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Sewing in self-defense

Published Oct. 6, 2005

Why would people spend so much time and effort to sew all their clothing from scratch?

Some do it because they enjoy creating something useful and beautiful. Some sew to save money. Others sew because they are hard to fit.

Robin Powell sews all her clothing _ and most of her family's _ for all these reasons.

She is tall, her husband is taller and they have two teenagers who top the 6-foot mark. She is frugal, she said, so "sewing makes economic sense." And she enjoys the challenge of putting colors and textures together to individualize clothing.

"There's nothing worse than spending a lot of money on an outfit and seeing someone else in an identical one right afterward," she said.

Also, she said, "Dick (her husband) and I have very expensive taste in clothes, but not the pocketbook to support it. Sewing was a way to get the kind of clothing we liked at prices we could afford."

In fact, she enjoyed creating clothing so much that two years ago the Powells opened a family business called Kracker Kreations to applique, embroider and print custom T-shirts, golf shirts and sweat shirts (as well as totes, hats, and mugs) for others.

Powell first put thread to needle at age 5; she made a bathing suit cover-up for her doll. Then, in the eighth grade, her home economics teacher introduced her to the basics of sewing and tailoring. She made an A-line dress that turned out to be a favorite _ a dress that felt good every time she put it on.

That hooked her on sewing.

"When you're tall, finding clothes to fit can be a nightmare," she says. "Pants were the worst. I vividly remember trying to lengthen flared pants 7 inches to go over my platform shoes when I was in high school. Sewing became a matter of self-defense, to get clothes that looked good and fit. I liked having a lot of clothes and this was the only way I could afford them."

During high school, some weeks revolved around sewing. She would babysit on Wednesday nights, persuade her father to drive her to a fabric store on Thursdays so she could spend her babysitting money, race home to her sewing machine and finish an outfit in time for a dance on Friday.

"I had a friend who did the same thing, but she didn't sew quite as fast as I could so we always arranged for me to pick her up, to give her a little more time," Powell said, smiling. "I was famous for using masking tape if I didn't have time to finish a hem."

In those days, she sewed on one of the first electric sewing machines ever made, a Montgomery Ward portable that belonged to a great-aunt. "It only sewed a straight stitch _ forward _ and it used the real long, old-fashioned shuttles. I used it until it quit working a couple of years after I got married." Now she has a $300 Baby Lock Companion.

Ask Powell what her family spends on clothing in a year and she'll whip out a ledger sheet. "I can tell you exactly: $225.87 for Dick, $396.65 for Kimber, $337.56 for Josh (he buys most of his clothes, but $150 is for prom stuff), and $526.02 for me _ although a lot of that includes fabric and supplies for crafts."

She makes everything but lingerie, although she is considering trying that. She estimates that if she'd bought her wardrobe, she would spend at least three times more. Five times would probably be more like it.

"Sometimes I go looking for just the right fabric for a project, but often I find fabric on sale and then find ways to use it. Sewing is a great outlet for creativity."

She watches fashion shows on TV, scans magazines for photos and racks in women's stores for styles and then reproduces what she likes in her choice of colors and fabrics.

"I used to experiment a lot more, but now I know what I like and what styles fit us well," she said. She recently finished a three-piece suit for less than $10 of materials; it is almost identical to one she saw in a store.

Powell has always sewn for her family.

"We were married when we were young. We had children when we were young. And staying home with the kids was a priority for us," she said.

After she made a safari suit for her husband soon after they married, her sewing machine seldom stopped. "I made one identical to a suit he tried on in Maas Brothers. They were charging $75 and I made one that fit him better for under $10," she said. "I found that very encouraging."

In those days, she could buy three yards of 60-inch fabric on sale for 66 cents and get a pair of men's slacks out of it and still have enough material left to make Josh (then a toddler) a four-piece suit. "When you live on one income, you either sew or go without. I wanted to make sure that we didn't have to go without."

But she doesn't stop with ordinary everyday clothing. "A long time ago, I got hooked on the challenge of making things I'd never made before _ or doing something different," she said.

She has made Western-style shirts, Indian costumes and Seminole jackets (using traditional Seminole piecing techniques) for her husband and son, who participate in the Boy Scout Order of the Arrow. She has hand-sewn Colonial-era clothing for various activities, using authentic patterns. She also quilts, upholsters, makes pillows, curtains, bedspreads and gifts.

Perhaps the only thing she hasn't made is a wedding gown. She bought hers, she admitted."My mother didn't want me to go down the aisle with my hem taped or the dress just basted together because I didn't have time to finish it," she said.

Eight years ago, she appliqued a sweat shirt for Kimber. One of the friends who admired her work showed Powell a simple appliqued sweat shirt that she had bought for $35.

"That did it. I knew I could do a better job for much less cost," she said.

She sold appliqued sweat shirts and T-shirts to friends and friends of friends for several years, then decided to go one step further. Kracker Kreations was launched.

The Powells bought computerized applique and embroider machines, as well as equipment that shoots logos and photographic images onto shirts, mugs, hats and totes. "We don't have a minimum order. We'll do one shirt or a thousand," she says.

She keeps the equipment in the family room, where she spends her spare time working on one of the three outfits she has under way. "I go great guns sewing new clothes at the start of the season," she said.

"Fewer women are sewing these days. So many women have gone back to work and don't have the time. But patterns are getting a lot better and the new machines do just about everything you'd ever want done, so those who sew are doing it more expertly," Powell said.

"If I had to choose one reason why I sew, I'd say it was for the creative outlet it gives me," she continued. "If I didn't like doing it, I wouldn't do it. But the savings allowed me to stay home with my kids when they were babies and it allows me to be here now, when they bring their friends home after school. I learned a long time ago that everything in life involves choices. This was the choice that my family made."