This is the time of the year when fabric and craft stores are filled with reds, greens and golds for holiday decorations and clothes.
Are people really still sewing out there? Do they have the time?Yes, but these days, they might be found behind a personal computer as easily as behind a sewing machine. Like most other pursuits, sewing has gone high-tech.
Every night, Judy Heim clicks onto online services to chat with seamstresses around the world about everything from apparel to zigzag stitching.
"None of my friends sew," said Heim, of Madison, Wis. and the author of "The Needlecrafter's Computer Companion." So, she says, "You log on and you read all these messages. People talk about all these sewing things and you learn a lot."
The '90s version of the sewing circle is a result of the big changes in the sewing and crafts industry over the past two decades. The business has found renewed life, and even room to expand, from consumers who sew and do craftwork not to save money, but for personal satisfaction.
"Sure, you can buy a blouse for $10, but you don't get the same look, fit," said Terry Siemsen of Arvada, Colo. "I can do it as well, if not better, for not as much money."
"It's not just quick and dirty sewing. There are a lot of people that are enjoying the creative art of sewing," said Beth Mauro, marketing education director of the American Home Sewing & Craft Association.
The sewing industry began to evolve when the American lifestyle began to change. As more women entered the job market, they had less time to sew, and opted to purchase mass-produced apparel that was often cheaper than homemade.
But they continued to be lured by the art of needlework and crafts handed down from generation to generation, taking pride in pulling together pillows, furniture slipcovers, home decorations and clothing.
The changing consumer demand has forced retailers to close, consolidate or adapt. Crafts stores have expanded nationwide and fabric chains have added craft product lines. Most now offer how-to seminars for easy, do-it-yourself products.
"There is no way to compare the industry from a decade or more ago to the industry we know today," said Susan Brandt, a spokeswoman for the Hobby Industry of America. "It was a totally different industry, with virtually no chain stores."
There are an estimated 30 million sewers and hobbyists in the United States who are mostly college-educated women, between 25 and 54 years old, with a household income of at least $35,000, according to studies by the sewing and craft association.
Seventy-three percent own their homes; 37 percent are parents and nearly two-thirds live in metropolitan suburbs or rural areas, the association said.
In 1993, the hobby and crafts industry was valued at about $9.6 billion, compared with $1.8 billion in 1984, according to HIA's most recent figures.
Barbara B. Semen of Fabri-Centers of America Inc., a leading fabric and craft retailer, attributes the changes to the cocooning trend, where people prefer to spend time at home.
"They're not moving as much. Rather than selling and buying another one, they are fixing their existing ones," she said. "People are making things to put into their homes. They decorate their doors for every different season."
For that reason, stores stock up on material and trimmings for the Christmas holidays, to make tablecloths, napkins, tree skirts, curtains, pillows and stuffed Santas and other toys.
And also crafts they can or their families wear. "The clothing they are making is more creative; it's more like art," Semen said, referring to apparel embellished with jewels or paints. "They call it wearable art."
Sewing enthusiasts are also making more of the gifts they give at Christmas time.
The Hudson, Ohio-based Fabri-Centers operates stores under the names of Jo-Ann Fabrics and Crafts, Cloth World, and New York Fabrics and Crafts.
Sewing machines have also become more high-tech. Sewers today can complete elaborate embroidery designs on many machines. They even can scan a design from a piece of paper into a top-of-the-line machine and create a pattern.
But one of the most high-tech parts of home sewing is talking about it on-line.
Carol Wallace, a Prodigy Services Co. spokeswoman, said the crafts bulletin board is one of her company's top 10 boards.
"People that are into stitching and into crafts are very passionate about their crafts and because they are passionate about it, they like to get together with other people and that's why it's been such a hit for us," she said.
Like Heim, the sewers say they like the on-line services because they usually don't know people in their hometowns who sew and can share tips and ideas.
"You have two camps: people doing really complicated things and you have the real simple stuff on the other end," Heim said.
"The sewing forums, for many women, have become a place where they feel safe," she said. "They discuss problems from children and husbands to computer problems.
"People really share of themselves freely."