Some phenomena that begin as narrowly focused fads can morph into entire lifestyles—consider the life choices that can extend from going vegan (yoga? Prius? Green Party?). These days, the same holds true with crafting. What began with Uma Thurman's knitting obsession and the hipster battle cry that “knitting is the new yoga,” has since engendered a Knitting Olympics, a bestselling romance series by Debbie Macomber, and countless knitting clubs. And now, of all things, women are returning to sewing: once a burden of female domesticity, needlecraft and machine-sewing have become lifestyle choices, valued for their slower-paced, more traditional virtues in a cyber-swift world. Nonetheless, crafts publishers find themselves having to extend their offerings to keep up with enthusiasts searching different challenges.
“I really do think it makes perfect sense that this type of crafting has become an approach to life,” says Melanie Falick, a bestselling knitting author (Weekend Knitting) and editorial director for Stewart, Tabori & Chang's craft imprint, STC Craft/Melanie Falick books. “In this big, insecure world, where everything moves so fast and most of our lives are spent in a virtual reality, we can find balance by slowing down and using our hands to create.”
With its orientation toward personal fashion and home decor, the popularity of today's needle crafts has taken some of the spotlight away from other hobby titles. “The so-called 'hard crafts,' like woodworking, have a more even-handed, steady approach, and they haven't changed much,” says Sterling CEO Charles Nurnberg. “The soft crafts, like knitting and sewing, have tended toward more highs and successes.” Nurnberg traces the trend to what he calls “the new domesticity”: “Many of our readers are women who are comfortable with their careers as doctors, lawyers, or financiers, who are interested in saying 'I made it myself.' ” And this ever-expanding audience, many of whom picked up their first pair of knitting needles a decade ago, is ready for something new.
Topping the wish list for the legions that began churning out chunky scarves by the millions in the late '90s: innovative techniques and unique patterns. “As people have become more accomplished, we're not seeing quite the same demand for those very basic, textbook-type knitting books,” says Cindy Kitchel, v-p and publisher at John Wiley & Sons. “Instead, people want diversity in fabric and fiber and more niche-y topics.” In May, Wiley, a relative newcomer to the craft category, released Charmed Knits: Projects for Fans of Harry Potter; at the same time it announced a charity knit-along. To date, the accompanying blog has received more than 60,000 hits.
“It's the funky stuff that keeps people interested,” agrees Nurnberg. “My wife went back to knitting after 20 years, but she became bored after she made scarves for friends and family.” Nurnberg brought home Sensual Knits (Jan.), which will be the first book in a crafting series from Massachusetts-based Hollan Publishing, a packager of “illustrated romantic lifestyle books.” (Sensual Crochet will follow.) “The how-to aspect is good, but it's the photography that blows you away—the kind of things you see in the highest of high-end fashion magazines,” Nurnberg says. “We're going for the lust factor—seasoned knitters look at these books and think, 'I'd love to do this someday.' ”
Those closest to the crafting consumers also say that knitting's widening base has created more opportunity to cater to advanced crafters. “We're still seeing strong sales, but it's not so much the bulky, scarf-only yarns that were more popular when we first opened,” says Joelle Hoverson, owner of Purl, a yarn shop in Manhattan's hip SoHo neighborhood. “I notice that we're moving a lot more of the thinner yarns that are used to make garments and lace.” Hoverson herself has experienced a crafting wanderlust of sorts—in March 2006, she opened the fabric store Purl Patchwork down the block from her yarn shop. “I could see a huge surge of interest in the sewing-related crafts on the blogs,” she says, “but I didn't see many refined or sophisticated sources out there for these crafters.”
Many publishers say the spike in sewing enthusiasts is related to the public's endless appetite for programs like Bravo's Project Runway, a reality show in which 15 budding designers compete for a chance to show their creations at Fashion Week in New York City. Singer Sewing Company reports that its annual sales have doubled—to three million machines—since 1999. Its newest product, the Inspiration, is a low-cost, basic machine that includes beginner-friendly features like 28 built-in stitch patterns. Another new line has a USB port.
“It's just the beginning of the sewing/fabric-manipulation trend,” says Rosemary Ngo, editorial director of Crown's Potter Craft imprint. In June, Potter Craft printed 20,000 copies of Bend the Rules Sewing: The Essential Guide to a Whole New Way to Sew by popular crafts blogger Amy Karol; a 5,000-copy second printing was ordered within two weeks of the on-sale date. The reason for the book's popularity, says Ngo, is its philosophy: “The idea is don't sweat the small stuff—make stuff.” With a friendly and playful tone, the book guides readers through the basics of vocabulary and material and then offers simple patterns for napkins, aprons, handbags and children's clothes. “Amy gives guidelines, not rules, and that speaks to this new generation of crafter, who wants to have fun and make something original,” says Ngo. “These are women whose mothers didn't craft—odds are, they were more interested in Donna Summer than a dressmaker's form.”
Deborah Balmuth, acquisitions editor for Storey Publishing, agrees. “Our books have a different approach for this generation, who didn't necessarily learn to sew in high-school home-ec class.” Balmuth says she learned to sew by following the logistics of a set pattern; the new push is toward a more free-form, individual style. “The attitude is, 'I'm going to make something that fits me,' ” she says. “We really saw that with the popularity of last September's Sew What! Skirts.” Written by Francesco DenHartog, owner of Valley Fabrics in Northampton, Mass. (and subtitled 16 Simple Styles You Can Make With Fabulous Fabric), the aptly titled Sew What assumes no prior experience and offers instructions, rather than patterns. This year's follow-up, Sew What! Fleece (Aug.), will offer 30 projects for the cozy, forgiving fabric; other books on accessories will follow.
Community—The Circle Widens
Purl's Hoverson and Valley Fabrics's DenHartog are just two among a growing number of yarn- and fabric-store proprietors turned instructors turned authors. Hoverson has penned Last-Minute Patchwork & Quilted Gifts, which will be released next month by STC Craft. The book provides patterns for 30 projects, including pin cushions, coasters, toys, quilts and pillows. “My audience is mostly young, professional women who have little time but a definite interest in making their own bags, garments and home decor material,” says Hoverson. “So the book is organized by how long it takes to make each project.”
Sewers looking for commiseration can congregate in places like Purl, but more and more, they're finding one another in much the same way knitters have—anywhere and everywhere. They're meeting up at cafes and libraries and approaching one another on the subway. And often, sewing “circles” formed online or in response to a particular designer or author spill into face-to-face rendezvous—and vice versa.
“We used to think of crafting as a solo endeavor,” says Taunton Press editor Erica Sanders-Foege. “But the new community's show-and-tell approach to crafting has changed everything.” Many of Taunton's offerings for the coming months respond to this community's sensibility by giving traditional crafts an edge. Subversive Seamster: Transform Thrift Store Threads into Street Couture (Oct.) is the follow-up to last year's Sew Subversive, which empowers readers' DIY approach to fashion by encouraging customization. This fall's Subversive takes this a step further, guiding thrift-store shopping and providing instructions for turning men's slacks into skirts and a sleeping bag into a puffy vest.
The authors of the series, Melissa Alvarado, Hope Meng and Melissa Rannels, are the founders of San Francisco's Stitch Lounge—an urban sewing studio where customers can rent machines by the hour. Voted one of the “Top Ten Places to Sew in the Country” by Vogue Patterns, Stitch Lounge offers weekly evening classes, one-on-one instruction, materials and a boutique selling finished goods from local designers. Says Alvarado, “Since opening in 2004, we've seen a steady increase in the interest in sewing among a younger demographic. Many people that come to sew are born-again seamsters. They may have learned in school or from their grandmother, but for some reason were turned off from the trade. With the new light that recent books and trends have shined on sewing, these folks are realizing that it doesn't have to be as difficult and strict as they remember.”
Just as the growing Purl empire and Stitch Lounge have become physical destinations for engaged, excited crafters to share their expertise and ideas, the Internet provides an all-access, 24/7 destination for queries, gossip, photos and patterns. Amy Karol's Bend the Rules Sewing, for example, has inspired a like-titled page on the popular photo-sharing site Flickr.
“We all need to keep an eye on what the younger crafters are doing, and they're congregated on the Web,” says Joy Aquilino, acquisitions editor for Watson-Guptill's craft line. “They're into making what no one else has—or would even want to have,” she says. To appeal to these individualistic bloggers, Watson-Guptill has launched the Downtown DIY series. This fall's offering: DowntownDIY Sewing.
Ten Speed Press has also benefited from tapping in to blog visibility. Last season, the company published The Craftster Guide to Nifty, Thrifty, and Kitschy Crafts, from Craftster founder Leah Kramer. Kramer founded the blog in 2003 as “a repository for hip, craft, DIY projects.” And her book, though not an exclusively fabric-craft title per se, has powered Ten Speed's push toward, in the words of senior acquisitions manager Julie Bennett, “modern design aesthetics and innovative techniques to traditional craft and needle arts.” Kramer, a computer programmer and part owner of Boston's Magpie craft store, has created an online marketplace with more than 50,000 members. A cursory glance at her site reveals resources for practically any craft you can imagine, from knitting and sewing to other once obscure but increasingly popular fiber arts like spinning, weaving, felting and dyeing. Her loyal fan base and the mainstream press have lauded her ability to appeal so directly to the intersection of domesticity and feminism.
Web chat and presence have fostered a genuine fan base for craft “celebrities” like Karol (Bend the Rules Sewing), Chronicle's Amy Butler (author of the popular In Stitches: More than 25 Simple and Stylish Sewing Projects) and others. “There have always been personalities in the crafting world,” says STC's Falick, invoking Elizabeth Zimmerman, author of Knitting Without Tears, whose New York Times obituary proclaimed that she “revolutionized the art of knitting.” But today, the Internet has expanded the influence of designers and personalities tenfold, says Falick: “Blogging has made the crafting world much smaller—it's incredible, the reach some people can have.”
Wendy Mullin, a New York City designer and the creator of the popular Built by Wendy Line, is another sewing superstar. Her clothing line, which she describes as “sort of preppy-meets-Japanese and French classic fabric patterns,” has been popular among celebrities and urban sophisticates for years (to date, she has three stores—two in New York and one in L.A.); her first book, last fall's Sew U: The Built by Wendy Guide to Making Your Own Wardrobe (Bulfinch), made a splashy debut among the young crafting crowd. The title's genesis was “a sense that the interest in sewing was on the rise for a younger generation,” says Little, Brown executive editor Michael Sand. “We thought it would take off just as knitting did with Stitch 'n Bitch [one of the original “hipster knitting titles,” published by Workman in 2004] and related books.” What worked for Mullin: a partnership with popular patternmaker Simplicity and straightforward advice on customization—whether it's tweaking fit or adding pockets. This spring, Little, Brown will release the follow-up title, Sew U Home Stretch, which focuses on sewing knit fabrics and offers patterns for creating T-shirts, dresses and hoodies.
A genuine galvanizing force in the knitting community is Stephanie Pearl-McPhee, originator of the aforementioned Knitting Olympics and author of last year's Cast Off: The Yarn Harlot's Guide to the Land of Knitting, which had an initial print run of 100,000. “When we launched Cast Off at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology in March, more than 700 people came,” says Jayme Hummer, publicist at Pearl-McPhee's publisher, Storey. “Hillary Clinton gets that kind of crowd!”
But perhaps the most famous face—and set of hands—behind a forthcoming crafting title is Emmy Award—winning talk show host Rosie O'Donnell. In April, Simon & Schuster will publish 150,000 copies of Crafty U. The book's target audience is parents—the writer, a mother of four, offers nearly 100 projects families can enjoy together. Says S&S senior editor Amanda Murray, “In addition to being highly visible as a TV personality and bestselling author, Rosie is well-known for her interest in crafts and for her advocacy of children's issues/charities. The book is a wonderful intersection of celebrity and crafts, and she's eager to promote it through personal appearances.”