Hip Stitch Crafted a Nontraditional Sewing Community

by Christie Chisholm, New Mexico Business Weekly, May 24, 2010

Suzanne Kelly opened a business at one of the worst times imaginable—two months before the fall 2008 economic implosion. But her store’s first year was a good one, and the year after, it more than doubled its revenue.

For a boutique sewing store tucked away in the Far Northeast Heights, started with a $15,000 small business loan, 2009’s $45,000 in revenue felt pretty good.

Hip Stitch was born from the same movement that’s made knitting cool again and crocheting chic. It’s a model that mixes old and new, pairing nontraditional styles and patterns with traditional methods.

Kelly says she saw a need for such a place in Albuquerque, where finding trendy or designer fabrics can be challenging. The store’s floral fabrics are bold, with simple lines and saturated colors, and she offers edgier patterns like Dia de los Muertos and pinup-themed bolts.

Beyond the not-your-grandma’s fabrics, Hip Stitch also boasts a “sewing lounge,” a workshop in the back of the store outfitted with everything a seamster or seamstress could need. The idea behind it is to form a community. People can drop in and use the space, which comes with snacks and coffee, for $7 an hour.

The lounge also hosts classes on how to make hats, or wrap skirts, or dress forms. Merchandise sales bring in about three times as much revenue as the lounge and classes do.

One thing Kelly wants to avoid in her classes is persnicketiness.

“I am not a perfectionist,” she says, “and I don’t want people to give up on sewing because it’s not perfect.”

She says traditional teaching can impart an attitude that every stitch needs to be just right, and just like everyone else’s. She wants nothing to do with that philosophy: “I just want people to love sewing.”

Owning a sewing store wasn’t Kelly’s lifelong dream. She has sewn as a hobby most of her life, since her aunt taught her how at age 12, but never thought of doing it professionally. She taught special education, and after she had her first child, she left her job to be a full-time mom. She thought she would return to teaching eventually, but 10 years later, she was still at home.

That’s when Kelly met Jennifer Dean, a fellow mom on the PTA. The two started an interior painting and decorating business, which they ran for two years. One day, they just started dreaming about a sewing store.

They researched similar businesses—ones that subscribe to the lounge model—all over the country, and took a class from Albuquerque’s Small Business Development Center. The duo opened Hip Stitch in July 2008 with a third friend, Heather Gordon. Gordon had another full-time job and eventually left the business. While Dean is no longer an owner on paper, she still helps Kelly run the store.

Despite the recession, business has been steady for the startup. Each month, it has gained customers and revenue—except for August and September 2009, when the store grossed so little that Kelly had to dip into her family’s savings to pay the bills. But since then, business has been on the upswing, and this year she feels stable again. She’s planning a Saturday sewing retreat in September that she hopes will offset the slow time of year.

Kelly thinks the store has been able to stay afloat in the recession because in times of economic hardship, people start making things instead of buying them. Rather than buying new clothes or taking old clothes to be hemmed or tailored, some people are choosing to save money by learning to sew.

One example is a veteran who started coming to Hip Stitch in September because he wanted to learn how to take in his jeans after losing weight. Now that he’s mastered the skill, she’s showing him how to make a hat.

The store still doesn’t make enough for Kelly to afford employees—she isn’t even paying herself yet. But there are three people who volunteer to work in the store, along with Kelly and Dean. And then there’s Ann Brotman.

Brotman first walked into Hip Stitch a year ago. She was getting into sewing and interested in selling some of her crafts, and was looking for advice.

Brotman and Kelly struck up a friendship, and now the store sells Brotman’s products—reusable snack bags made with food-grade plastic liners and Hip Stitch’s bright, modern fabrics. She also makes diaper bags and wipe holders, all under the name “Burst of Color.”

Brotman also started doing some consulting for the business. With management experience from REI and an understanding of visual merchandising, Brotman used to give advice in exchange for Kelly allowing her to sell her products in the store. Now Brotman gets paid for about 10 hours of consulting a month.

Kelly says she has seen the store’s community grow immensely over the past year, with customers dropping by regularly to show off their work, knit in the corner or just hang out. And the addition of special events like Hip Teen Night, a twice-monthly craft event open to teens and preteens, has helped broaden the store’s customer base.

“The thing about Hip Stitch,” Brotman says, “is when you get to know this place, you want it to succeed. So then you do whatever you can to help out. And that’s what it feels like. Sometimes it’s so busy in here with that kind of community feeling that it’s chaotic, in a good way.”