Whether it's to pinch pennies, conserve resources or simply be creative, home sewing is catching on again, in the UAE as much as anywhere. And it's easy to get hooked
Crafting resurgence provides a personal, common thread
"It's not just a shop, it's become a sort of community centre. The people who come here become friends."
Chrissie Ryder is buzzing around a work bench, looking on as some impressive looking quilts are being meticulously pieced together, square by square.
A former research chemist, Chrissie relocated with her family to Dubai from the UK two years ago and is now one of six tutors taking sewing, quilting and embroidery classes at the Craft Land shop in Jumeirah. She's been home sewing since she was a child, and here she's been able to turn her passion into a new career. "I just love coming to work," she says simply.
Opening in Town Centre mall two years ago, Craft Land sells fabrics, yarns and haberdashery supplies for a wide range of needlecrafts, including knitting, sewing, quilting crochet, felting and tapestry. There are also craft books, pattern magazines and a range of sewing machines, from basic to advanced. If you don't have a machine but want to come to a class to learn how to use one, you can hire one.
The store's manager is Riana Auret. Originally from South Africa, she identified a need for quality craft materials and accessible services in Dubai while teaching embroidery and quilting from her home.
The daily sessions of classes and clinics she now runs at Craft Land are open to learners and improvers of all skill levels (there are also classes for children). Today it's all about quilting, and Fiona, Shirley and Jenny, all long-term Dubai residents, are regulars. This is where they come to cut, press, match and stitch their layer cakes and jelly rolls (squares and strips to the uninitiated), swapping tips and ideas - intermittently popping into the shop to select another swatch of fabric.
Fiona, from New Zealand, is making an heirloom quilt for her one-year-old granddaughter, opting for green and lilac fabrics rather than baby pinks so she will want to keep it for as long as possible. Fiona says she used to sew when her sons were small, and the time she now has on her hands - especially during the UAE summer - means she can revisit her hobby and its pleasures, and develop her skills.
Throughout the afternoon, other regulars drop in the workroom to say hello; new customers pop in to ask for advice on buying a sewing machine and one woman brings in a knitting project that's gone awry. After a quick demonstration on how to correct her mistakes, she's back on track.
I've come to Craft Land to find out more about why more people are sewing. While I'm here Chrissie is also going to teach me how to improve my machine skills and learn some basic quilting. Looking at the magnificent specimens on display in the workshop, it's easy to feel daunted, especially when Chrissie says she has been working on her exquisite creation since March (to buy one like it, you'd be looking to spend Dh3,000).
She starts me off with a basic quilted pillow and, after being taken through the basics (attention to detail is crucial; measuring and cutting must be exact and sewing must be perfectly precise so the squares match up properly), I find it's actually not as hard as it looks. When you get the hang of it, it's not just rather satisfying but also very addictive.
I'm obviously not the only one who thinks so.
"We have definitely seen a growth in interest," Riana says. "Our most popular classes are the beginners classes, and we see many people who tell us they have done a little bit of sewing, knitting or embroidery in school, but now they would like to learn more."
The revival of needlecraft began when knitting circles formed in the coffee shops and bookstores of US cities, making clacking needles cool again, notably among younger women. Far from being a cult fad, knitting has become one of the world's fastest growing hobbies. According to figures from Google, online searches for the term "knitting for beginners" increased 250 per cent this year alone. Worldwide sales of yarn have doubled since 2004.
The trend of sewing it yourself is following the same trajectory. Britain's biggest supermarket, Tesco, sold two sewing machines every minute during 2009. Needlecraft books dominate bestsellers lists, craft magazines are stylish and visually attractive as their interior design counterparts, while Etsy, the online store where home crafters can sell their handiwork, reports that it attracts 2.2 million users every month in the US alone.
The crafting community is also thriving in the UAE. You can find knitting circles meeting in malls, several sewing and embroidery classes and societies, and two quilting guilds - plus an annual quilting exhibition in Dubai attracting visitors from around the world.
So why are more people getting involved? "Craft gives you an escape from the daily humdrum," says Riana. "It is also inspiring and visually pleasing, and it is immensely fulfilling to finish something. The sense of achievement is very satisfying."
Kay Bruce, who teaches the children's sewing classes, agrees. "The satisfaction that you made it yourself is a big part of it. The fact that you have created something for your home means that no one else will have it. That's something you just can't buy. With quilting, for example, you are essentially making something that can be an heirloom piece."
Economic factors should also be considered. The craft revival has been undoubtedly fuelled by the austerity-driven "make do and mend" ethos. While a greater disposable income in the 1980s and 1990s meant we had something of a "buy it then bin it" attitude, the tightening of finances, plus a critical awareness of consumerism, has not only limited our capacity to spend in the same way but also made us rethink on how we value our possessions. Now, the time and thought we invest in how we dress our homes, plus the desire to make them as individual as we are, is of greater consideration.
But Danielle Gallagher, another Craft Land tutor, raises an important point. "Home sewing doesn't necessarily save you money," she says. "It's more about creative expression; people are spending more time at home, looking to do home-based activities. It's a similar thing with home cooking and baking."
"But the concept of reusing and recycling materials does have a lot to do with it," Kay adds. "As does the popularity of the cottage chic, shabby chic look. When I left London a year ago, there were noticeably more twenty- and thirtysomething women making things themselves. Sewing something yourself has definitely become cool."
The therapeutic, relaxing qualities of quietly making something, alone or in a group, is universally agreed to be why sewing is such a popular pastime.
"With all our high-tech gadgets and social media, something very basic has gone missing," says Riana. "The element of touch and real interaction. Craft is fulfilling people's need to interact socially, visually and on a tactile level. And what can be nicer than spending an afternoon with like-minded people, sipping a coffee, knitting or sewing away and sharing jokes and stories? We have customers who call this their therapy. It's very rewarding to see people find the joy of a creative pastime."
The social benefits of craft groups also take on extra significance for expatriate women. Joining a circle or guild offers a way for new arrivals, living away from friends and family, to meet and mingle with like-minded people.
"Women in Abu Dhabi have been quilting together since the early 1980s," says Penni Klick, the president of the Abu Dhabi Quilters Guild, a group of around 40 women who meet once a month. "It started when expats of multiple nationalities, along with a few locals, met in villas to share a common interest and create an environment to learn. Quilting is all about sharing."
The numbers coming to Craft Land, to learn a new craft or improve existing skills, continue to swell. Classes and clinics are almost at capacity, and demand is such that Riana is looking to expand the timetable. "I anticipate we will be offering more advanced classes as we have all these beginners graduate to more challenging projects," she says. "It's exciting to see a timid beginner blossom into a confident sewer tackling a challenging pattern and succeeding."
I leave Craft Land after completing three quilted pillows made from a dainty floral-print fabric from Japan bought from the shop. Chrissie has taught me how to operate a digital machine (so much easier than a manual), how to sew a concealed zip and shown me the basics of quilting. The pillows will be gifts for my three young nieces and even if they're too young to appreciate them, the time and love invested in them, plus the pleasure gleaned from making them, really is something you can't buy. Next up is a full-sized quilt.
For a full list of Craft Land's classes and clinics, see www.mycraftland.com. The second day of the Craft Land charity Sewathon takes place at the shop from 10am-10pm October 22
Where to find craft supplies
Craft Land Town Centre, Jumeirah 1, 04 342 2237, www.mycraftland.com (machines, craft supplies, fabrics and haberdashery)
Classic Quilts Jumeirah Plaza, 04 349 7943, www. classicquiltsdubai.com (machines, fabrics and haberdashery)
Maison d'Art Villa 1106, Al Wasl Road, Umm Sequeim 2, 04 380 9960 www.maisondart.ae (fabrics)
Magrudy's Festival City, 04 232 8761 (knitting supplies)
For fabrics, also try Srour, Tahir and Najran in Satwa and the Jumeirah Centre.
Avenue Interiors Al Raha Mall 02 556 6100 (fabrics)
Textilee Textiles Basement level, Carrefour, Airport Road, 02 449 3448 (fabrics and haberdashery)
Magrudy's Al Wahda Mall, 02 443 7172 (knitting supplies)
Cairo Textiles 3rd/Khalifa Street 02 626 9455 (fabrics)
Malik and Shaheed Behind Madinat Zayed 02 639 3662 (fabrics and haberdashery)
The area of Hamdan behind the Crowne Plaza is also good for printed cottons and silks.