve had young boys learn to knit and do felting, all the way up to elderly men,” she says.

Black is seeing more men in the stores lately, though, and thinks it might have to do with today’s computer-operated sewing machines.

“The men are fascinated by the sewing machines,” she says.

Jarvis, of The Top Stitch, notices that her male customers generally aren’t intimidated by the high-tech machines.

“Often, women are more free flowing. They get into the creativity of the project,” she says. “Men do, too, they just seem to master the machine more quickly.”

Luke Baumgarten is trying to master friends’ sewing machines.

The 28-year-old arts and culture editor for the Pacific Northwest Inlander newspaper often shops for vintage clothes at secondhand stores. Baumgarten is tall and thin and has long arms, so he usually buys shirts that are too loose around the middle and need tailoring.

That’s when he gathers up his loot and heads to female friends’ homes so he can borrow their sewing machines and make alterations.

“I really, really enjoy it,” he says. “It’s a creative outlet.”

Baumgarten learned basic sewing skills in his middle school home economics class, but a couple of years ago he asked a friend who hand stitches many of her own clothes for tips on tailoring.

“I’d only sewn plush basketballs before,” he says, referring to a project he – and probably thousands of other young sewers – made in middle school.

Although Baumgarten says he’s “the only dude I know who sews,” his male friends have never mocked him for his hobby.

“And I know a lot of people who would take every opportunity to mock me.”

Megan Cooley can be reached at (509) 326-6024 or megan.cooley@comcast.net.

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