You wouldn't expect Bra-Makers Supply, an unassuming shop on Ottawa Street in Hamilton, Ont., to be an international tourist destination. And yet the modest shop in the city's fabric district draws visitors from as far away as Korea and South Africa for its one-of-a-kind classes in do-it-yourself bra-making.
While this might sound like rarefied sewing territory to the average rank-and-file scarf-knitter, it's actually part of a growing trend in making your own underthings. A Toronto sewing boutique called The Workroom regularly sells out space in its popular underwear-making class. Another Toronto studio, Sew Be It, offers courses in handmade slips and corsets.
At Bra-Makers Supply in Hamilton, owner Beverly Johnson offers workshops for both beginners and more experienced sewers. There is a one-day class in T-shirt bra-making for those who are new to sewing. She also hosts five-day Boob Camps during which intermediate students can use any of her 20 patterns to churn out as many as five bras. "Once you've gotten good, you can make one in as little as three hours," she says.
The program that sets Johnson's shop apart from others, however, is a two-month, $3,700 master course that confers professional bra-maker's certification on its participants, the only one of its kind in the world. Some of her students go on to make bras for a living, charging up to $300 a pop for a custom brassiere. Others come just for themselves – many are women who can't find commercial bra brands that fit them.
"I also get men here," Johnson says. "Some come because they want to sew for their wives, girlfriends or whomever. They enjoy the classes because they're engineering types who like problem solving and appreciate the complexity of bra construction. We also get cross-dressers and transgender people who want to make things for themselves."
Johnson, whose arsenal of bra-making supplies includes a large selection of lace fabrics and trim, appliqués, foam cups and fasteners, has also trained a number of costumers working in theatre. The Neptune Theatre, for instance, flew her to Halifax so she could teach the costume department how to make bras and intimate apparel for a production of Chicago.
In addition to bra-making, Johnson's curriculum includes classes in DIY panties, knitwear, swimwear and corsets, but those for brassieres remain the most popular. Demand is so consistent – and enthusiastic – that she even organizes an annual cruise for interested students, who, in addition to toiletries and holiday wear, bring their sewing machines.
"Being with like-minded women is more fun than you can stand," Johnson says. While in port, they ferret out local sewing stores to shop and bond with fellow stitchers. For 2013, the diminutive 58-year-has organized Tits Ahoy, a cruise along the shores of Alaska.
Others make the most of their visit to Hamilton. Sharon Butler, from New York, is a repeat student at Bra-Makers Supply. Although she attended the Fashion Institute of Technology, she found what little instruction she received in undergarments there to be "useless." Ultimately, she wanted more intensive training and found Johnson's courses by Googling "bra making."
Now she's hooked and is already thinking about her next course. Butler recently spent a week in Hamilton, staying at a bed and breakfast and heading to Bra-Makers Supply every day. It's her dream "sew-cation," she says, adding that another, more famous area attraction doesn't hold most interest for her.
"It's just water," she says of Niagara Falls, which is less than an hour away. "I would rather sew."
Special to The Globe and Mail