Sewing 101 students at Butcher’s Sew Shop cut and assemble pieces of fabric to make purses and laptop cases. Photo courtesy Parikha Mehta

Sewing 101 students at Butcher’s Sew Shop cut and assemble pieces of fabric to make purses and laptop cases. Photo courtesy Parikha Mehta

Consider giving memberships or classes in lieu of grabbing something off of store shelves this holiday season

by Samantha Wittchen

My grandmother opened the lid to her sewing cabinet and flipped up the idle machine. She flicked the switch and a light turned on. In a flash, she threaded the needle and pulled the bottom thread through the needle plate. I sat down and fed a piece of fabric through. I pressed my thigh against the bar and the machine whirred to life. This is my first recollection of sewing. I was 8. ¶ Sewing was especially at the forefront of my life during the holiday season, as gifts from my grandmother often included something hand-sewn or embroidered, like a nightgown or a bathrobe. But the highlight was always the fancy Christmas dress that my grandmother made each year from fabric and a pattern I picked out. ¶ Decades later, after my grandmother passed away, I realized that all the perfectly tailored clothes she made me were a thing of the past. That was, unless I dusted off my sewing machine and began to relearn those skills my grandmother had patiently taught me summer after summer during the week I spent at her house.

In 2013, I embarked on a yearlong endeavor to complete one sewing project per month and improve my skills. By the end of the year, I was hooked.

I found the process of sewing both challenging and satisfying. It involves making design choices, solving problems and learning new skills. The end result is that you have created something that serves one of your most basic needs while bypassing the wasteful and unsustainable consumerist treadmill that is the fashion industry. Plus, there’s a psychic boost that comes with responding to a compliment on your attire with, “Thanks, I made it myself.”

The holidays have always been a time of making for me, and I’ve dabbled in ceramics, printmaking, embroidery, woodworking and digital fabrication to create gifts for others. Every year, I try to give at least one gift that I’ve made.

Over the last decade, I’ve made aprons, table runners, linoleum block-printed holiday cards, business card cases, a cork bath mat, a birdhouse and more ornaments than I can count. In fact, when the now-defunct Department of Making + Doing was still around, I mastered using the laser cutter and made personalized holiday ornaments that reflected the recipients’ unique interests. My succulent-loving husband received a prickly pear ornament; my cake-baking cousin, a stand mixer ornament.

Making gifts satisfies my need to give things that are more unique—and often more sustainable and well-made—than what you can typically buy. Plus, there’s nothing quite like watching someone’s reaction when you tell them the gift you gave them is handmade.

If you’ve been curious about the world of making, or had a DIY project in mind for ages that you can never seem to begin, now is the perfect time to scratch that maker itch to create one-of-a-kind gifts, or give the gift of making to your DIY friend for the holidays.

Where to Go to Get Started

If you’re interested in sewing—whether it’s to make clothes, accessories or home goods—Butcher’s Sew Shop (800 S. 8th St., and 1912 South St.) offers a Sewing 101 class to help you get started. The four-week class begins with teaching the basics of how to use a sewing machine and culminates in a finished bag. According to Andrea Brown, studio director at Butcher’s, no prior experience is necessary. “A lot of people are brand new to it. They’ve never touched a machine,” says Brown.

Brown explains that Butcher’s opened in the summer of 2014 to fill a need they didn’t see being met in the city.

“If you wanted to sew for fun, there weren’t many options,” she says. “You could get an expensive fashion design degree or drive to the suburbs to a quilt shop.”

Butcher’s first opened to teach children how to sew as an after-school program, but now offers a full range of classes for adults, in addition to one-day workshops throughout the year on other fabric arts topics such as hand embroidery, fabric block printing and espadrille shoemaking. Got a fashionista friend who might like to learn how to make their own haute couture frocks? Butcher’s offers gift cards that are good for any of their classes.

If woodworking, electronics or digital fabrication with tools like a laser cutter or 3D printer intrigue you, two organizations in Philadelphia have open project nights where you can get started. West Philly’s Tiny WPA (4017 Lancaster Ave.) opens their doors to the public for Stop By + Build on Wednesdays from 4 to 7 p.m.

They have a full wood shop, a laser cutter and a vinyl cutter on-site. All ages are welcome, and no experience is necessary. “We give [attendees] a tour of the space if they’re new, and then we ask about whether the person has a project in mind,” explains Tiny WPA co-founder Renee Schacht.

Staff and volunteers help guide attendees with a project idea to bring their ideas to life. If they don’t have a project in mind, they’ll be paired up with someone to learn how to use the tools and help with a project already in progress. The scene on any Wednesday night might include an energetic 8-year-old building a wooden scooter, a grandmother finishing up a bedside table or a teenage skater working on new vinyl stickers for his board.

Tiny WPA does not offer classes or memberships, but anyone is allowed to come as often as they’d like to Stop By + Build.

Hive76 (1821 E. Hagert St., Ste. 100C), a Kensington makerspace, also hosts a weekly open house on Wednesdays from 8 to 11 p.m., and they welcome anyone who is interested in beginning their maker journey. Their space boasts a small wood shop, a soldering and electronics bench, a 3D printer, a laser cutter and a vinyl cutter.

If you have a project and supplies, you can show up to the open house and get guidance from Hive76’s members, but you must be a member to use their tools. To serve people who are just getting started, they offer a “lite” membership at $15/month.

“We wanted to start a place that people who wanted to learn a new skill could do it without a huge expense,” says Chris Terrell, Hive76’s president.

Treasurer Daniel Provenzano adds, “Keeping the barriers to entry low is a big part of the ethos here.”

That “lite” membership also makes a great gift for your apartment-dwelling friend who doesn’t have space to set up their own wood shop or digital fabrication studio.

For a full-service outfit that offers memberships at varying levels and a wide array of professional-grade digital fabrication (3D printing, laser cutting, vinyl cutting), electronics, woodworking, metalworking, jewelry-making and textile equipment, there’s NextFab, a makerspace network with three locations in the Philadelphia region (2025 Washington Ave., and 1227 N. 4th St., both in Philadelphia; and 503 N. Tatnall St. in Wilmington, Del.).

NextFab welcomes all skill levels and offers access to tools, classes, events and en
trepreneur services. “Our culture is built towards learning, networking and teaching for all skill sets,” says Rebecca Ledbetter, digital marketing coordinator at NextFab. “We offer free Getting Started [opportunities] at NextFab consultations for new members, where a NextFab consultant will work with you to develop a personalized plan to help you achieve the goals you’ve set.” New members are required to go through orientation and safety training before they are allowed to use tools. “Our classes and workshops are meant to certify a maker on a skill or machine, and then have them start building for themselves,” Ledbetter adds.

Memberships start at $55/month for access to NextFab’s equipment, but you can become a member for $25/month to access NextFab’s members-only classes. NextFab also offers gift cards that can be used for any service they offer, including classes and memberships.

Photo Courtesy of Fleisher Art Memorial

Photo Courtesy of Fleisher Art Memorial

If you dream of producing your own stationery, creating jewelry or making one-of-a-kind pottery, Fleisher Art Memorial (719 Catharine St.) offers a wide range of printmaking, screenprinting, ceramics and jewelry-making classes perfect for beginners. Their JumpstART series of classes are inexpensive single-session workshops designed to get you started, and they also offer multi-week, beginner-friendly classes for those who want to go a little more in-depth.

Fleisher members receive a discount on classes, and memberships and classes are perfect gifts for those friends who want to try out several different types of making.

For those who want to try out a little bit of everything, the Tacony LAB Community Arts Center (6918 Torresdale Ave.) offers an eclectic range of free classes largely driven by community requests. Programming has included mosaic-making, kite-making, weaving, needle felting and bookmaking. “We are really geared towards people who have never taken art classes,” explains Barbara Baur, studio coordinator at LAB. “We try to introduce fine arts techniques while keeping it accessible.”

Because they are free, classes fill up very quickly, says Baur. Registration opens three weeks prior to the class, and although classes are posted on their Facebook page, students must register in-person.

If you’re looking for a place to find sustainable supplies and inspiration for your maker pursuits, try the Resource Exchange (1800 N. American St.) in Kensington. Under one roof, you can find a wide variety of supplies, such as fabric, printmaking tools, lumber, stained glass and even the odd sewing machine—all diverted from landfills and provided at low cost.

Stop in on any Saturday, and you might rub elbows with other makers, artists, teachers, craftspeople, builders or DIYers looking to source sustainable materials for their next project. The creative and helpful staff is ready to help you imagine what you might need for your own project. The shop also offers gift cards that are good for all of their reclaimed materials.

Philadelphia also boasts numerous other maker-focused organizations located throughout the city that offer beginner-friendly classes and workshops perfect for getting your feet wet.

Philadelphia Woodworks (4901 Umbria St.) offers a variety of woodworking classes for beginners that run the gamut from one-day crash workshops on topics like woodturning to multi-day classes on tablemaking. They even offer an introductory woodshop class just for women. Upcoming woodturning classes culminate in great gifts like wooden bowls and pen sets, and they also offer gift cards and memberships.

Second State Press (1400 N. American St., Studio B103) holds a variety of beginner-friendly classes on an array of printmaking techniques and paper arts, including screenprinting, etching, printing on fabric and bookmaking. Located in South Kensington’s Crane Arts Building, it also offers memberships and studio rentals by the hour, month or year, in addition to regular monthly events where you can meet other artists and makers.

For ceramics- and pottery-focused making, Philadelphians have two great options. The Clay Studio (137-139 N. 2nd St.) offers introductory multi-day classes and one-day workshops. Its Clay Studio Sampler introduces a variety of techniques, such as handbuilding and wheel-throwing and -glazing. Its Intro to the Wheel afternoon workshop allows participants to explore all the basics of throwing bowls on the wheel in a few hours. Members receive discounts on classes.

Yay Clay! (3237 Amber St.) offers a six-week class designed for beginners to learn how to throw pottery on the wheel, in addition to “Clay Dates” where two or more people receive one-on-one instruction to craft a handmade ceramic piece that participants return to glaze two weeks later. The finished piece is then ready for pickup (and gift-giving) two weeks later. Yay Clay! offers studio memberships that start at $75/month and provides access to all of their tools.

East Falls Glassworks (3510 Scotts Ln.) provides a unique opportunity to start creating objects with glass. One-day beginner workshops on blowing glass ornaments are perfect for making one-of-a-kind holiday gifts, and their multi-week Intro to Glassblowing and Fun With Glass classes are perfect for those who want to dive a little deeper into the art of working with glass.

Looking for a more eclectic set of options? The University City Arts League (4226 Spruce St.) offers beginner-friendly eight-week classes in a variety of maker disciplines, including sewing, ceramics and printmaking. Classes in its fully equipped pottery studio focus on both handbuilding and wheel-throwing techniques, and its sewing classes give you the option of using one of the League’s machines or bringing your own.

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