Norris Dánta Ford is at the forefront of a new and growing movement of men embracing home sewing.
Sewists (the increasingly popular gender-neutral term) are shaking the old-fashioned housewife imagery often associated with their hobby. The pandemic's quarantine has accelerated this trend, with what CNN reports is a significant rise in sewing machine sales (and not just to make face masks).
In lieu of traditional crafting circles, makers are connecting on social media to build community and promote diversity and inclusiveness: #vintagestylenotvintagevalues is a popular hashtag, with retro-style sewists disavowing regressive gender politics and racism.
Within these groups are an increasing number of men making clothes not only to break traditional gender stereotypes, but also to advocate for body acceptance, racial justice and more sustainable lifestyles.
Ford, who has over 37,000 Instagram followers, started sewing after he began dating his wife, Mimi Goodwin (commonly known as Mimi G), a well-known sewing blogger. He quickly realized the limited offerings of men's sewing patterns: While women's patterns span vintage reproductions to the latest runway trends, men's patterns are largely limited to a narrow range of classic silhouettes and many, many pajamas.
Working with the major pattern company Simplicity, Ford drafted and released his own patterns based on what he thought regular folks would want to wear. He and Goodwin also own SewItAcademy, an online sewing school.
Still, he is often the only man in a craft store. "The sewing notions, the tools, a lot of it is pink and girlie," Ford said. "It's not a comforting environment for the average guy."
So he started the hashtag #dopemensew, and a Facebook group with around 200 members, to promote the accomplishments of male sewists.
"With social media, if you see a guy sewing and you see a clean suit or nice shirt, a guy's first thought is, 'Oh, man, that's dope. Where can I buy that?' " he said, "And then they look and be like, 'Oh, he made it.' Come on, you can make that."
An online connection
One regular user of the hashtag is Brad Schultz, 35, a first-grade teacher in Gainesville, Fla., who has sewn his own colorful, trend-driven clothes for over a decade. While he enjoys showing his students his creations, Schultz has no local friends who also sew. He remembered standing out at a sewing convention filled with women in Texas 10 years ago.
More recently he has been able to meet fellow male sewists online.
"I don't feel as confined because I know that Instagram opens those doors and it allows me to connect and share," he said.
Often adapting women's patterns to his measurements because they are generally more fashionable, Schultz said that he enjoys making clothes for the perfect fit that is difficult to find in commercial pieces.
"On one hand, the ability to sew and create whatever style I want, in the size I need, gives a huge amount of freedom," he said. "When I am making something, I don't feel as confined or affected by styles 'meant' for one gender or the other."
Independent pattern companies are increasingly making men's and unisex patterns. But mainstream sewing companies have moved slowly to market to men. Ford thinks there might be many men who sew, but don't publicly share their creations, because the perception that this is "women's work" has lingered.
Sewing and needlework were taught to girls in schools, becoming central to the concept of homemaking, said Sarah Gordon, author of "Make it Yourself: Home Sewing, Gender, and Culture, 1890-1930." "The sewing training conveyed not only that this is a way to be a woman and a mother, but this is a way to be an American."
As more women entered the workforce, they no longer needed nor had the time to learn these skills. Home economics, which included sewing and other domestic arts, was increasingly left out of school curriculum. Over time, the skill of the craft became marginalized as market-driven fashion cycles intensified, with designs quickly going from runways to fashion retails within days.
Joe Ando-Hirsh, a sewist in New York, uses TikTok to give sewing modern clout.
His girlfriend, Niamh Adkins, a model, suggested he make a TikTok profile about sewing. On March 14, he shared the process of sewing a red jacket with heart details for her birthday. In the months since, he has gained over 800,000 followers, and also started posting tutorials on YouTube.
"I'm happy that these videos are giving some kids permission to pursue what they want to do, " Ando-Hirsh said.
Inspired by mixing the cream colors of desert environments with the oversized, masculine style of 1970s Wall Street, Ando-Hirsh takes custom orders and hopes to start his own business focusing on unisex fashion. He hopes to appeal to younger generations that are more fluid with their clothing choices and particularly men who are increasingly willing to take fashion risks, experimenting with color and more form-fitting styles.
"All of that is changing right now," he said, "I think aside from the pandemic, it's a really good and interesting time to be a designer because there's more people out there who are open to what you're doing."
For Brandon Hayden, a sewist in Atlanta, sewing enables him to envision garments beyond the narrow fashion choices for men while also taking a stand against environmentally damaging fast fashion cycles. He thrifts most of his fabrics, often using curtains, tablecloths and other unexpected materials: Upholstery fabric with safari animals became a cropped jacket and a Carhartt denim coat was transformed into a chain bag.
"Sewing has shown me that you can do whatever you put your mind to and not only that: the praise for your individuality and not having to spend an arm and a leg just to keep up with the trends," Hayden said. "You become your own trend, which I think is the best way to live your life."
His YouTube tutorials range from a tiered dress to a loose romper to a vest and pants set.
"Being able to sell and create things for a fraction of the price that they cost opened my mind to how boxed in other people's opinions can be about who you can be, whether it's skin color, race or gender," he said.
Michael Gardner, a sewist in Philadelphia, dedicates his free time to making clothes for his daughter, Ava, sharing his creations on the website and Instagram account Daddy Dressed Me by Michael Gardner. He said that at first, her schoolmates didn't believe her when she said that her father made her clothes.
"For her it's kind of all she knows, so she thinks other dads are doing it, too," he said. "But seeing her be proud about it, I just usually have a big smile on my face."