TEMPLE TERRACE — When Margaret Stephens was a teenager in the late 1950s, her mother made a deal with her.
"She said, 'If you make your own clothes, you won't have to do any housework,' " Stephens recalled.
It was an offer Stephens couldn't refuse. She had already taken her first sewing class in eighth grade. And if she could choose between sewing and cleaning, she would always pick sewing.
When Stephens graduated Chamberlain High School in 1960, she married a soldier and had her own children. She made a similar deal with her husband.
"I told him, 'If you buy me a sewing machine, I'll make it pay for itself,' " she said. "And it did because I made everything that me and the boys wore."
More than 50 years later, Stephens is still sewing, but her motivation has changed.
"It used to be an economical thing," she said. "Now, it's more fun."
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Stephens and dozens of others take sewing classes at Bernina Sewing Center in Temple Terrace.
The center teaches sewing basics, embroidery, quilting, clothing construction and more. Classes run between $10 and $60 depending on the type of project.
On a recent Friday, Stephens and eight other women brought their own machines to an embroidery class during which they learned how to make a wall hanging.
Bernina is an international manufacturer of sewing and embroidery machines with individual dealers all over the world. Husband-and-wife team Gregor and Debra Sidler own the store.
In addition to the classes, the Sidlers offer fabric, notions and space for customers to work on projects. Their main focus, though, is selling and servicing Bernina sewing machines, and Gregor, 53, said customers travel from as far away as Tallahassee to seek his expertise.
"I'm a unique guy when it comes to the mechanics of Bernina sewing machines," he said.
Gregor grew up in his family's Bernina sewing store in Switzerland, and that shop is now the oldest Bernina store in the world. He's been working with Bernina sewing machines his entire adult life and spent time building and testing new Bernina machines.
Bernina sewing machines range in price from $849 to $10,000, and the fancier ones have touch screens, fully automatic threading, a library of stitches, and the option to load personally digitized designs directly onto the machines. Basic lessons are included with a machine purchase, and most customers buy these types of machines to facilitate their sewing hobby, Gregor said.
"It's all fun," he said. "That's the beauty of it. It's completely different from years ago when we sold for necessity."
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Before the class began, Debra Sidler, who was teaching, loaded a digitized embroidery design onto each machine via a USB drive.
Class members picked out cut fabric strips in various colors and started the project.
Retired teacher Karen Waechter, 60, of Lutz, lined up her fabric inside a hoop and made sure she was stitching in the right spot.
Waechter began sewing when she was 14 or 15, and she has been quilting for 20 years. She prefers quilting to garmentmaking.
"I like the creativity," she said. "I like working with color, and I like that it doesn't have to fit."
When Jean Harrison heard other class members talking about why they like to sew, she spoke up.
"It keeps us off the street and out of bars," she said with a laugh.
Harrison, 66, of Valrico, got her first sewing machine when she was in high school. A neighbor taught her how to make a skirt when she was 9 years old.
After a stint in the Air Force, time spent running marathons, and a battle with cancer, Harrison has found herself back at the sewing machine.
She showed off a quilt with a pig on it that she had made out of various pink fabrics.
"No one's sewing to save money anymore," she said. "It's gone to a hobby is what has happened. You sew to play."
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Stephens, 70, said she has used her sewing skills over the years to make baby pillows and blankets, a wedding dress for her daughter-in-law, purses, and various other items.
She took her first quilting class from Debra in 1998, and she's now leading a group effort of the Quilter's Workshop of Tampa Bay to create an opportunity quilt. The project has taken hundreds of thousands of hours to make over the past six months, she said, and it will be showcased and raffled off next year.
Though she has been sewing for more than 50 years, Stephens said she still enjoys discovering state-of-the-art techniques. Most recently, Gregor taught her how to digitize her designs using computer software to make projects like the opportunity quilt easier.
"Debra and Gregor are the best teachers in the world," she said. "Even at my age, technology is changing and everything changes. You're always learning something new."
Ashley Reams can be reached at [email protected]