As a young girl, Linda Lee used to make clothes for her dolls, and she quickly moved from hand sewing to using her mother’s sewing machine. “I loved playing with my dolls, and the clothes I made were quite fashionable,” she says. “They had monograms and sequins.”
As a young woman, she began making clothing for herself. “I was making suits and coats - everything except for sweaters and jeans,” says Linda. Later, she graduated with a degree in interior design from Kansas State University, and spent many successful years in that career, but still continued to sew.
However, access to quality fabrics was getting difficult. “All the stores in Topeka where you could go buy great fabrics closed,” she says. “I wanted to sew on Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, and Bill Blass fabrics and not on cheap cotton or whatever was available.” So, she hired Karen Latish from Kansas City to teach her how to buy fabrics from brokers in New York.
In 1991, she purchased The Sewing Workshop, a sewing school in San Francisco, and began producing a pattern collection under the same name. She eventually sold the school, but kept the name and brought the pattern collection and the production of those to Topeka. “These designs were based on some influences of the San Francisco Asian culture,” says Linda. “They were very Japanese and asymmetric and really interesting, intriguing patterns.”
She also opened a fabric store in Topeka called Threadwear. “Ultimately, I closed this retail fabric store and brought everything into a different platform when the internet came along. A website was developed and all of a sudden we became an online company where we sold patterns and fabrics.”
When it came to creating patterns, Linda incorporated many of her interior design skills. “There's a certain engineering to making a pattern and there's certainly an engineering process of putting an interior together. I became very comfortable in the interior design world with combining textures and patterns and colors, and that really translated into what we do here.”
Today, a big part of The Sewing Workshop’s success is also its online sewing classes. “Sew Confident! Class in a Flash is our year-long subscription online learning platform,” she says. “Every month we produce a new pattern or a variation on a pattern, and I teach a video class on how to make that garment from start to finish. We back that up with a kit that includes everything needed to make it, from the fabric and the thread to the buttons, zippers, and elastic. There are also printed materials on variations of the pattern that can be printed off or that show how to get ready to make the pattern or the garment. We have a planning board that we do that shows the building of these projects as well.”
Adds Linda, “I also host a Facebook Live every Tuesday, and I reveal techniques and talk about style and color.” Also offered are special event workshops that take place in Topeka and overseas. “We've been teaching workshops in Southern France at a place called Chateau Dumas and running a textile tour to London about once a year.”
She also resources fabrics from all over the world, including Japan, Canada, England, Italy, France, Denmark, and Belgium. “We buy high-end designer fabrics and follow all the new emerging and traditional designers as well. We're looking at those details and copying collar styles and sleeve styles and the general character of what's out there to stay current. We're also addressing a body shape and style that’s real.”
The number one advantage of making your own clothes, says Linda, is fit. “There aren’t many people who can walk into a store, put something on and it's perfect. We have a lot of tutorials on fitting and we do a lot of personal fitting, either at our workshops or through email and phone. Another advantage is being able to customize a look in color and general character that you can't buy in the stores that are near you.”
There’s a lot of pride in making something beautiful too. “We have a Facebook group for these yearly series and thousands of our customers love taking photographs of themselves, showing off and getting compliments.”
Today, The Sewing Workshop has a told of nine employees, one of whom is her daughter, Alex Woodbury. “She runs our events and our online learning series, and does all of our event planning,” she says. “She also does beautiful and interesting embroidery designs that we sell.” The online shop also offers numerous how-to books that Linda has written, along with the specialized tools needed to be a more precise sewer.
To learn more, go to sewingworkshop.com.
Patterns used to be in print. “In the old days, we would hand draw the patterns on vellum and do what’s called paste up - the lettering, sizing and labels. We used to use McCall's printing service in Manhattan, Kansas, but that closed, so everything we do now is digital. We digitize the patterns, which is quicker, and people can download them from all over the world.”
All of the drawings, grading, pattern work and production is done in house. For the fashion illustration, which is on the cover of the patterns, Linda uses an illustrator out of New York.
“We do a lot of really interesting combinations of fabrics. We don’t necessarily make one garment out of one fabric, but instead we're combining fabrics and many colors.”