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Sunday, June 19, 2011

A Stitch in Time... at the Speed of Smartphones (Wall Street Journal)

This article was published back on May 12, 2011 - but I love it so much I wanted to share it with everyone here too!

Your grandmother's hobby is going high-tech.

Amid sewing's pop-culture revival, makers of sewing machines are cutting no corners in their appeal to the next generation of seamstresses. Equipped with USB ports and high-resolution touch screens, the newest sewing machines address the industry's growth demographic—people in their 20s and 30s inspired by fashion and design reality-TV shows and raised on computers and smartphones.

After eight seasons of "Project Runway" on cable television, sewing is still hot. "Project Runway" sponsor Brother International says 2010 was a record year in sewing and embroidery, with U.S. sales of machines and accessories up 22% over 2009, according to Dean Shulman, senior vice president. Unemployment and economic uncertainty have helped. "The economic downturn has in some ways been beneficial, because more consumers have turned to comforts in home and tradition," says Katrina Helmkamp, chief executive of SVP Worldwide, which sells mass-market Singer sewing machines as well as the specialty Husqvarna Viking and Pfaff lines.

Retail giant Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is bringing back cut fabrics, which sales associates cut to the length a customer requests, in some stores. Wal-Mart removed them in 2006 to create a cleaner selling floor. "Our customers are telling us they want it back," says Wal-Mart spokeswoman Tara Raddohl. Later this year, some Wal-Mart stores will expand their assortments of buttons, threads, zippers and other notions.

New multitasking sewing machines strive to be as accessible as a smartphone. Modern machines have added decorative stitches, automatic threading and touch screens for easier use. There are smartphone apps for matching thread to fabric and software that digitizes embroidery designs. With the USB port on the latest embroidery machines, users can transfer an image from laptop to sewing machine.

Some high-end machines even purport to help you sew better. "Features that automate sewing and embroidery processes make things easier, faster and more intuitive for all users," says Rachel Stephens, director of integrated marketing at SVP Worldwide. Using an advanced machine, someone with entry-level sewing skills can accomplish a fairly complex project, she says. But familiarity with sewing techniques and with new technology is still a must.

Some beginners have unrealistic expectations, says Virginia Fawcett, owner of Needlecraft Sewing Center, a store and school in Midland Park, N.J. They like how new machines promise speed. "People don't want to take forever to do anything," she says, cautioning, "you have to have skill to do it." She prefers mechanical machines. "I have had computerized ones, and I feel like they're too slow," she says.

Before the home sewing-machine, skilled individuals did hand-sewing at about 20 stitches a minute. The first sewing machines increased the speed tenfold. Today, a standard machine operates at about 800 stitches a minute, and a high-end machine at 1,100 a minute, according to Gary Jones, president of mass market for the Singer brand.

Marketers want to sell a seamstress her first machine when she is in her teens or 20s, then sell her the high-end upgrade down the road. "Consumers in their 20s want to explore all types of creativity, while the 30-something starts to settle down and becoming more serious about perfecting their sewing skills," says Martin Favre, president of Bernina of America, part of Swiss sewing machine company Bernina International, whose machines start at less than $500 for novice sewers and range up to $13,000.

Companies try to keep entry-level prices low. Brother's opening price is $80 for a mechanical machine, and as low as $140 for a computerized model. Still, there's plenty of demand for more innovation. Even buyers of high-end machines want to top their sewer friends, SVP's Ms. Stephens says. "With the top-of-the-line consumer, they've got some friendly competition with their girlfriends."

SVP Worldwide says Husqvarna Viking's $5,999 Designer Ruby machine, introduced last year, has a high-resolution touch screen and a USB port, so embroidery designs can be uploaded from computer to sewing machine. The machine senses fabric thickness and adjusts for an even fabric feed—eliminating uneven stitching that results when newbies press or push fabric along. With SVP Worldwide's Thread Match, a $2.99 smartphone app, users shoot a photo of a color, and the app searches 15,000 commercially available thread colors to find several matching options.

Brother's $9,300 Quattro 6000D, for experienced users, has a camera-like feature built in over the needle that shows what the needle "sees" on the HD display. Users get a detailed image of hard-to-see places, eliminating the need for guessing about where to drop the needle. "It's like having GPS built into the machine," Mr. Shulman says. "We really want to be known as the fashion company by using technology to make creativity as easy as possible."

Ease-of-use emerged as the most important feature among 15 women in the market for a sewing machine, who participated in SVP Worldwide's recent "shop along" research in Nashville and Ann Arbor, Mich. As the women shopped, many revealed they saw sewing as something they would like to do with their 9- to 15-year-old daughters.

Bernina estimates 39 million U.S. women own sewing machines, using them mainly for mending, crafts and home d├ęcor; it says an estimated 4 million individuals sew at least once a week. Bernina has provided ways for sewers and quilters to connect online. In 2009, it launched the website, with links to blogs and Twitter feeds. Bernina says the site has received 95,000 visits so far.

Sewing has always been a social activity, and some companies see a marketing opportunity. On Mother's Day weekend, the Singer brand hosted 800 sewing parties across the country. Experienced sewers were hosts, teaching guests how to use Singer machines. The events are a way to reach beginners, SVP's Ms. Stephens says. "It allowed consumers to get their hands dirty with the machine and feel comfortable with it."

Susan Leanna, 43 and a member of a quilting group in Green Bay, Wisc., who started sewing eight years ago, applied online and was selected as a host. SVP supplied fabric, thread and decorations, plus a Singer Confidence Stylist mid-level machine, with 70 stitch patterns and an automatic needle threader. After attending a demo of how to use the machine, Ms. Leanna taught her guests how to sew a small accessory bag. Hosts could get 20% off a purchase of the machine, and attendees could get 15% off. "It's more fun to sew with friends and family than to sit at home and do it by yourself," Ms. Leanna says.

Hope you enjoyed it as much as I did!

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