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Simple Grace Design slipped into the storefront at 1937 Central St. a little more than two months ago with little fanfare.
The place formerly occupied by George Ritzlin Antique Maps & Prints has a different vibe these days, what with the hum and whir of an octet of shiny new sewing machines and the companionable conversation of classmates learning how to use them.
Featuring both retail and studio space, the shop boasts a bright front area offering baby and household items created by the owner and, behind the check-out counter, an array of sewing machines and a semi-private room with a waist-high counter large enough to accommodate a group of pinning, snipping seamstresses-in-training.
For years, Jenny Solomon had dreamed of opening a business that would let her share her love of sewing. A former fourth-grade teacher, she says she knew her teaching skills would come in handy. It was her husband who spotted the “For Rent” sign in the Central Street window while out for a run and encouraged her to take action. He has been “a big supporter,” she says, adding, “I needed a nudge.”
Ms. Solomon says, “Central Street has been very welcoming.” Neighboring merchants have been not only an “amazing resource” but also “a whole new group of friends,” she says.
Ms. Solomon has happy memories of the matching holiday dresses her aunt made for her and her sister and cousin. Like generations of women before her, Ms. Solomon learned to sew from her mother. She applied her skills to making Barbie doll clothes, and then laid her expertise aside until the birth of her first child, now 5. Frustrated that she could not find the all-organic products she wanted for her baby, she began searching for the materials to create her own nursery goods and clothing. She was thrilled with the fabrics she found.
Ms. Solomon’s second son was born a year after the first. Before long, she was making everything from bow ties to burp cloths and crib sheets. Looking for an outlet, she began selling baby items on Etsy, the e-commerce website where individuals from around the globe market handcrafted and vintage items.
Ms. Solomon’s Etsy shop was the original Simple Grace Design, branded with the girl’s name she says she had picked before giving birth to two boys. The shop “was my third baby, in a way,” she says. She chose “simple” to describe her esthetic – an inclination toward the unfussy, Scandinavian-look textiles now displayed by the bolt in her bricks-and-mortar store.
The fabrics were the draw for Maureen Collins, who lives nearby. “I was very excited this shop opened,” she says. As a quilter, she says she “knows fabric.” That lends credence to her statement that “[Ms. Solomon] has some of the most beautiful fabric I’ve seen anywhere.”
Ms. Collins knows her way around a sewing machine, too, but says, “I don’t know how to sew garments.” She enrolled in a four-week Beginning Sewing class and, on a recent Saturday morning, ran up some impressive, arrow-straight seams for a tote bag while commenting, “I’m happy with the instruction.”
Evanston resident Callie Hill teaches this and the other Saturday class, an eight-week Kids Sewing class for ages 8 and up. Having taught sewing at a do-it-yourself summer camp and an after-school program at Willard Elementary School, Ms. Hill has seen what young children are capable of. She radiates enthusiasm for sewing. “I love it so much,” she says. “I love teaching other people. Once you get the basics, there are so many possibilities.”
Working at the cutting table, Emma Le Bihan, 14, is wearing a New Trier sweatshirt and a patient demeanor. A sewing camp at the Evanston Art Center last summer piqued her interest. She is pinning the pieces for her tote bag, right sides together, and consults with Ms. Hill to be sure she knows which sides to seam.
Simple Grace restricts class numbers to eight and supplies all the materials for each project. Small classes mean students do not have to wait for a machine and can get help from the teacher if they are stuck. Another class member, retiree Nancy Lovitz, benefits from Ms. Hill’s deft touch in pinning seam binding around the curved armholes of a tunic. Ms. Lovitz says she signed up for the class after walking by the store. “I knew a little [about sewing],” she says, “but I am surprised at what I didn’t know.”
It is not surprising that Ms. Solomon found people to be “interested” when she mentioned her idea for a sewing store. A 2012 article in the New York Times notes that the number of Singer sewing machines sold in that year was double the number sold a decade earlier. The popularity of the TV show “Project Runway” helped, the article said, as did the general DIY craze. Instructors said they found women in their 20s and 30s were sewing “for self-expression and independence.” And computer-driven machines like the Singer Sew Mate 5400 at Simple Grace are ever more user-friendly.
Sewing may be “again fashionable,” as an article proclaimed in 2015. But it is no longer the required subject once taught to boys as well as girls in District 65 middle schools.
The aspiring stitchers at Simple Grace who, in Ms. Solomon’s words, have the “personal satisfaction…of walking away with something they made themselves” could tell those middle-schoolers what they are missing.