A Stitch in time

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"THE name's Moneypenny. Missshhh Moneypenny," she purrs with a giggle. In one hand, a large glass of wine, in the other an industrial-sized sewing needle.

The jeans she arrived in lie in a heap on the floor; in their place, a pinned-up skirt that she has spent the evening custom-fitting, transforming a shapeless piece of fabric into a sassy A-line number. On the other side of the room, an office worker by day sips a mojito and waxes lyrical about her naughty nocturnal activities from the night before as she refashions a military-style jacket she bought from a charity shop just this morning.

Stella McCartney and co can sleep easy in their beds, but in their own way this group of women in an Edinburgh suburb are part of a fashion revolution. Forget the tired old notion of sewing or knitting needles clacking and rocking chairs creaking, making your own clothes is once again the height of fashion.

Get-togethers like this came to the fore a few years ago, when Debbie Stoller, editor of popular US feminist magazine Bust, took a fresh approach to the traditional skills of knitting and crochet, giving them a contemporary twist. Her book, Stitch and Bitch, inspired groups of the same name to gather around the world. Now the trend has taken a new turn and is centred on sewing.

Sales of sewing machines have soared. Last year Argos reported year-on-year sales of selected machines showing around 50 per cent growth, with the Brother brand showing an increase of more than 500 per cent.

There's a practical aspect to these groups – you do get a great fit once you get a pattern altered to your size, which is a joy for those with long backs, tiny waists or any other shapes and sizes that don't fit easily into mass-produced styles. But more than that it is really all about creativity and individuality.

As she sits surrounded by a sea of colourful fabric, Gwenyth Paterson, of the Dress Fabric Company, considers that the growing trend to "make your own" fashion is part socio-economic and part clothes-lovers wanting to put the fun back into fashion. "Any notion of making your own clothes being a bit dull and old-fashioned has totally shifted," she says. "People are looking beyond the high street and are arguably a bit tired of greasing the palms of the fat cats."

Better still, she says, stich and bitch gatherings have redefined the idea of a girl's night in. "There's something very sociable about women enjoying a wee night with friends while creating something great, or just sitting in the house alone and finding a bit of time in the day to make something totally unique."

Many women visit Paterson's Edinburgh store out of frustration when they can't find anything they want to wear in the shops. Some used to make their own clothes years ago and are returning to it, others are taking it up for the first time – and then getting hooked and undertaking increasingly ambitious projects. Paterson believes everyone can give it a go. "It's not like you start with the moon and the stars and try to create the most elaborate of ballgowns," she says. "You start with putting in a good zip – nothing too complicated – and getting a good fit, then you let your skills develop."

Education officer Joanna Mawdsley has been customising her own clothes since she was in her late teens. "It probably started when I was an art student, through lack of disposable cash," she says. "But today I still buy the bulk of my clothes from charity shops; it's great when you spot something with customising potential. It's refreshing to have something unique and not look like everyone else."

Mawdsley believes the growth in evening classes and social nights have helped inject a new lease of life into the world of homemade fashions. "The appeal of stitch and bitch is one that embraces people's sense of fun and having a laugh," she says. "The uniqueness of it is one of its major appeals, as well as the satisfaction of knowing you have created it yourself."

As well as the joy of knowing that no-one else will be wearing the same outfit as you, the new trend also ticks many ethical shopping boxes. Celebrities such as Natalie Portman, Cameron Diaz and Jennifer Aniston fly the flag for ethical shopping, but many high street shoppers are following in their conscientious footsteps. According to the Co-operative Bank's ethical consumerism report in 2007, more than a million shoppers have boycotted discount high street clothes shops amid publicity about low wages and long working weeks, with sales of around 175 million lost as a result.

Concerns over ethics and the environment have helped pave the way for a revival of homemade fashion. Of course, you still have to check where your fabric comes from, but you can rest assured that if there is blood on the seams of your homemade clothes then it will be your own and not that of some child in a third-world sweat shop.

Experience helps to cut down on pricked fingers, but novices are usually pleasantly surprised to discover that you don't need extensive sewing skills to make your own clothing. Most patterns are easy to follow. And if you have no experience on a sewing machine, you won't have to look far for some practical tips. As well as seeking advice at local sewing and fabric shops, novice fashionistas can increasingly learn their craft at the touch of a button with online tutorials.

Juliet Tweedie, an occasional customiser and owner of Edinburgh-based cupcake business Ever So Sweet, believes it's just this sort of inventiveness that will encourage the trend not only to grow but to push consumers away from the conventional high street 'look'. "I think a massive part of the appeal is to escape the mass-market culture of clothes shopping. High street shops are brilliant for a cheap outfit, but you run the risk of looking like every other person on the street. When you customise or make your own clothes you know it's a one-off garment, and there's something lovely about it being special to you.

"People are really embracing the punk-rock ethos of doing things by themselves. Things that were traditionally viewed as being a bit twee have been reclaimed and made young and cool again."

Freelance fashion designer Rowan McIntosh agrees, and advises those new to the trend to shop around and truly embrace the edgier patterns on the market. "I do a mixture of reworking stuff and making original pieces. There's a very strong trend towards vintage. Particularly on the catwalk, there are always influences from past decades, and one-off pieces allow people to be individual. At the end of the day, no-one wants to be identikit. People are trying to find new ways to make their fashions more interesting.

"Fabric doesn't have to be expensive, and fabric stores today offer a wide variety of styles. The reality is that it can be very easy; you just have to be thrifty about it. Or, increasingly, people are going to places such as charity shops and customising stuff they buy there. They are more aware than ever about the background of clothes, and in a recession people want to know where things come from."

McIntosh believes that those willing to take a chance can create a piece to rival anything on the high street, and indeed the fast fashion reality of seasonal styles coming and going so quickly has encouraged people to take control of their own fashion choices, without compromising their individuality. "Some people find it very daunting, says McIntosh, "but it's just about building up your confidence."

The more fiscally responsible will note too that a new look need not cost the earth. Thread, a tape measure, tailor's chalk, dressmaking pins and a few needles are a good place to start, not forgetting a good pair of dress-making scissors.

Glasgow tailor and dressmaker Emma McPherson, of Amelie Bespoke, says trends are always shifting and that customising a look can offer ample opportunity for younger fashionistas to dress like their idols without breaking the bank. "People are idolising a lot of pop and indie stars' fashions, like Lady Gaga, right now and wanting to get their 'unique' take on that look. One way of doing that is to make your own.

"My friend organises swap parties to help source fabrics, and you see a lot of girls swapping items to get a certain fabric or shape to make into something of their own. Sometimes it can just be about trimming a hemline or cutting off some sleeves, sometimes it's more dramatic; whatever works to give it a very particular look."

The key, it seems, is to keep your designs simple. While a Vogue-inspired number might be on your wish list, newbies should opt for something easier, maybe customising a long-sleeved T-shirt or knitting a tote bag.

"It's about being patient and not being too hard on yourself," says McIntosh. "Fashion should be enjoyed. I was terrible at the start, but cut off the odd sleeve, pull up a hem or two and you'll be having fun before you know it."

The women of the cloth in Morningside would no doubt raise a glass to that.

Getting started

BLAME the kudos of celebrity fans such as Julia Roberts, Cameron Diaz or the Queen of Pop herself, Madonna, but knitting, sewing and craft classes have become big business in recent years.

A range of evening and weekend dressmaking courses at local colleges and halls (www.hotcourses.com) afford ample opportunity to learn, although those looking for a quick fix could do worse than check out the array of tutorials and simple-to-follow design patterns to be found on the internet.

Stitch and Bitch (www.stitchnbitch.org) started the trend and still organises nights throughout the UK – log on to the website to find the nearest night to you.

Events and chat forums such as Knitchiks (www.knitchicks.co.uk) and Cast Off Knitting Club (www.castoff.info) were quick to follow suit.

No matter how creative you want to be, the internet is likely to have an outlet; www.craftster.org is an online community for offbeat craft projects and offers detailed tutorials and ideas for all sorts of homeware. Threadbanger.com offers a good network for people who make their own fashion; www.knitonthenet.com and www.burdastyle.com provide free downloadable patterns. Sites such as www.bootyvintage.etsy.com and www.borntoolatevintage.com specialise in selling vintage sewing patterns. The site www.sewmamasew.com offers free patterns and sewing tips, plus a huge selection of fabric to purchase; www.reprodepot.com offers vintage reproduction and retro fabric. Those looking to turn their hobby into a profession need look no further than www.etsy.com to start selling their wares. Meanwhile, popular favourite youtube.com offers a selection of videos with a detailed description of how to create a piece from start to finish.