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Material Girls

Local chapters of the American Sewing Guild strutt their stuff.

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By Deanna Isaacs

It used to be that if your chromosomes came up double X, you knew how to sew--at least at a rudimentary level. Even if you got no further than the Mother's Day gift apron in junior high, you understood and respected what an accomplished seamstress could do. In those days the sewing machine was a pretty standard piece of domestic equipment, and a trip to the fabric section of a major department store could make your heart beat faster. The elevator would open on what looked like an endless reach of possibility, bolt after bolt of richly colored fabric in textures that begged for your touch: wools from the British Isles, silks from the Far East, smooth Egyptian cottons. It was profuse and luxurious and intoxicating.

But in the 1970s, interest in sewing began to decline. Blame the pill, the two-car family, television, the rush of women into the workforce. And jeans, of course. The people who made their living selling sewing machines, patterns, notions, and fabric saw their business go thin as gauze. In '78, hoping to save some of it, they created an industry-sponsored consumer organization, the American Sewing Guild. Seven years later the guild shed its direct industry support to become an independent nonprofit educational and social group. At last count, it had 19,000 members in 116 chapters. Last weekend the Chicago chapter--14 neighborhood groups from city and suburbs--got together for "Sew What?," its annual meeting and fashion show, at Bristol Court Banquets in Mount Prospect. It was a feast for eyes glazed by the Gapping of fashion, an antidote to the khaki conformity that now passes for cool.

It's still a double-X kind of thing. Except for waiters, photographers, and one model, "Sew What?" drew an all-female crowd, members of groups from suburbs including Arlington Heights, Schaumburg, Morton Grove, and Elmhurst as well as Chicago and farther-flung spots like Rockford. They took in demonstrations ("How to Sew in a Perfect Circle on Any Machine," for example), bought used patterns for 25 cents each, elected new officers, raffled off Armani fabric and sewing machines, and judged a contest to see what could be done with a half yard of pink polka-dot cotton. Then three dozen of them strutted down the runway in outfits they made themselves: Melvina Stemley's three-piece ethnic print was followed by Tammy O'Connell's Victorian corset, Sarah Thurber-Fiorenza's Tudor gown of upholstery fabric, the Portage Park Ladies' vinyl dog coat, Susan Bringer's jacket made from a purchased quilt, Sheila Washington's backless red silk evening dress, and a crocheted halter top and skirt by Francine Schulman that Erin Brockovich would lust for. Absent but not missed were the bulimia bodies and contemptuous pouts of many professional runway walkers. These women--of every size, age, and body shape--were suffused with the glow of accomplishment.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell.

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