When 30-year-old Tarrah Zimmerman decided she'd like to make a few outfits for her 2-year-old daughter, Anna, she could hardly sew a napkin.
"I thought, `What am I doing? I have never sewn a thing in my life," she says. "But I wanted to be able to make some basic clothing."
She signed up for sewing classes about six months ago and started with stitching together squares of fabric to make pillowcases. A few months later, she had a child-sized blue and white sundress, complete with accent trims.
Add another recruit to the ranks of sewing aficionados. The Home Sewing Association estimates that sewing hobbyists have increased to 35 million nationwide, up from about 30 million in 2000 -- and moms like Zimmerman are fueling much of the trend. In response, fabric stores say they are selling and stocking more and more cloth and patterns for children. Even celebrities are in on the action: Hilary Duff released a line of McCall patterns in sizes 7-16 or 3-14 in March.
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"The fabrics are so much brighter and younger and trendier," says Paula Ward, a manager at the Fort Worth, Texas, Cabbage Rose fabric store, "and there are so many more of them."
But unlike their own moms, who often sewed as a way to cut costs, these new home seamstresses could buy cheap clothing by the truckload at stores like Target and Wal-Mart.
So why bother?
Moms say they want something special -- a piece of clothing that not only has the thread of Mama's love but is a one-of-a-kind look they literally pieced together.
"For me, I'm embracing a creative side I never really had before," says Zimmerman, of Keller, Texas. "And I want her to know I put the time and effort into doing something special for her."
Leslie Gladman, the owner and designer behind Favorite Things Pattern Designs, a national line of basic children's clothing, says moms tell her they want a look they can modify and control. Her sales jumped 15 percent in 2006 and an additional 20 percent this year, she says.
Ward echoes Gladman's assessment.
"They don't want other children wearing the same thing as theirs," Ward says. And the more experienced seamstresses, she says, use advanced techniques to make expensive-looking clothing that far surpasses the typical jumper or sundress associated with homemade threads.
HIGH QUALITY, LOW PRICES
Sharon Chan and mothers like her covet the high-end look found at children's specialty stores but shudder at the prices.
So instead Chan spends painstaking hours producing embellished pants and lined jackets with high-fashion-quality topstitching for her 8-year-old, Gabriella.
The clothes aren't cheap, but they're less expensive to make than purchase.
For Gabriella's First Communion, Chan spent four months making an ethereal white gown and matching bolero. She added pearlescent glass beads to the top, sewed together hundreds of pieces of lace to create the bolero and used a complicated French heirloom sewing technique to insert lace into the dress' skirt.
"This dress was expensive to make," the Colleyville resident says, "but it would have cost more than $1,000 to buy it."
She draws her inspiration, she says, from French and Italian designers who charge upwards of $600 for the types of outfits she makes. Chan subscribes to French sewing magazines, studying the pictures for instructions on how to reproduce challenging techniques.
Ashley Starnes, manager at the Grapevine Collection, a store that offers specialized fabrics for children and kits for easy-to-assemble outfits for boys and girls, says technical finishing skills -- like the topstitching and beading Chan adds to Gabriella's outfits -- are making a comeback with the push for extra-special clothing.
"Our smocking classes fill up more quickly all the time," she says. "It's a lost art that's making a comeback."
Mary Anne Britton loves the expensive dresses with French details like hand-smocking found in boutiques.
"But I would never pay those prices for an outfit," she says.
So Britton, who teaches two or three classes in finance each semester at Dallas Baptist University, purchases cheap sportswear for her kids to dirty up in the front yard and then spends hours putting her considerable skill to use crafting heirloom-quality clothing for her three children.
Last year, she used green flowered fabric to make a full-skirted Cinderella-style dress for her 7-year-old daughter, Kathryn.
"It would cost me $150, at least, to buy this dress, but I made it for about $50," she says.
Plus, she says, when she makes the outfits herself, she's able to coordinate a look for her two daughters, ages 7 and 5, and her son, age 2, without dressing them like matched Stepford children.
Coordinating options are lucrative for pattern companies, says Gail T. Hamilton, vice president of promotions and advertising for McCall, Butterick and Vogue Patterns.
"Big sister/little sister or brother and sister, those are the kind of things that sell really well," she says. "It's really hard to find those things in ready-to-wear, no matter what you're willing to pay."
And when Britton makes the clothes herself, she says, she doesn't have to deal with her daughters wanting to choose some of the racier options offered in stores.
Britton says, for that reason, she rarely takes Kathryn shopping.
"I don't even want to deal with it yet," Britton says. "She can't understand that just because the clothes are in the stores doesn't mean it's OK for her to wear them."
And the self-confidence boost that Britton says her daughter gets from custom-made attire motivates her, she says.
"When I see how it makes her feel, it makes me feel like my time was worth it," Britton says.
WHERE TO GO
This store offers a range of interesting fabrics and also sells kits for kids' clothes with patterns and cloth that's already measured out for between $19 and $50. It also provides smocking and pleating services. See the store online at www.sewitup.com.
The European designs on this site are great idea sparkers.
Also a good stop for ideas about styles and pattern pairings.