Fourteen-year-old Luna Ito-Fisher started making her own clothes and accessories when she was nine, after attending a friend’s birthday party at a sewing studio in LA.
“I remember at the beginning, threading was so hard and I could never get it through the needle,” Luna tells me as she sets up her machine on her family’s dining room table. Now, she slides the thread through the tiny clips across the top of the machine, guides it up and down the rigging, licks the end and pokes it, like nothing, straight through the eye.
Luna takes sewing class every Saturday. She’s made hats, bags, bracelets for her school’s dance team, stuffed animals, and Sonic and Shadow the Hedgehog Halloween costumes for her and her brother. Last year, for a social studies assignment, she constructed an authentic medieval gown laced with a real corset. “When I took it out,” Luna remembers, “People were like, ‘Whoa, you made that?’ I got an A+.”
It’s hard to track growth in the kid sewing market, because usually parents are the ones buying the machines. But Janet Sway, who runs the National Sewing Council says her members constantly tell her that sewing camps for 8 to18-year-olds are very popular. She thinks sewing-related TV shows deserve a lot of the credit. The latest special from the Style Network, Confessions of a Fashionette stars a 12-year-old who, according to her website, had her first trunk show by age ten. When I ask the Craft and Hobby Association’s Acting Communications Director, Victor Domine, about market data on young sewers, he has to laugh. His organization doesn’t collect that kind of research, he tells me, but he will say that his wife just splurged on a full-tilt electronic sewing machine for their ten-year-old daughter. “I was going, ‘Honey, you spent two hundred dollars?!’” to which she replied, “It’s a lifelong gift.”
The computerization of today’s machines is another factor that’s turning sewing into something other than what it was, something younger, more exciting. Unlike knitting or embroidery, machine-sewing requires technology. When the hardware beeps error messages or the needle starts acting possessed, kids consult manuals and online tutorials as technical as any software guide, and they look to role-models in maker communities way beyond the traditional crafts.
Even so, while sewing’s getting more popular and more techie, Luna can’t totally shake the pastime’s old-lady associations among some of her friends. “Most of them think it’s cool because I always make stuff for them for their birthdays,” she says. “But one of my friends, when I say I have sewing on Saturday, so I can’t hang out, she calls me grandma.”
“Young women and girls are reclaiming that image,” says Luna’s mom, Mimi Ito. “They’re making things that are quirky and funky and tied to a punk DIY aesthetic.” Mimi thinks there’s a culture shift going on, even though we still have those old images of what crafting means.
“What Luna has taught me through sewing,” Mimi says, “Is there’s this whole dimension of technical and geeked-out practice that’s much more girl-facing and girl-friendly. One of the really interesting things about sewing is how much technical knowledge and engineering knowledge it requires.”
“Algorithmic thinking” is the term computer scientist—and sewer—Leah Buechley uses to describe what it takes to translate a two-D paper pattern into a three-D soft object.
One project Leah’s been working on for six years now is LilyPad Arduino. It’s a set of sewable electronic pieces that includes a little computer and sewable lights, motors, and temperature sensors. You can stitch these components into fabric and sew them together with electronically conductive thread, and pretty soon you’re making dresses that register carbon monoxide levels through a pattern of LED lights embroidered into the front and back of the gown.
Leah is no one’s grandma. She’s a young professor at MIT’s Media Lab and rocked mustard-colored skinny jeans at the conference where I met her. Her love of engineering started early. She spent one summer as a teenager rebuilding an old Fiat with her dad. “And then for my 16th birthday, I got a bunch of engine parts. It was really great.”
Leah’s also always been obsessed with craft. And now that her LilyPad Arduino has been on the market for a couple years, an army of other makers is integrating sewing and embroidery with technology. One of her hopes when she decided to take LilyPad out of the lab and into the mass market was to draw young women and kids into engineering in a creative way.
Leah says traditional electronics hobbyists—people who use Arduino to rig home alarm systems and remote control vehicles—have been mostly really receptive to e-textile makers, showcasing their coolest projects on electronics websites. And when you check the message boards, there’s a whole lot of serious and supportive back-and-forth among Arduino users, including those deploying the technology to charge up accessories and frocks. But lately, Leah’s also been noticing a troubling phenomenon.
“Why don’t you blinky kids take a step back.” Leah’s reading me a comment that showed up on an electronics online discussion group. “You seem more focused on the fashion part (Hey look at me, my shirt shows when I’m aroused, aren’t I cool?) than the engineering part... Outside the raves and clubs, this is useless junk.”
And then there’s this one.
“I hate e-fashion. It’s not electronics. It’s crafting, and it has no place in the electronics hobby.”
Leah’s not exactly sure what to make of hostile comments like these. She’s disheartened. But she’s also really interested in how new materials like LilyPad can so palpably threaten people’s identities and understandings of what counts as “real” technology expertise.
As sewing evolves from home-ec into home engineering, all sorts of boundaries are being crossed. Kids of both genders who might have dismissed sewing as matronly are suddenly begging for machines as birthday presents. Crafty types experimenting for the first time with wired clothes are encroaching on online communities typically dedicated to reconfiguring computers and robots. And so every time young sewers like Luna, and e-textile designers like Leah, make a new garment, they’re also, in small ways, making new cultures of technology. Whether traditionalists on either side like it or not.