A café for the Paris sewing crowd

Updated on
The World

PARIS, France — It’s called Sweat Shop, but there are no poor children working on factory assembly lines in this Paris establishment. Instead, patrons of the "sewing bar" pay a fee to stitch and darn, and hone age-old skills like knitting and crocheting, for pure pleasure. 

The couture café concept can best be compared to that of a cyber café, where a client walks in, chooses a machine and pays by the hour. Part trendy hang-out, part arts-and-crafts workshop, the recently opened establishment is trying to rejuvenate the old-fashioned skill of sewing while contributing to the do-it-yourself craze sweeping the city.

Part of her motivation for starting the business was “to stimulate people to get a closer relationship with their clothes” and “to calm Parisians down,” said one of the shop’s founders, Martena Duss. She likened sewing to other stress-relieving activities like yoga.

Duss, 28, and her business partner, Sissi Holleis, 38, knew each other only socially when they began exchanging ideas about a potential collaboration just six months before the shop opened. Duss is a Swiss-born make-up artist with a DIY bent, while Holleis is a former fashion designer from Austria who brings her technical skills to the equation. Rather than being a drawback, their backgrounds were an asset, especially when they presented the concept for the shop to Singer, the world’s largest sewing manufacturer.

Singer’s buy-in was the main impetus for going forward, especially in such uncertain economic times. Among the side benefits of its investment — Singer declined to provide the exact amount of its contribution — is the renewal of the brand’s image and the notion that sewing is not an activity for grandma to enjoy, according to Florence Gani, a spokeswoman for Singer. Gani said the company has signed on to the Sweat Shop project for a year and would decide later whether to renew.

“We trust them and we’ve given them the means to advance,” Gani said of Duss and Holleis. “No other project like it exist; it’s a bit of a world premiere.”

And if the concept takes off in Paris, why not develop the idea elsewhere? Couture in general is of interest to people, but for the most part, they have neither the training nor an environment in which to nurture that curiosity, Gani said. The hope is that now that people have both, they will look at sewing in a new light.

Word of mouth is helping to draw locals and tourists to the shop, which is decked out in vintage style décor. Customers can rent one of a half-dozen sewing machines for six euros an hour, or by the day for 25 euros. Daylong workshops and individual classes can range from 20 to 80 euros, with some tailored for children. The handful of rotating teachers are all professionals actively working in their field who wanted “to share their professional experience with normal people coming in from the street,” Holleis said.

One evening last month, a woman dropped by the shop to ask where she might find a replacement part for an aging machine she had at home. A pregnant customer who signed up for a daylong individual class said she wanted to learn while she still had some time before her baby’s birth. A slow-talking young man, who said he was a musician, was ripping up strips of fabrics to make a cape, he said. He chose strips of red, black, white, orange and green and sat diligently at one of the machines, sewing the pieces together.

“It has to remain a pleasure,” said Holleis, who left behind a career with her own fashion line because she tired of struggling as a young designer in such a crowded field. One of her motivations for taking a chance on Sweat Shop was “to propose a different way of dealing with fashion and its commercialization.”

Both Duss and Holleis stressed how important it was that the space they’d created remained a place that stirred people’s creativity and imagination.

Materials, such as patterns, yarn, and scissors are provided, and customers can bring their own fabric to create anything they want — clothes, hats, bags and apparently even capes.

“It’s really a great place for meeting like-minded people,” said Em Matthews, 23, a prolific knitter, who decided to intern at the shop a few times per week in exchange for all the knitting she can stand. The exchange is well worth it for her, she said, since it is a way of feeding her interest in textiles and making articles by hand.

This summer the shop is planning to offer “patch up” your language courses, to entice anyone interested in a language exchange to come and practice their English and French while they sew, knit or crochet.

“It’s a different way for me to recycle myself in fashion,” said Holleis about her experience with the shop. “It feels good to share what I’ve learned all these years. 

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