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A Sewing Sensation

Lauren Hutton sews. So do Mary Alice Williams and Deborah Norville, the news anchors. Daphne Maxwell Reid, best known for her role on the 1987-88 television series Frank's Place, wears her own handiwork when she and her husband, Tim Reid, attend the Emmy awards.

"I like things to be in my color, fitting me the way I like," Daphne Reid said last week from her home in Charlottesville, Va. She was working on two home-sewing projects: a "very, very yellow" gabardine double-breasted jacket and a blue-and-black silk suit from a Vogue pattern. Why sew when she can easily afford a designer dress? "This is how I relax, how I create," she said.

Once, home sewing was perceived as so resolutely unmodern as to be an affront to the freedom of women. It was archaic, time-consuming and fraught with economic distinctions: The poor sewed, the rich bought.

Today, nearly one-third of the United States' adult female population _ more than 30-million women, mostly college educated, between ages 24 and 54 _ are revving up their sewing machines, reports the American Home Sewing and Craft Association, a trade organization.

(The number of sewing-skilled men, it seems, is too insignificant to tabulate, perhaps because male-oriented patterns are largely limited to chinos, vests and Bermuda shorts.)

In 1992, for the last Census of Retail Trade conducted by the Commerce Department, $5.1-billion was spent on sewing and related supplies, up 21.4 percent from $4.2-billion in 1987. And for the last few years "the home-sewing industry has been increasing 3 to 5 percent a year," said Louis Morris, the chief executive of Simplicity Pattern Co., which offers 700 to 800 patterns a year.

In these days of outlet shopping, practicality seems to have little to do with all this thread-and-bobbin activity.

"We've found that sewing to save money is No. 3 or 4 on the list of whys," said Beth Mauro, the director of the American Home Sewing and Craft Association, pointing out that the cost of a dress made from a pattern can run into hundreds of dollars, depending on fabric. "The primary reason is relaxation."

Another reason for sewing is to create styles in sizes and colors that women say they cannot find in stores and that can be created in a couple of hours on the latest computer-enhanced sewing machines.

Faith Popcorn, the consumer-trends oracle who ennobled yuppie couch potatoes in the late 1980s by coining the word "cocooning" for their stay-at-home ways, sees home sewing as an example of the thoroughly '90s do-it-yourself creativity she calls "egonomics."

"Just say the words "home sewing,' and you get all warm and runny and cozy and fuzzy inside," said Popcorn, who in her 1996 book Clicking (HarperCollins) anoints home sewing as hip and hot.

"The popular idea was that you had to be poor to sew your own clothes. That's just not the case. A lot of women went out to work and found it wasn't so much fun, and they started to romanticize what their grandmothers and great-aunts did, back when things like sewing and arranging flowers were valued talents."

In tribute to all this, the Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York has mounted "Dreams on Paper," an exhibition on the history of home sewing, which runs through April 19.

Featured are modern and antique sewing machines, more than a century of home-sewn garments (including one of the identical gowns worn at the Unification Church's 1983 mass wedding at Madison Square Garden), and some of the more than 30,000 patterns left to the museum by Betty Williams, a costume designer who died last June.

The show is being co-sponsored by American Home Sewing and a Mount Rushmore of pattern makers: Simplicity, McCall's and Butterick.

The catalogs published by these companies almost monthly are the sewer's bibles. Any weekday morning, the basement pattern department of Paterson Silks, a three-floor fabric shop on Union Square, is packed with women flipping through the latest volumes.

"They like to be original," Lynette Vincent, a saleswoman, said of her customers as she searched a file cabinet for an Issey Miyake pattern of a coat that makes the wearer look like a quilt-wrapped caterpillar. "We get a lot of students from the Parsons School of Design. They buy the more difficult patterns, the designer ones."

Calvin Klein, Michael Kors, Nicole Miller, Claude Montana, Karl Lagerfeld, Anna Sui, Isaac Mizrahi, Oscar de la Renta and Geoffrey Beene all now transform selected designs into patterns six months after runway presentation.

While Calvin Klein's Jackie-O-style sheaths are a novice's dream, Carolina Herrera's evening gowns are astoundingly complicated. But challenge seems to be part of the attraction.

The difficult ones are like putting together a jigsaw puzzle," said Daphne Maxwell Reid, who produces a signature line of clothing patterns for Simplicity as well as a video called Suddenly, You're Sewing.

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A pattern of success

In the beginning, patterns were the domain of tailors and dressmakers; everyone else had to use available clothing as a model. But by the middle of the 19th century, patterns had become a pivotal element in American fashion, thanks to Ebenezer Butterick, who introduced paper patterns in graded sizes in 1864.

"First was the rise of the sewing machine as an affordable domestic appliance," said Dorothy Twining Globus, the director of the Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.

"Second came the fashion magazines, which were published by dress-pattern companies to push their products. And third was that the American postal system became an effective nationwide system by the third quarter of the century.

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Sewing is a "good thing"

In the early '90s, sewing began to reclaim its prestige, in part because of the project-oriented climate championed by the likes of Martha Stewart Living. In that magazine's February issue, "Sewing 101," a four-page primer, illuminates everything from securing a loose button to the anatomy of a sewing machine.

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Sewing as therapy

According to a 1995 study sponsored by the American Home Sewing and Craft Association, sewing reduces three stress indicators: heart rate, blood pressure and perspiration rate.

"When I sew, I don't smoke, I don't eat, I don't think about anything that bothers me," said Teresa Sierra, a New York housing-rights advocate "All I do is focus."