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And sew it goes

By Emily McComas
Chip Ellis
Sonya Armstrong models a dress she has worn every Mother's Day for the past 20 years. The dress was her mother's. Every year, Armstrong uses her sewing skills to adjust it to her size and make it match current trends.
Chip Ellis
Sonya Armstrong, in her home in Hurricane, models one of the dresses she has made.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- There was a time when almost everyone knew a grandmother or friend's mom or a nice woman in the neighborhood who could sew anything at the drop of a hat. They were experts when it came to making up outfits for Halloween or a school play.Now it seems moms are making more late-night trips to the mall for those last-minute costumes rather than taking a drive to Grandma's to save the day.Or are they? Ask around and soon you'll find many women in West Virginia who are passionate about sewing, eager to tell the practical benefits and emotional satisfaction they get from their craft. Some have been sewing for most of their lives, often starting because of a financial need and then finding they'd rather do nothing else.That's what happened to Kris Moore when she started sewing 24 years ago. Pregnant with her third child, she decided to try sewing as a way to save money and avoid dragging all soon to be five of her kids to the store from their home in Looneyville in Roane County.Her plan didn't go so smoothly at first. "There were times I'd sit there and it was so hard, and I'd just pray, and God would give me wisdom, and I just grew to love it," she said.As her kids grew older she learned to make just about anything -- coats, dress clothes, suits, matching outfits for her and her daughters and formalwear. The outfits looked store-bought, but they were unique, she said.She soon found sewing gave her something she could hold in her hands that she could be proud she made.With all the kids at home, "keeping the house neat was frustrating, but when I made something at the end of the day, I felt productive, I did accomplish something."Five years ago, she directed her passion into a business, selling everything from scarves to handbags to Bible covers and children's clothing on Facebook and Etsy, a website where handmade items are sold. Crochet is a large part of her business now, and she is working to introduce hand sewing and mixed media to the crochet community so that the garments and crochet pieces match."Until I can't do it anymore, I will be doing it," she said. "You become your own designer, and there is great satisfaction in that."To have nice thingsFor Sonya Armstrong, sewing is a way to stay on trend and be "stretched to the limit" in the designs she makes for her clothes."When you sew, you don't have to wait for it to go on sale or out of season. You can make it," said Armstrong, a professor at West Virginia State University.In the past 40 years, she's made everything from lingerie to coats to fashion pieces requested by friends."My friends have stretched me to the limit. They have such faith in me," she said. One of her favorite creations was a Vogue pattern pantsuit two of her friends asked that she make. One of those friends just wore her outfit on a recent trip to Austria.
"It's not because I liked it so much, but because it was difficult," she said. She enjoys making prom dresses and evening wear, and every year she's sewed a prom dress either for her daughter Janelle or for one of the seven high school exchange students she's hosted at her house during that time.Long before she had kids to sew for, a teenage Armstrong started sewing because she wanted nice things to wear to social events when she lived and went to school in New York City. She came to West Virginia in 1999. "I wanted to be able to have nice things that I could not afford to buy," she said. "A Singer sewing machine was the first item I purchased to establish a credit on a credit card. I got it before I had a radio, a TV, a car."When she had her daughter, her skill came in handy when she could not afford certain items the child needed. Once, when her daughter was trying out for "The Nutcracker" and needed a special leotard, she just made it instead of buying it.Another way she uses sewing is to remember her mother in a very special way. Each Mother's Day for the past 20 years, she has worn an outfit her mother owned. With her skills, she is able to adjust it the size and make it match current trends."Being able to sew afforded me being able to do that," she said.
Generation to generationSherra Bailey is education coordinator for the Jo-Ann Fabric store in Dunbar. She believes people want to sew because it gives them that connection to the past."They can remember somebody in the family doing a handcraft, and that's coming back. They want that generational gap to be met. The more seasoned generation wants to be able to pass something along," she said.Earlier this year, the Dunbar store became the first Jo-Ann's in the state to start offering classes, including quilting, sewing, knitting and crochet.Store manager Courtney Parsons said they received a lot of inquiries about courses before the store started offering them. It was slow in the beginning, but now that people are aware, interest has picked up, she said.
Other storeowners offering classes in the area have noticed more interest in sewing as well.Regina Sneed of Sneed's Vacuum and Sewing Center in Charleston said she's seen a younger set of customers, ages 25 to 45, who have never sewn before and want to learn. A majority are new mothers or recent homebuyers who want to know how to make children's clothes and how to sew pillows and curtains to decorate their homes, she said.Julie Wirts, founder of The Dressmaker's Closet, also has seen an increase in inquiries for private and group sewing classes. She plans on bringing back a more diverse set of courses at multiple times a week in the winter and spring to meet the demand.She also has provided private lessons to girls ages 10 to 12 at her store in Charleston for the past three or four years, and also teaches sewing at Charleston Montessori School to 9- and 10-year-olds.Kids are always looking at a computer screen now, Wirts said. Sewing isn't offered much in school anymore; they don't have a lot of hands-on activities. Sewing allows them to work with their hands, she said."They get real satisfaction out of it. It gives them a sense of accomplishment."That's what it's like for Hannah Duffield, 21, who lives in Wirt County. She's been sewing since her mom gave her a pillow to make when she was 5 or 6 years old.Since then, she's sewn Civil War-era costumes for her family and church re-enactments; clothing for herself and her friends; and has started selling fancy hostess aprons, skirts and camera strap covers, among other things, to local shops and on Etsy."It gave me an outlet to use my imagination," she said. "I can watch a movie, see what the characters are wearing, start sketching what I wanted to do, and want to make it."She has a lot of like-minded friends who sew too, and they bounce ideas off each other, but others she knows don't know how to sew and "wish they could, but they never had enough time or their mom didn't sew to teach them," Duffield said. "Really, a lot of people want to sew."From the interest shown among younger generations and older ones as well, it looks like sewing will continue at least for a while.Armstrong's daughter just finished sewing her first two pieces of clothing, and Moore has bought sewing machines for two of her daughters; her third is already asking when she's going to get one.Duffield has the same plans for when she gets her own house and starts having children. She wants to teach her kids how to sew when they're young, and is looking forward to making tablecloths, runners, quilts and curtains to decorate her home. Maybe one day she'll even make a career out of it."If I could sew and make money, that's what I would do. I'd really enjoy that," she said.Resources
  • Sneed's schedule of sewing classes for winter 2014 will be out in January. Call 304-744-3670 for more information.
  • For information on Jo-Ann Fabric courses, call 304-768-0262.
  • The Dressmaker's Closet offers private lessons and plans to schedule new classes for winter/spring 2014. Call 304-720-1949.
  • Moore's Etsy business is at and
  • Duffield sells her creations at and
  • Reach Emily McComas at 304-348-4882 or
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