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Lohmann: New Richmond community sewing group finds common thread
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Lohmann: New Richmond community sewing group finds common thread

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A1 Minute, Nov. 1, 2021

As a former Hollywood costume designer, Karen Keech Swerling spent the first part of the pandemic in her Fan District home doing what she does best: sewing.

“I sewed, sewed, sewed,” recalled Swerling, who relocated to Richmond from California five years ago. “I had a big stack, 2 feet of things I made for my husband and myself and friends.”

As the stack of new clothes went higher, however, she grew tired of sewing alone. So, as vaccinations became widely available, the spread of COVID-19 seemed to ease and things began to open, Swerling issued an invitation in June on the Nextdoor app to others in the community who enjoy sewing as much as she does.

“Does anyone sew?” she wrote. “Does anyone want to go fabric shopping with me? Pattern shopping? Or even just sew with me? Signed, Lonely Sewist.”

The answers arrived quickly: Yes, yes, yes and yes.

She received 162 responses within the first week. A Facebook group was born — Richmond Really Sews! — and get-togethers were arranged.

The Facebook group now has more than 400 members. Experienced sewists — the term Swerling prefers — have shared their skills with those new to the craft. Countless items of clothing have been made, as well as many new friendships, among a wide range of ages, women and men. Swerling no longer sews alone.

Most importantly, as far as she is concerned, something else has been fashioned: a community stitched together by a common thread (sorry, I couldn’t help myself).

“It’s about bringing everyone together,” Swerling said. “We don’t talk about politics, religion or bad news of the day. I’m hoping that we can spread the word nationwide as to how to bring human beings together in a positive way, sewing being the tool to entice and energize people.”

Later, in a text message, Swerling wrote, “Sewing is so healing, for the mind and the soul.”

***

One of the first responses to Swerling’s post on Nextdoor came from Carmela Brenzie.

It means Brenzie loves to sew.

“Sewing is something I’ve been doing most of my life, [but] in my 50s it was something I had gotten away from,” said Brenzie, whose first sewing project was making a garment for a Girl Scout project in elementary school. She picked up sewing again in high school and studied fashion design in college, though never pursued it as a career. “It’s time-consuming and, when you have kids and stuff, you don’t always have time to sit down and sew.”

Early in the pandemic, she passed the time doing puzzles, not sewing, but she had been thinking about making a semi-formal dress for an upcoming event. As Brenzie wondered if it was something she could do, Swerling posted her query on Nextdoor.

“As soon as she did, I got really excited,” said Brenzie, who has become one of the principals of Richmond Really Sews! “I can’t really define why, but the group has really inspired me. To meet with people who share your interest, it’s just great. I guess it would be the same as artists who get together to talk about art or musicians who get together and jam. It’s that kind of vibe when we get together.”

In the time she’s been involved, Brenzie made the dress she had been pondering, completed several other items and purchased a new sewing machine. Her 17-year-old daughter, Rowan, who was drawn to sewing because she couldn’t find clothing in stores she wanted to wear, is now interested in vintage and historical clothing. She is the group’s youngest member.

Another young member, Tanesha Walker, 23, a recent graduate of Hollins University, ran into Swerling at a fabric shop in September, where they got to talking. Now, she not only is a group regular but also a member of the board and the “beginner’s liaison.”

“Her energy,” Swerling says, “is contagious.”

As a liaison, Walker envisions her job shepherding beginners along on their sewing “journey.”

“My plan is to help them learn how to read patterns and cut them out and show them beginner-friendly projects,” she said.

Walker has been sewing since she was 15. Back then, her interest in cosplay motivated her to make costumes. She talked about it so much that her mother arranged for sewing lessons and her sister gave her a sewing machine. She’s come to love sewing.

“It’s one of my happy spaces,” she said.

As much as she enjoys sewing, it was something she used to do only once every couple of months “because I didn’t have the inspiration.”

She’s found what she was missing by joining the group.

“I get inspiration by seeing what other people are doing,” she said. “It truly is the environment and the people. You start talking to people, and the creative juices start to flow.”

***

Swerling loves that the group is attracting people of all ages, abilities and backgrounds — and that people seem to enjoy one another’s company.

“I’m wanting to make this really diverse because Richmond is diverse,” she said. “I really want to connect Richmond.”

Swerling and her husband, Jerry, a retired public relations executive and university professor, settled in Richmond after leaving their home in Malibu, looking for a place that had less smog and less traffic — among other attributes — and wasn’t nearly as expensive. They launched a search, spreadsheet and all, narrowing the field to four cities, considering factors such as art and music, food and walkability. A change of seasons with a “sprinkling of snow” — emphasis on “sprinkling” — would also be nice.

They selected Richmond. For their new home, they needed one with space for a “sewing center,” said Swerling, who was inspired to learn to sew as a child after seeing the 1963 film “Bye Bye Birdie.” She left the theater and wanting to be the next Ann-Margret, and wound up wanting to be the next fashion designer who made chic clothes for Ann-Margret, so she began to sew.

During more than 30 years in Hollywood, she worked on numerous independent films, as well as in television, theater and commercials. One of her dreams for the basement of her Fan District home was to set up the center with her collection of sewing equipment and to share her love of sewing with others.

That’s coming true with Richmond Really Sews!

Members of the group get together for sewing sessions and sewing seminars or just to chat about sewing.

Because COVID-19 surged again, the group has remained mindful of safety protocols as far as distancing and wearing masks, so gatherings have generally been for a handful of people at a time and not hundreds, some in Swerling’s basement, some at other sites.

There have been trips to buy fabric and plans to swap fabric. Eventually, said Brenzie, there is a hope to set up a sort of “sewing lounge” as a place for people who don’t have sewing equipment at home or who just want the camaraderie of others as they work.

***

Frosty Owen had always wanted to learn to sew.

“But being a guy, that was not something that was encouraged or promoted when I was growing up,” he said.

Now 61 and having survived a cancer diagnosis a few years ago, Owen has come to the realization that “life is short.”

“Do the things you want to do,” he said.

When he saw Swerling’s post on Nextdoor, he was thrilled. He messaged Swerling and told her of his interest, and she encouraged him to attend the first meeting. He was energized to learn to sew from someone with Hollywood experience. He showed up 20 minutes early — and sat in his car.

“I was really nervous,” he said. He was a guy in what surely would be a room full of women, but he also worried that everyone else would be an accomplished sewist. He was afraid he’d feel way out of place. “I’d never even threaded a needle.”

But he also knew if he went home without going in, he would regret it.

“I saw this young lady who had her phone in her hand — I could tell she was looking for the address — so I jumped out of the car and said, ‘Are you looking for the sewing meeting?’” She was, and he had someone to walk in with.

How did the meeting go?

“People could not have been more welcoming or encouraging,” said Owen, research and information services manager for the Hunton Andrews Kurth law firm. “They said, ‘You are going to learn to sew.’”

And he has.

Members of the group took him to buy supplies and get him started. His first project: a decorative pillow. He’s also made pajama pants. Next up: a shirt.

“I have met some of the most incredible people, really talented,” he said. “It just amazes me how willing people are to share their knowledge and their excitement about sewing.”

Owen said Swerling’s passion for sewing and her dedication to encouraging newcomers played a big role in making him believe he could sew.

Another man in the group, who is also new to sewing, said the same, that Swerling’s enthusiasm is “contagious. It doesn’t matter if your first time touching a sewing machine is your first day with the sewing group, or you’ve been sewing for years. There’s always something to learn, and you’ll have fun and make friends along the way.”

That’s the point. Sewing brought the group together, said member Elle Layman, but it has “grown to something so much more.”

“Karen created a safe and comfortable space for relationships to grow, no matter your background or sewing level,” Layman said. “It’s a way to meet people you would have otherwise never met. It’s remarkable what she has done for our community.”

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