We are back after an unexpected two-week hurricane hiatus. I hope things are getting back to normal for you if you were affected by the storm.
Today’s guest is Bonnie Lewis who runs Common Sewing in Orlando. Bonnie started her company because she wants to bring sewing back to everyone’s lifestyle “in a relevant, sustainable, and simple way.”
Bonnie gained her passion for sewing from her grandmother, and she wants to share that passion with others. That passion comes through in how she talks about her path. Plus, Bonnie’s story of success is one that takes less traditional paths, included believing in herself and skills, being persistent, and using her passion to drive her work. I know you will love our conversation.
1) Bonnie couldn’t escape her passion for sewing
Bonnie learned to sew like many women have throughout history, through the matriarch of the family, her grandmother. At eight years old, Bonnie learned to express herself through the vast and colorful world of textiles. Daily, she would sit by her grandmother and work on her craft. This is how Bonnie developed her passion.
Deciding not to follow her passion though, Bonnie chose to study literature in college with the plan to become a college professor. To her, sewing wasn’t a career but just something she did for fun. But after her acceptance into a terrific grad program, Bonnie realized that she was still drawn to her early love of sewing.
So she moved to Austin, Texas instead of going to graduate school and rented a space in the back of a hair salon to open a boutique design shop. “I put myself through my own self-directed design school,” Bonnie says.
At her design studio in Austin, Bonnie would make whatever her customers asked for. Whether that was ball gowns or rifle cases, Bonnie would figure out how to make it and got the job done. She knew she couldn’t go back to graduate school and viewed this time as a way to invest in her passion like it was her own self-directed graduate program.
2) Building on her passion, Bonnie took risks in her career
A few years later, Bonnie packed her bags and moved to New York. There, she set up a new studio and got to work again creating custom pieces for clients.
Soon after the move, and before Bonnie felt she was ready for it, she was written up in a well-known magazine and her business exploded. Suddenly Bonnie found herself busier than she had ever been creating custom pieces, mostly for performing artists who needed stage clothes. “It was fun to get into people’s imaginations, and it was fun to take care of clients who felt left out,” Bonnie says.
While it was fun to get to know so many different people and design pieces they loved, Bonnie grew tired of always needing to be creative on demand. She knew she was ready to do something different.
That drive to want to move to the next level of her career made Bonnie seek out a well-known talent agent in the fashion industry. Although the agency’s contact information was not easily accessible, Bonnie tracked it down (in the days of pre-internet!).
Every Wednesday at 4pm for nearly six months, Bonnie would call and speak to his secretary about scheduling a meeting with him so she could present her portfolio to him. “Real life for me has been years of intention and planning until I can execute in the space, and even that takes time to grow,” Bonnie told me about her need to be persistent.
Finally, she was able to secure the meeting and show him her portfolio. He liked what he saw, and a week later Bonnie was offered the chance to work for the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show.
At the show, the team had a major construction problem hours before the show. Others who were experts and highly sought after in the industry couldn’t solve a complicated construction problem. However, because of Bonnie’s experience with stage clothing, and her self-taught dating back to her years in that Austin boutique, she was able to fix the problem within minutes, impressing everyone.
Two months later, Bonnie worked for the Ralph Lauren Design team. There, she traveled the world for 10 years working on photo shoots and dragging her sewing machine to unusual locations. “I loved that portion of my life,” Bonnie says.
Life circumstances and a pregnancy brought Bonnie to Central Florida where many of her family had also recently relocated. She has been here raising her son ever since.
3) Listen to what people ask you for, and find how you can serve those questions in a business
Over the years, when Bonnie told new acquaintances that she sewed for a living, they would respond by wistfully wishing they also knew how to sew. Bonnie could tell there was this nostalgic connection that many people felt towards sewing but hadn’t incorporated into their modern day life.
This sentiment gave Bonnie an idea. “I love education, and I love learning new things,” she told me, and she suspected there were others that felt this way too about sewing if they had a place to learn it.
Bonnie knew this was the hole that was her sweet spot in the market, one that wasn’t currently being fulfilled. She knew it was, yet again, an area she was uniquely qualified to fill. “I found the gap that happened to align with my love and my passion,” she told me.
That gap was Common Sewing, which Bonnie opened last year.
Bonnie knew her mission statement for her company was “to bring back sewing into your lifestyle in a way that is relevant, sustainable, and enjoyable.”
To live that mission, Bonnie developed a six-week beginner’s sewing course where she has been able to break down sewing into simple steps for a new generation of sewers just like her grandmother had done for her so many years ago.
Her goal is to ensure that by the end of the course, new sewers feel confident in their skills to take on new projects in their home and find ways to use the textiles they already have.
4) Bonnie has built her values into her business
Bonnie explains that textiles are everywhere and are a major part of our lives. However, as a society, we have become more disconnected from how to work with them. In past generations, a hole or tear in a garment would not send it to the trash or charity. Instead, people would do simple repairs and keep their textiles for much longer.
However, with the rise of fast fashion, that practice has fallen out of style. But Bonnie wants to bring that back! She knows it’s important to learn these skills to enable her students to do simple repairs because that effort helps reduce waste from textile production–a growing issue when clothing becomes practically disposable. Instead, Bonnie says “purchase the things you love that don’t fit you, tweak them to what you need.”
Bonnie believes that Common Sewing is a way to let others who believe in these same values of sustainability to live in a way that also serves their values.
Bonnie has carefully curated her own pattern line as part of her sewing class, and it’s size-inclusive with sizes ranging from XS-3XL that you can try on in her studio before committing to making yourself (and she can certainly go up or down in size even more if needed). She wants to baby Common Sewing’s beginners. Her goal is to have her students take home something they love with the confidence they can sew. She believes this is an important part in order to disrupt the mind frame that sewing isn’t accessible.
The beginning sewers workshop is a 6-week course where you get to make six different projects that you get to take home. The goal is that you learn one specific skill in each class without being burdened with all the additional steps. Bonnie will prep everything else. Students just have to show up and learn the new skills they need to build upon each week.
Bonnie also offers open studio hours for her students where they can have access to machines and material to practice or make their own creations.
5) Success looks different to us all, and slow growth is OK!
While Bonnie loves the company and movement she is creating, she sees the business growing slowly as it makes money she can put back into it. “I believe in my business growing with the strength it has to grow,” she told me.
However, Bonnie believes that slow growth is the way to build the business you want intentionally. Bonnie told me that she heard the following advice once: “If you want to build something that can scale really well, make it completely unscalable.”
That is exactly what Common Sewing is right now, something completely unscalable. “My business is very personal right now,” Bonnie says. “It’s all me.”
However, Bonnie believes the programs she’s creating will be able to reach the hands of thousands of people and make sewing accessible to them. She knows she can’t move to the next step yet, but is very happy working at the ground level for now. Here, she is able to keep in touch with who her customers are, what they want, and be flexible enough to meet their needs.
“Be OK with this effort. It’s OK that it’s imperfect. It’s OK it’s heartfelt. It’s OK it’s frustrating. It’s OK it’s all those things to a beginner.”
About Bonnie Lewis
Bonnie Lewis is the owner/designer of Common Sewing. She and her family live in Orlando, FL where she is helping to grow the community of local makers by equipping them with design studio sewing skills. Bonnie cultivated her expertise in design and sewing sitting next to the world’s finest tailors in the fashion industry as a freelance tailor on set for photo shoots and behind the scenes during fashion week. But she learned to teach as a girl visiting her grandmother during the summertime in Florida. In between trips to the beach, her Grandma would sneak sewing skills on her while helping her make dolls, jumpsuits, dresses – learning this craft one project at a time much in the same way Common Sewing teaches you.