Material world

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When it comes to introducing a new generation to the art of sewing, a Parisian cafe has it all stitched up, writes Susan Owens.

She’s chic, dressed in black – and she’s in one of the smartest new cafes in Paris, Sweat Shop. Gabriella Pirisi, a 31-year-old English teacher from Sydney and a regular customer, is pressing the pedal on a Singer sewing machine, stitching an orange cotton shopping bag (“I prefer reusable, not plastic”).

A sewing version of a cyber-cafe, Sweat Shop’s workstations host sewing machines in a former print shop, with pretty tiles and flaking-paint walls, in the Canal Saint-Martin neighbourhood. Here, pop-ups include an avant-garde florist, organic juice bar and a quirky boutique for children.

Sweat Shop’s founders, Austrian-born designer Sissi Holleis and Swiss-born make-up artist Martena Duss, came to Paris over a decade ago, each bringing a sewing machine. “We were constantly lending them to our friends,” says Holleis, in a fluoro-pink sweater she knitted. Adds Duss: “Parisians don’t sew. They don’t learn at school and they live in small apartments; there’s no space for a machine.”

The pair sensed a market – bygone skills new again. They stitched up a deal with Singer for 10 sewing machines, offering ‘machines to rent’ at six euros an hour, along with sewing, crochet and knitting classes, demonstrations by designers (including one from neighbour Agnès B) and kits with fabrics and instructions from 25 euros. “We’ve had the decade of fast food and now we have slow food,” says Duss. “We had the decade of fast fashion, now we have slow fashion. Everyone loves a bit of throwaway [retail giant] H&M but attitudes have changed. Learning your grandmother’s skills has new relevance.”

“Our grandmothers sewed out of necessity,” says Pirisi, who, in addition to being a Sweat Shop customer, is a Paris resident who tutors Renault executives in English. “But I didn’t learn those skills. When I came to Paris, I wanted to do something creative so I searched for a retired couturier who would share the secrets of sewing. I found Sweat Shop instead.”

“If you sew, you can recycle, restore vintage or make your own,” Duss adds. “You have a completely different relationship with clothes that you make.”

Beyond the purr of machines, Sweat Shop unites people in sharing and learning. “We offer space, knowledge, inspiration, and a lot of fun,” says Sissi, who sees her former life, as a designer as solitary. “I used to work for my label’s recognition but I get much more back from sharing.”

From the outset, Sweat Shop was a runaway success – the pair recently signed a book deal (for a book on sewing tips and tricks) with an English publisher, and they now sell vintage scarves with crochet borders by Ikou Tschüss. And the store isn’t just for women. Knitting lessons are run by the curiously named Sebastien David Television.

“Success,” says Duss, “is much to do with culture. Parisians, unlike Austrians or the Swiss, do not come together and knit in a public space, like a park or a cafe, as other Europeans do.” (And, yes, it’s simply unimaginable in Paris.)
“But it’s like meditation; it’s addictive.” And it’s chic for Parisians – whose endless quest is to find the New, New Thing.

This story was originally published in Vogue Living May/June 2011. Subscribe to the magazine today by visiting here.

Text: Susan Owens

7 Responses to “Material world”
  1. Woha loving the new blog! My favourite magazine is becoming so hip!

  2. Tracy says:

    this is delightful..unique..fantastique!

  3. I want to be in Paris!

  4. Jennifer says:

    Any similar ideas in Sydney? I’ve been looking for a beginners(ish) sewing course for a while now!

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