The stitching of designer, author, and educator Louisa Owen Sonstroem is slow and methodical. Her vast knowledge of stitches and finishing techniques is evident in the beautiful garments she creates, as she carefully chooses her processes to best suit a project’s material and purpose. Louisa’s favorite thing to sew is anything that she can wear often, such as a simple pair of leggings. Wardrobe basics. Garments we may live in, but never think to sew for ourselves. Wearing the garment allows Louisa to study the stitches over time, learning how they wear, change, and stretch as they move with her through the world.
Louisa was taught to sew by her mother, learning to stitch by hand around the age of five. In middle school, machine sewing became her primary mode of production. In her last semester of college, Louisa was introduced to patternmaking. Though she was attending school in Connecticut, she took an introductory patternmaking class in Boston that instilled a deep desire to master the skill. Drawn to the magical feeling that she could create anything, she continued drafting patterns on her own, experimenting and learning as she went. Continuing education courses in Rhode Island followed. Eventually, Louisa moved to New York City to attend patternmaking school. As she continued her education, Louisa was struck by the inaccessibility of courses, resources, and information in this area of the field.
Creating patterns and garments for ourselves with our own hands can be a great source of empowerment. Much of the clothing and sewing patterns readily available in stores simply do not accommodate the vast range and differences in every person’s size, shape, and preferences. In her teaching, Louisa aims to combat the lack of accessibility by sharing her skills widely, emphasizing that beautiful patterns can be created with quite simple materials. She explores less conventional methods of drafting, demonstrating clever ways to make the process more approachable. For example: patternmaking without using any numbers, or draping cloth using your or someone else’s body in the absence of a dress form.
Louisa recalls previously being a very speedy maker, loving the feeling of completing a whole project in one day, even if it meant sewing all day and late into the night. Working at this pace, she accumulated many garments of her own creation. As she ventured further into patternmaking she tested each design and process. Her collection grew. Louisa remembers a gradual and important realization: this way of producing is excessive, and not healthy for the planet. She began to brainstorm ways to reconcile her love for garment making with her knowledge of the environmental impact of clothing production and fast fashion. Hand sewing came to mind as the slowest way she could think of, to not have to give up her practice.
Hand stitching possesses an inherent slowness. Louisa is drawn to this temporal quality, as well as the techniques unique to this way of sewing that are irreproducible by machine. Sewing by machine is efficient, but Louisa sees the potential of hand sewing to be something more. More widely accessible, more economical, more deeply tied to our well-being, and much easier on our environment. Louisa’s work shows us that beautiful, comfortable, and long-lasting garments can be created with relatively simple tools and materials, and our own hands. The realized garments reflect hand sewing’s best qualities: slow, practical, enduring, and beautiful.
Louisa is teaching five upcoming classes at Tatter: Befriend your Thimble, Hand Sewn Leggings, T-Shirt Patternmaking, Hand Sewn Underwear, and Hand Sewn T-Shirt.
LEARN WITH LOUISA OWEN SONSTROEM
Louisa Owen Sonstroem believes there is little more powerful than working with one’s hands, because manual skills are empowering, enduring, and slow. Whether she is drafting sewing patterns with a pencil and paper, hand-sewing “slow fashion” clothing, or foraging wild plant fibers to spin on a drop spindle, Louisa relishes using primitive tools in sophisticated ways.
Louisa holds a B.A. from the University of Connecticut and an additional degree from the Fashion Institute of Technology, where she studied patternmaking and fashion design. She also studied patterns at RISD and MassArt. She has worked in the garment industry for several years, most recently in technical design at Macy’s and now Eileen Fisher. During her time at Macy’s she also ran a weekly employee mending workshop, building skills, community, and sustainable momentum.
You can find Louisa on Instagram @louisaowensonstroem