Sewcology: Cindy Hopper

sewcology1For some people, do-it-yourself-styling necessitates a needle, thread, and time. For the rest of us, all that’s required is a credit card and shipping address. Sewcology, the creative endeavor of lifelong seamstress Cindy Hopper, makes you believe that you can “just do it.” Hopper teaches you to make clothes, quilts, pillows and bags without any of the finger pricking or sewing-machine angst that usually has machines relegated to basements and backs of closets. For those of us attempting to read sewing how-tos and find that sleep hits like a load of laundry, or that deciphering a machine manual becomes a battle with luck–you’re lucky if you stay awake long enough to re-read the one sentence you read the night before–Sewcology is a hands-on solution. Hopper, and her shop/workshop/showroom based in a renovated, charming Victorian in a historic New York enclave, are just “sew cool.” This according to the Girl and Boy Scout troops who suture pieces from ends of bolts into owls, penguins, purses and carryalls.
With just a few snips, bags emerge from yards of fabric. A couple of stitches later, childrens’ clothes take form, quilts are sewn, yarn knitted and crocheted. It’s all sew good. The self-taught seamstress eschews a one-size-fits all mentality, and stocks threads and notions, repairs and sells Husqvarna-Viking sewing machines, does alterations, teaches sewing, knitting and quilting classes, and sells quilting, apparel and decorative fabrics—thanks to a loan from Community Capital NY that made her vast array of inventory feasible. Dust off your machines, bring them in, and she’s happy to teach you how to use your own. The results bear little resemblance to Granny’s heirloom bedspread or old-school DIY sewing class projects.
How did you get into the sewing business?
I raised seven children in Flushing, Queens, and now have two grandchildren. The kids summered at camp in Warwick (NY) and I’d drive the two hours home fantasizing about retiring and running a shop here. When my youngest son started at Binghamton, we found an 1800’s Victorian building for sale, with one shop rented to a local barbershop and two apartments that would help pay the mortgage and give me a chance to launch Sewcology in the remaining space. I’ve used Husqvarna-Viking machines for 30 years, so securing a dealership was Step One.

How did you get Sewcology off the ground?
I had to meet the needs of the community. They needed needles and buttons—there is no five and dime store here. I had to do alterations because a lot of people come in for small repairs. I keep sewing lessons on the crafty side, so tourists who stay at Greenwood Lake can easily finish a project. I teach sewing and employ a quilting teacher and a teacher who does doll making. I taught an enrichment after-school program at the local elementary school and that brought in students who wanted to do additional lessons, alteration work, and scout troops. What I like about a small town is that people are not looking to buy something and get out. They want long relationships, personal attention and to chat. The nearest chain store, Joann’s, is 17 miles away. People are trying to shop local, and I keep my prices competitive. I hear customers say ‘why go all the way to Joann’s? It’s the same price at Sewcology.’ I developed sewing lessons on Power Point , and use a large-screen monitor to help animate classes.

How did your business evolve?
Community Capital NY gave us a loan of $25,000 and it made all the difference. I was able to use the money to purchase inventory and would have had to open with just sewing machines. Sewcology would not have been a place the community could purchase buttons or needles or notions or fabric. I’d have had to have a soft opening, rather than make a big splash and earn the reputation of having everything. We may not have been as successful. I offer the best thread count Kona Cotton by Robert Kaufman and Michael Miller fabrics for quilting. I’m looking into getting unique Japanese quilting, suiting and upholstery fabrics, too. Community Capital NY also provides invaluable support and encouragement. I speak with the Business Manager every week.

What’s the best advice you got along the way?
Research. There is a resurgence in sewing again, but I backed up my hunches with facts. I went to the Pattern Review, an annual meeting to see what was happening in the industry, to sewing and quilting expos in Worcester, Mass., and researched sewing machine dealerships. I wrote a business plan. You can’t just order what someone tells you or what a rep suggests. If I hadn’t done my homework, I would have made foolish investments and spent money I could have spent more wisely. It was a year and a half before I even went forward with this business, before we even looked for a building. I needed to know what was currently trending, what people are looking to sew. Project Runway and other similar shows are on cable now. Shows like Martha Pullen’s Sewing with Martha went back on the air at PBS. IKEA started selling a sewing machine. Wal-mart re-opened a fabrics department. People are tired of buying clothes from Target and Kohl’s—basically the same styles. We have classes where people bring in their old clothes and we have our own design challenge. One high school student who’s preparing to go to FIT is preparing her portfolio here and we’re helping her host a runway show of little kids outfits at the local library with the proceeds benefiting a nonprofit focused on eating disorders for teenagers.

What did you wish you knew?
I didn’t trademark my name, Sewcology early enough, and I didn’t buy Twitter straightaway. Someone had bought it by the time I knew to do it. I did secure Pinterest and a web name through Go Daddy.

When will you know you’ve arrived?
I’ve arrived now. I’m ahead of projections, increasing inventory, adding more teachers, lessons and classes and about to hire three more part-timers. I run classes every day from 4.00 to 6.00 pm, and on Saturdays I have three sets of lessons. I’ve developed a niche, working with children who are home schooled, particularly boys, running classes teaching them how to do alterations. My policy is to teach people with their own machines for free. No pressure. I lent a machine to a quilter, and she came back and said she preferred the top of the line and I sold her a $10,000 machine.

What’s Next?
Knitting lessons. We offer quilting and sewing and are just adding knitting to the class schedule. I’m ahead of my target. And I’m hiring someone to do inventory, cut the end of bolts into quarters and fold and iron the pieces, vacuum and work here while I run after school classes–I’m here 24/7 and need some help. I’m also going to hire a part time marketing person to help me with the social media. There are five nearby hamlets and they don’t yet know I’m here. I want to write a blog. But I’ll always be here to interface with my customers—the best part of my day.