On a recent visit to Butler Street in Lawrenceville, I stepped into a shop called Werk. It opened three weeks ago. After greeting me, proprietor Jenn Gooch excused herself for a minute.
I checked out the fitting room curtain. It was a patchwork of T-shirt pieces, some with printed logos and messages. She had arranged them so the top of the curtain is mostly white and the bottom is a winsome design of color.
Werk, at 3627 Butler, is a clothing design and alterations shop, but it's more than that. It is a niche of 21st-century retail in which a make-it-yourself sensibility makes more things possible. In this case, the possibilities start with Ms. Gooch, a 35-year-old Texas native who came to Pittsburgh in 2006 to attend graduate school. She received a master's in fine arts at Carnegie Mellon University, where she also taught welding and sculpture.
If you have a sewing machine and a hankering to learn how to use it, Ms. Gooch is holding a free learn-to-sew workshop from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday. She is promoting it as gender-neutral because she knows boys and men are out there wanting to learn to sew. The catch is, you have to bring a sewing machine to the shop.
For subsequent workshops, Ms. Gooch hopes to find a funding source to buy a few sewing machines. She would also like to train apprentices.
Ms. Gooch grew up near Dallas in a household where she "learned how to make things" in the home economics tradition. "I sewed my dolls' clothes as a kid. I'm short, so I had to learn how to hem my pants or step on them.
"The American frontier separated skills [by gender], but in Europe for thousands of years, sewing was a guilded trade," she said. "I know a lot of guys who are interested" in fabric, textiles and sewing. "Plus, if you wear something that has buttons, you should know how to sew on a button."
It was Ms. Gooch who initiated the local One Cold Hand project in 2007-08. With a small grant from the Sprout Fund, she encouraged people to help her gather orphan gloves and mittens, hoping to find matches and even the people who had lost them. One Cold Hand collected 400 gloves, made 30 matches and reunited a few pairs with their owners.
Ms. Gooch is a weaver, quilter, seamstress, clothing designer, jewelry maker, sculptor and musician whose music the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette described in 2009 as "Texas banjo-folkie." She came to retail after losing her job as a graphic designer at her alma mater.
Ms. Gooch said she decided to stay in Pittsburgh in part because of the artist community here.
"There are few cities I can think of where being an emerging artist can be this fulfilling," she said. "There are areas here for exploration and so much support among artists."
An anonymous gift of $10,000 helped her get into the storefront, and she lives the emerging artist lifestyle -- sharing rent in Lawrenceville with housemates who are artists, as creative at stretching a dollar as at inventing jobs.
Ms. Gooch sells clothing she makes and also the artwork of unrepresented local artists. She is accepting applications for art consignments now and also will take donations of leftover T-shirts from corporate events.
"I have 10 clients waiting for stuff," she said. "For one gentleman, I am taking in slacks. People are starting to realize you can fix the clothes you have. That way, you can keep adding to the memory of that garment.
"Old-school slacks had this real wide seam so you could take them in or let them out," she said. Commercial clothes "are not made so that you have that kind of control."
"I am not a tailor," she said. "I do formal but I don't do bridal. Your special day is probably too special for me."
I left her shop feeling hopeful about the future of the people's economy. Not the big-E economy of the World Bank, Wall Street and headlines, but the little-e economy people make themselves by inventing jobs, bartering, playing by rules that they make and recruiting the support of others for mutual benefit.
It may be that the big-E economy is compelling this undercurrent, especially among the young, many of whom cannot find work in the fields they studied. It would be rewarding to see it swell regardless of whether the headlines become more positive. The economy of the little guy might be one way for the system to work for the many.