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Enriching the fabric of students' lives

By Susan Chaityn Lebovits
Globe Correspondent / December 4, 2008
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Classes start at 3:15 p.m., but children's noses press up against the glass of the Needham storefront long before the door is unlocked. Here, six days a week, the nearly lost art of sewing is revered and creativity is unleashed.

Laurén Johnston says she has taught more than 8,000 students since launching Sew Easy 13 years ago. Last week she opened a second branch in West Roxbury, where she hopes to further disseminate an old-fashioned skill that is still indispensable in this high-tech age.

"In an instant, children feel empowered," said Johnston, whose students, male and female, range in age from elementary through high school. "They choose the project that they want to work on and the fabrics that they want to use, and are excited and proud about expressing their creativity."

Johnston has over 300 projects for her students to choose from - book bags, fleece vests, ponchos, mittens, quilts, American Girl doll accessories, pajama pants. Some use their time to alter clothing, and during the holiday season they tend to make gifts.

Each time someone finishes a project, they ring a large bell and the class goes silent in order to see what has been completed and give the student a round of applause. Johnston then encourages them to place their project in the storefront window "to show the world what they've made."

Some projects are basic, like small decorative pillows, and others are more elaborate. One girl, she said, walked in with a sketch of a lobster costume and made it for Halloween.

An eight-week session of one class a week costs $299, which includes all materials. On average, classes are capped at 18 students.

With 15 sewing machines, no one has to wait to use one, since not every student needs a machine all the time. "They help each other out and really feel like they're a part of this place," she said.

Johnston said parents often tell her that their child is creating things using tape and staples to hold the fabric together. Those kids, she said, are really ready to learn. But it's not just the creative and technical aspects of teaching that bring Johnston satisfaction, it's also observing the emotional growth of her students.

"There is no gossip allowed in here," said Johnston. "I tell the kids 'I'd rather hear about you.' " Sometimes during a snack break, she will throw out questions for discussion, such as "What is something positive that we would never guess about you?"

And on occasion she will read aloud an inspirational thought for the day.

"They laugh, but then they quiet down and listen," said Johnston, who hopes that insightful, introspective words will encourage self-awareness and confidence.

Johnston said she became obsessed with sewing in middle school and often walked down the corridors working on projects that she kept in her book bag. At the age of 13, she had a subscription to Gourmet magazine. During high school, Johnston said, she escaped from the typical teen dramas with fabric and a needle and thread.

"I found a lot of comfort and pride in sewing," said Johnston. "I wasn't one of the popular kids. But I got attention for my work."

"I always wanted to create a legacy," said Johnston, whose two children are now 19 and 22 years old. "I hope that I'll create a small one, teaching the world to sew again."

For more on Laurèn Johnston's classes, visit seweasy.org.

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