By LIZ ROBBINS
Published: August 5, 2011
WALK into the modest railroad-style brownstone apartment and it feels less like Brooklyn and more like stepping off the steam train into “Little House on the Park Slope Prairie.”
Daniel Barry for The New York Times
Daniel Barry for The New York Times
Floppy felt hats with broad rims gather like old friends on an antique green rack, greeting visitors at the door. Simple striped yellow, white and gray curtains adorn the front windows.
In the middle room, linen and raw-silk blankets sit with seersucker pillowcases atop cotton sheets. A white linen pinafore dress with a ruffled chiffon hem hangs in the sparse closet next to a flamenco flannel skirt and dozens of other colorful creations. T-shirts, tank tops and lingerie are folded into neat squares on small shelves, and wooden hooks hold just-worn items.
A wicker basket on the floor fills with laundry that never felt so satisfying.
Sarah Kate Beaumont sewed all of these items one by one over the past three years in what began as an experiment of self-reliance and artistic whimsy and has now blossomed into a way of life.
That life may hark back to pioneer days, but Ms. Beaumont is not homesteading alone.
Brooklyn, fiercely proud of its independence from Manhattan, is an expanding frontier for the Do It Yourself movement — resourceful residents are baking bread, raising chickens for eggs, keeping bees for honey or simply renovating brownstones themselves. Ms. Beaumont, a shy woman in her early 40s with auburn curls, settles as comfortably into that ethos as she does into her flowing dresses.
“I never intended to do it this long,” she said softly on a recent afternoon. “I think it speaks to how good it feels. Self-reliance is really empowering.”
Ms. Beaumont began sewing to live in the summer of 2008, when after eight years of teaching art in the city’s public and private schools, she decided to become a full-time artist. Her dream was to share her craft by teaching adult sewing classes. Because the timing coincided with the financial collapse, she altered the dream with common sense.
“I decided,” she said, “that I would make anything I needed.”
She started with the lingerie. A flowing skirt led to a pair of pajamas. Aprons, stuffed animals, raincoats, sheets, terry cloth towels and curtains followed. She makes everything she wears save the odd pair of jeans, socks and shoes.
Ms. Beaumont likes to call her project “Slow Clothes,” after the Slow Food movement promoting the homegrown.
Ms. Beaumont recycles material from old items or buys fabric relatively inexpensively in Manhattan in the garment district. It usually takes her two to three weeks to finish a dress, a few hours for underwear.
Two years ago, she decided to put a label on her items, “verysweetlife,” with the inscription, “Handmade in Brooklyn.” She has yet to market that label, though she says she is ready to start. There is one nagging issue: pricing.
“How do you take something that you’ve spent a tremendous amount of time and effort on and put a price on it?” she said. “Each piece is unique. That’s one thing about making everything you wear — nobody will ever be wearing what you are wearing.”
In the meantime, Ms. Beaumont supports herself with sewing classes, for which she charges $65 to $500, depending on the length of the course, and offers private lessons as well.
Tamara Mose Brown, an assistant professor of sociology at Brooklyn College, who lives in Kensington, says Ms. Beaumont exemplifies the economic growth occurring in Brooklyn, driven by small businesses, restaurants and clothing shops. “Brooklynites are feeling that they want to have this identity away from Manhattan and the air of consumerism,” Professor Brown said. “There’s this element of self-preservation and economic sustainability.”
In her intimate second-floor sewing studio in Boerum Hill, outfitted with five Kenmore sewing machines and filled with rulers, patterns and dress forms, Ms. Beaumont teaches adults — lawyers, writers, grandmothers and others — fractions, geometry and remedial cutting in order to master patternmaking.
“It is not a sign of intelligence how hard it is to cut or measure,” she assured three students working on a pillow pattern last month in her studio.
Harriet Clemons, 54, of Crown Heights, was taking the three-week course so she could make clothes for her grandchildren. Kate Clifford, 28, works at a SoHo knitting shop and wanted to expand her repertoire. One of her roommates in Kensington sells homemadevegan muffins.
Elizabeth Cline, 30, of Bedford-Stuyvesant, is writing a book about budget fashion and the declining price of clothing, and hoped to supplement her own wardrobe.
“It’s encouraging that you can actually make things that are better or at least the level of what stores are selling,” Ms. Cline said.
Ms. Beaumont never followed the crowd, growing up in Pittsburgh embroidering, and enjoying the meals made by her mother, a chef and a baker. She majored in English literature at Bryn Mawr College, where she rode a unicycle in leggings and a skirt.
Every day she kisses her sleek white high-tech Bernina sewing machine, next to which she has meticulously organized bobbins by color, and spools of thread. Although hers is an intense, solitary passion, it is also meditative, in sync with much of the D.I.Y. culture.
“It’s hands on, getting back to the basics,” Ms. Brown said, “and it makes people feel that they are not falling victim to the machine.”
Unless, of course, it’s a white Kenmore.
“These are adults who hold their pillows and beam, they are so proud of themselves,” Ms. Beaumont said with a twinkle. “That’s how I feel a lot of the time. It’s not ego-driven pride, but I look in the mirror and say, ‘I can do this.’ ”