One brutal Winter's day in New York City, Lisa Bradley, 43, found herself admiring a very bright chartreuse fake-fur coat in the junior department of Saks Fifth Avenue. "It cost $700, and I thought that was insane," says Bradley, a professor at the Tyler School of Art near Philadelphia. "So I decided to make my own." She bought a $100 sewing machine and a hundred dollars' worth of fake orange fur, and when she was done, she had a full-length shawl collar coat with fold-up cuffs. More important, she had taught herself to sew. "I knew if I could make this coat, I would gain a lifetime ability to make things I love."
That was nine years ago. Since then, Bradley has discarded the orange coat as a victim of '90s color schemes, but she continues to craft her own fashions. She has recently taken to purchasing vintage skirts from thrift stores and embellishing them with images she has either photographed or created on her computer. She prints them on transfer paper and, with a household iron, customizes the skirts by applying the images to the fabric. "I love the creativity without the pressure of worrying about what's in style," she marvels. "I'm my own arbiter of what's fashionable."
Just when you thought it was all about knitting, a much broader craft-it-yourself movement has emerged that's altering modern views about the domestic arts and enabling anyone with the will, the imagination and a sewing machine to create one-of-a-kind fashions. The movement is driven by style-conscious women who are bored by the cookie-cutter apparel sold at stores like Gap and Banana Republic. It's spread by websites like craftster.org and getcrafty.com which serve as latter-day sewing circles--places to trade ideas, share patterns and post pictures of your best work. And it's made possible in part by innovative hardware: a new generation of easy-to-use sewing machines equipped with LCD screens that allow you to view and manipulate stitches even before they hit the fabric. Some even connect with your personal computer--no home-ec experience required.
This is not a nostalgia movement. While plenty of women still cut clothes from Simplicity patterns, there is a distinctly hip subset of fashionable crafters who are more interested in sewing as an expression of individuality than as a tradition. "This isn't your grandmother's craft," observes Bostonian Leah Kramer, 30, who likes to take old boxy rock-concert T shirts and transform them into baby-doll fashion statements. "One way to express your creativity is your clothing. If you make a cool dress out of some sheets that you bought at a thrift store, that says a lot about who you are."
That creative urge has found expression all over the Internet, where hundreds of websites and blogs allow crafty gals and even some guys to find comrades and get tips on how to turn a pillowcase into a skirt or how to sew felt on a blouse. Craftster org which Kramer founded a year ago, has more than 20,000 registered members and attracts 250,000 visitors a month. It has a sensibility that's not exactly homespun. "There are no craft hearts, bunnies or toilet-paper cozies without irony on Craftster," Kramer explains by telephone from her Somerville, Mass., store called Magpie on Huron, which specializes in vintage kitsch and quirky goods made by crafters like herself.