Metro Detroit students are learning a traditional home economics skill — sewing — in a fresh, modern way, thanks to fashion designer and sewing teacher Elena Victoria Swingler, a transplant from Chicago.
Swingler, who majored in fashion design and technology at Purdue University, started offering sewing classes while she was still in college as a way to earn extra money in the summertime. As a new graduate, she went to work designing denim for Abercrombie. But her classes continued to be so popular that she decided to make teaching her full-time job. She now hosts classes and “camps” in Chicago and metro Detroit.
Swingler offers classes on weekends in Grosse Pointe and Birmingham when kids aren’t in school, week-long summer camps every month when they’re out of school and private in-home workshops after school. All classes and camps are listed on her website and available for online registration.
The popularity of the classes is driven almost entirely by the kids, as opposed to parents forcing them to participate.
“These kids really want to be there,” Swingler says. “My business wouldn’t be what it is without the kids demanding it.”
In the summertime she offers both morning and afternoon sessions, with some students opting to participate all day.
“At lunch time they’re begging to go back to the sewing room,” Swingler says. “They are really into it.”
Ten-year-old Allison Logan is one of those kids who stays all day in the summer and goes to every single class she can throughout the school year.
“Every time Elena adds a class, we have to do it,” says Allison’s mom, Renee Logan. “She had to quit dance this year because Elena added a new event on Friday nights that was at the same time.”
A cancer survivor at age 6, Allison has gone through a tremendous number of changes in reaction to the double whammy of chemotherapy treatments and normal development. Now that she is 10, she is much more aware and self-conscious about those changes; but after a day spent with Swingler, Logan says, that self-consciousness seems to disappear.
“I want to give kids — especially young girls — confidence,” Swingler says. “Yes, the student learned how to sew and made a bunch of clothes that they are really proud of, but at the end, they are so much more confident than when they walked in.”
She especially likes helping kids from ages 10 to 12 because they’re still trying to figure out who they are, make friends and establish their identities as young people.
“It’s so awesome to see them walk out with their heads held high, so excited and full of self-confidence,” she says. “That’s what I’m going for. I truly think it’s helping shape lives of young kids.”
Allison has been going for a year now. Before that, her mom says, she didn’t know anything about sewing and had never even used a sewing machine.
“I can’t believe (the) skill sets she has developed over the last year,” Logan says.
Swingler’s classes aren’t just for girls. She has seen older boys want to make their own basketball shorts and ties and can customize each class to any skill level and interest.
“They want to come and learn to press the pedal, and they’ve made some cool stuff,” she says. “I can cater my classes to anything.”
Swingler says parents are also supportive of their children’s sometimes-borderline-obsessive passion for sewing because it’s such a functional skill.
“It’s very rare that any of the moms know how to sew,” she says. “That’s where they need me. They’ll tell me, ‘My kid is dying to learn, and I can’t teach them.'”
Another sewing camp mom, Megan Cooper, says Swingler encourages individuality and ingenuity as she imparts a functional life skill.
“Elena provides the platform, the environment and the emotional support for our children to express themselves in a way that is fun, safe, creative and inspiring,” she says.
Several of the kids who attend Swingler’s camps say they want to study fashion in college, as she did.
“I have a real fashion background,” Swingler says. “We’re not using patterns from Joann Fabrics; they’re making their own patterns that I teach them how to make, and these are patterns in their exact size.
“They can come in with a photo from Pinterest, and we can make something based on that. It’s extremely personalized per student, and I can customize per student based on how long they’ve been sewing and what style they like.”
Some of her students especially like making their own clothes and wearing them to school because it’s “cool,” she says. And when people don’t believe that they made the clothes they’re wearing because they look store-bought, “that makes them feel so good.”
Swingler says it’s important that the classes are a little more fashion-forward and design-minded as opposed to just being a “craft camp.”
Weekend classes during the school year are held on a drop-in basis so that students can come by whenever they are available, since so many also have sports and other commitments.
And while most of Swingler’s programs are geared toward ages 10-12, she also teaches private “Sip & Sew” parties for women. These are typically held at a host’s home, though she can also rent a home or other facility upon request.
Her long-term plan is to have more “student teachers” helping her out — college or high school students at least 18 years old who can help her run the camps and classes so she can expand into more cities. She doesn’t plan on opening a brick and mortar location of her own, preferring the flexibility and geographic diversity of hosting her sewing camps at places like libraries and community centers.
“At the end of the day, if you know how to sew, you can save yourself a lot of headaches,” Swingler says, adding, “I truly think it’s helping shape lives of young kids.”
To find out more about Elena Victoria Designs sewing classes, visit the website to view the schedule and to register.