The new DIY boom: Sales of sewing machines are soaring and craft courses are booming

Wallpaper making, quilting and screen-printing have become the hippest ways to get creative with your friends, says Kate Burt

Friday 18 March 2011 01:00

Our love affair with craft started small. Around five years ago, there was the new wave of knitting, with Stitch '* Bitch, the hip, underground needle-clicking movement that inspired many similar groups. Then the Women's Institute got an edgy makeover (see east London's cool Shoreditch Sisters for evidence) and lots of us got excited about making jam, or embroidering things. Hen parties stopped being about stripograms, and began happening at "make your own fascinator" workshops. There are sewing cafés (where tea and cake comes with a Singer for hire), even "guerrilla" craft nights in pubs. And to help it all along: the recession, reviving a "make do and mend" mentality (and a staggering rise in British sales of sewing machines to match – in 2009, we bought up to 500 per cent more than ever before).

However, much of all this craft-mania has been focused on fashion – crocheting hats, revamping vintage dresses, darning socks – but now the trend is hitting the world of interiors.

"Before the recession, the interior-design industry was at its peak and people had cash to spend on designer products," says Claire Heafford, co-proprietor, with business partner Louise Hall, of the Papered Parlour, which started hosting craft classes in south London in May 2009. "We never set out to offer interiors-themed craft workshops," she continues, "but since we began our make-your-own-wallpaper classes in September, demand has outstripped supply and we saw there was a real market for people wanting to make things for the home."

Economics are an obvious driver: the Papered Parlour's screen-printing tutor is the acclaimed designer Lizzie Allen, whose own wallpapers can sell for £350 per roll. This way, you get her expertise, and take home your own roll for a fraction of the cost. And if the striking black-on-lining-paper DIY version on one wall of the Parlour's studio is anything to go by, the end product looks anything but amateur.

They also run contemporary quilting classes taught by Cassandra Ellis, one of the country's best-known quilters. "We encourage people to bring fabric that has a sentimental value – by making something with your hands, you're really connecting with your heritage and will also have something to pass on."

More homesy topics are in the pipeline and Heafford and Hall have been approached by a publisher and a television commissioning agent; "There's a real demand for 'a new Kirstie Allsopp'," Heafford says. "With the popularity of Kirstie's Homemade Home I think people have realised what a huge appetite there is for craft."

Ah yes, the Allsopp factor. The mainstreaming of interiors crafts really hit the big time with the arrival of the television presenter's Channel 4 show last year. In case you missed it, the show focused on Allsopp, previously associated with buying and selling other people's houses, and the craft-heavy transformation of her own country pad.

"Putting craft on TV has definitely helped to raise awareness," says Angie Boyer, editor and director at craft&design magazine, which is launching the first ever Craft and Design Month in May. "People start to see how they can make their homes lovely by creating things no one else has got, something personal and unique to them." Accordingly, hits on her magazine's "courses" pages have risen, she says, by 20 per cent in the past few months.

"We all look longingly at the glossy interiors magazines and would probably love a bigger or more stylish space. But that's not necessarily attainable," says Jennifer Pirtle of The Make Lounge, a venue and shop that has been offering contemporary craft workshops since 2007. "Current property values have had a big impact – but you can still change or brighten up your home without buying expensive stuff or moving," she says. Pirtle recently added four lampshade-making sessions to the Make Lounge repertoire. "They all sold out within six minutes of appearing on the website," she says.

Even designer-rich Elle Decor ran a big feature on "upcycling" a few issues back (revamping old furniture, essentially). Not only has the recession got many of us appreciating the simpler things in life, there's also a broader backdrop of valuing provenance and rejecting mindless consumerism – whether it's Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's horror at the fishing industry, fashion-chain sweatshop exposés or the popularity of growing your own vegetables.

Zoe Hamilton-Peters, who just over a year ago co-launched Crafty Bitches, which specialises in recycling in its creations, and offers workshops in south-east London, agrees. The whole ethos behind her organisation is "to stop people throwing more stuff into landfill," she says. "It's all to do with recycling and reinvigoration. Also, you can create something beautiful and quirky and not just be part of the homogeneous high street – instead you can fill your home with history and stories behind the objects in it."

Craft is booming online, too. Etsy, the biggest marketplace for entrepreneurial crafters, now has 7.2 million members and has seen its total sales jump from $166,000·(around £100,000) in 2005 to $314.3 million (around £195m) last year. In its "homewares" section, there are more than 300,000 items (which, when you consider there are just 400,000 registered sellers among the members, suggests quite a high percentage). And in blogworld, one of the most popular interiors and design sites, Design*Sponge, (220,000-plus Twitter followers) has a heavy emphasis on achievable make-it-yourself projects and features one a week, from shell chandeliers and embroidered napkins to jewellery hangers made of cotton reels.

It all sounds quite girlie – but those who run workshops say that, especially lately, more men are keen. Jo Thorpe teaches a monthly mosaic-making class from her home in London, and recalls the woman who brought her husband, who "loved it – and turned out to be better than his wife". Many come "unashamedly" with specific projects – decorative insets for the patio, a panel for a wall, a piece of furniture to clad. "The great thing," Thorpe says, "is that most people can make great mosaics – you don't need to be a great draughtsman or be able to draw very well. It's time-consuming but people love the pace. We all lead such busy lives these days and many say they find it therapeutic and calming."

Holly Atkins, an actress in her thirties, discovered the joy of making things for the home a couple of years ago. "I've always loved decorating, but never used to think I had skills beyond that – until I got a lot poorer very quickly two years ago and started looking at things in shops in a manner reminiscent of my grandparents. As in, 'That's a beautiful cushion/curtain/doorstop/ light – but it's HOW MUCH? It can't even be that hard to make.'"

At that point, she didn't even have a sewing machine, but got talking to a friend who'd been having similar thoughts. "Christmas was looming," she continues, "and we both had a lot of presents to find but not much cash so we decided to do a weekly 'Kraftnite'. Doing it together kept us focused – and my friend also taught me how to use a sewing machine.

"Now, it is ridiculously exciting going into posh interiors shops and seeing a cushion for 60 quid, then planning how I can make something just as cool for a tenner. However often I walk into a room and see something I've made in it," she concludes, "it never fails to make me feel a little warm burst of pride."

Know what to make of it

* The Papered Parlour offers a variety of workshops taught by practising artists in south London. Prices from around £77. (

* The Make Lounge runs more than 35 different contemporary craft workshops, plus hen parties, corporate team-building, and more. Classes from £30. (

* Jo Thorpe teaches contemporary mosaic-making in east London. (

* A pop-up shop/project Made in Newcastle is based in the city centre, stocks entirely handmade goods by makers from the North-east, runs occasional classes, and offers space for artists and makers to use. (

* West Dean, near Chichester, a world-renowned college, offers many craft courses including tapestry, ceramics, textiles and furniture making. (

* 'Craft&design' magazine offers a thorough, nationwide directory of courses. (

* Sew Over It opens in Clapham, south London next month and will offer sewing lessons and parties over coffee and cake. (

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments