by Carole Verona
Self-expression. Joy. Excitement. These are words that most people wouldn’t associate with sewing.
Now meet Heather Hutchinson Harris, the owner of Handcraft Workshop, a fabric boutique and sewing studio that opened Dec. 20, 2013, at 7224 Germantown Ave. in Mt. Airy. To her, “It’s exciting to see the joy that people experience after they’ve made something. Sewing is one of those crafts or hobbies where you move from making a pillow case to a purse to a dress and then on to other things.” She believes there’s a resurgence of interest in sewing because people nowadays want more control over where they buy things and who makes the things they use.
Before opening the shop, Heather, a Germantown resident, taught sewing to teens and tweens for 2½ years at Mt. Airy Learning Tree. She also rented space and taught adult sewing classes at the Moving Arts of Mt. Airy studio, across the street from Weavers Way Co-op on Greene Street.
“Even though my mother was a seamstress and my father’s mother was an extraordinary seamstress, I never took the time to work with either one of them until I was older,” she said. Heather, who will be 40 in May, began sewing 10 years ago. “I was working all the time and realized that I needed a hobby that wouldn’t take me too far out of the house, something I could do at home. So I asked for and received a sewing machine for my 30th birthday. Then I took a few non-credit sewing classes at Temple University. From there, I pretty much taught myself.”
A former special education teacher, Heather took a risk and quit her job to pursue her dream of opening a fabric store and sewing studio. To get started, she took classes through the Small Business Development Center at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. After writing a business plan, she talked to Liz Moselle, of Mt. Airy USA, who put her in touch with people at East River Bank. “That same day, we came and looked at the space at 7224 Germantown Ave., the former location of Past and Present, a vintage clothing shop. I had my eye on this space for about two years,” she said.
The business is a family affair. André Harris, Heather’s husband and an information technology manager at the University of Pennsylvania, is co-owner. Her mother, Joanne Johnson, a recently retired educator, teaches some of the sewing classes. The Handcraft Workshop is modern, bright and cheerful inside. Bolts of colorful designer fabrics line one wall; framed patent drawings of sewing machines from the 1800s adorn another.
In the studio there are 12 sewing machines and four sergers (finishing machines). Heather chose Baby Lock machines for the shop because “they’re basic, straightforward, beginner machines with 10 different stitches.” She decided not to go with higher tech machines because “people really need to know how to do this with their hands and not have a computer tell them what to do next. Once you learn how to use my machines, you should be able to apply those same skills to whatever machine you have at home.”
Handcraft Workshop charges $55 for four hours of instruction. Children who are eight and older and adult beginners learn about the machine, what it does, how to thread it and how to do straight stitching. They come away with a beautiful handmade pillowcase. “Making a pillowcase is an easy introduction to sewing, and there’s a charity called ConKerr Cancer that collects pillowcases for children in hospitals. In September, I’m planning on having a pillowcase-making event, so that all the students I’ve been teaching will be able to participate by making pillowcases for children in hospitals … And if you already have machine experience, you can come in during the day to rent a machine and use the tools I have here, as well.”
The Handcraft Workshop stocks a variety of fabrics from many acclaimed designers as well as books, patterns, sewing kits and high-quality notions from DMC, Dritz, Olfa, Fiskers, Schmentz, Clover and Omnigrid.
Heather grew up in the Lawndale section of the city, attended the Philadelphia High School for Girls and received a B.A. in social work from Temple University in 1997 and a masters degree in geriatric counseling from St. Joseph’s University in 2003. She worked as a geriatric social worker for a period of time at the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging but then made a career change and received a master’s degree in education from Chestnut Hill College in 2008. She taught at the Anna B. Day School in East Mt. Airy for seven years.