West Virginia camp to teach sewing skills to kids

BECKLEY (AP) — Remember the movie “Pretty in Pink”? Girls in the ’80s envied not only Molly Ringwald’s natural pout but her character Andie Walsh’s ability to take an old dress, a pair of shears and a sewing machine to transform a thrift store castoff into possibly the most iconic prom/revenge frock of all time.

Filmmaker John Hughes’ only brat pack movie where the conflict resolution hinged on haute couture (she gets the guy) resonated with a teenage Darci McKinnon — as it did with a generation impressed by unabashed creativity.

“I went to a performing arts high school in Cincinnati. Think ‘Fame’ because our school was based on the New York Performing Arts School model,” McKinnon said.

Her school’s dances had the guy who showed up in a polka dotted tuxedo his date made (with the complimentary polka dotted dress designed in reverse color scheme).

“Whose prom does that now?” she asks. Her progressive school experience and involvement in theater and costuming actually earned her a part as an extra in teen idol Ringwald’s “Fresh Horses” — a cinematic flop, but hey . “I got to meet Molly!”

Back to the generation at hand and McKinnon, now a Raleigh County Schools bus driver with a music degree and a minister husband, is returning the lost art of sewing to her favorite tribe — ‘tweens and teenagers — at the Beckley Art Center, Cynthia Bickey Art Gallery. Her summer primer in basic hand and machine sewing skills is called “Camp Couture.”

Through it, McKinnon intends to empower children ages 10 and up with the ability to design and sew. Beginning with pajama pants and advancing from there, McKinnon will instruct students in choosing their own patterns and materials, manipulating a sewing machine, taking measurements, hemming and other techniques as time allows.

Students will select a pattern, too, for an article of clothing to tackle and construct from scratch. Depending on the popularity of her first camp attempt, McKinnon plans to bring more sewing workshops for youth and adults to Beckley Art Center.

“Technology has improved the fabrics that are out there. People are making their own swimsuits, pants, shirts . think of the popularity of shows like ‘Project Runway,'” she points out.

These days, the ability to hem pants or attach a button is akin to speaking a foreign language — it’s bound to impress a crowd and to increase self-esteem. Broken zipper? No problem. Pants too long? McKinnon is optimistic her students will be able to say: I got this. Alterations can even be enterprising. “In college, I sold lettered sweatshirts – I made blackout curtains for dorm rooms. I did costuming. Trust me — I know how much it costs to do alterations today.”

The granddaughter of a “feisty” interior designer who made custom draperies and enviable dresses, McKinnon says her five-day camp is designed to be fun and to impart a skill she has never regretted being handed down to her. “(My grandmother) showed me you could make whatever you couldn’t buy. They are not teaching this in school anymore.”

A short list of supplies students will need includes a cloth tape measure, seam gauge, quilting pins, pin cushion, seam ripper, small scissors and dressmaker shears.

McKinnon encourages students who have functioning sewing machines at home or in their garages to bring them in. She still uses the sewing machine her grandmother used in the ’60s and ’70s. “Sewing machines are workhorses. If they’re cleaned and oiled and have the tension adjusted, they can last 25 to 30 more years,” McKinnon states. Sewing machines, however, are optional for students. The class could use extra ironing boards and irons to support the class for the duration of the camp, if participants have them handy. In addition to the basic supplies mentioned, found at most fabric stores, the cost of the camp and supplied materials is $125.

Aside from her work with Beckley Art Center and her school bus driving responsibilities (a skill picked up from days when she would drive the church bus), McKinnon is a sought-after alterations lady. Prom and wedding season keep her side-business booked, but with the demand for skill with a needle and thread, McKinnon isn’t worried about cutting into her own bottom line. She’d like nothing more than for young ladies to resize and hand-bead their own dresses or even young gentlemen to get creative in the garment business.

“At Camp Couture, students are taught to express their individuality with a useful skill. It’s a skill that is dying and you can do a lot with it,” she says.

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