Mary Grabenstatter was working in New York City as a freelancer in documentary film editing before she returned home to Buffalo in 2015. Two years later, her idea was born--she would apply her expertise in digital editing and graphic design to create a new product line: monthly subscription sewing kits.
Grabenstatter’s kits, sold under the Needle Sharp brand, offer beginner sewers, mavericks, and in-betweeners three different box sizes with projects that are matched according to skill level. She noted that she is currently the only maker on the market with a sewing kit that allows customers to customize their pattern and fabric choices.
“You’re getting a box that exactly fits your style and what you want to sew,” the entrepreneur said.
Grabenstatter’s kits make sewing easier for beginners especially, whom she says often have difficulty matching the appropriate fabrics to their patterns.
“Certain fabrics work in certain ways. Cotton is going to be different than crepe and silk. They’re going to look different on the body, they’re going to sew differently,” Grabenstatter said. “A lot of beginners go in and choose the wrong fabric and think they are bad at sewing,” which is usually never the case, she added.
Needle Sharp makes this process easier by presenting a collection of fabrics that are appropriate for projects Grabenstatter themes by month, season, and trend.
If a sewer is interested in learning more about a project, they can turn to the Needle Sharp blog and do a little research on the look of the moment. On the blog, the entrepreneur discusses the best choices in fabric for that look, such as why soft drape works for culottes, or why rayon challis is best for sundresses.
All of the fabrics used for the kits are purchased at the DG Expo in New York City, which Grabenstatter attends twice a year. The Expo caters to fashion designers and small fabric shops, so the experience is especially appropriate, she thinks, because she considers Needle Sharp a combination of the two.
“It was a little daunting the first time I went, because at that point I hadn’t even sold a box yet. However, I’ve been back several times, and it’s been rewarding working with the fabric wholesalers, many of which are small businesses, as well,” she said. “It’s also helpful for me and my customers to know how the fabric is sourced, not only for quality purposes, but also sustainability.”
Among her challenges, the former freelancer said mastering the art of online brand promotion is the trickiest.
“The biggest thing I didn’t take into account was how much of a black hole the internet is. It is not a ‘If you build it, they will come’ thing,” Grabenstatter said. “You have to drive people to the website and bring people to your content, so it was a big learning curve.”
Instagram was a great place for her to start, because sewing is such a visual medium, she said. But what has really helped is the word-of-mouth advertising she receives when she visits sewing conferences across the country and parts of Canada, including Toronto.
In this golden age of sewing patterns, more people are going online for niche blog content on projects they can complete on their own. Grabenstatter mentioned that over the years, pop culture icons like Russell Crowe, whom she said reportedly knit on set while filming “Gladiator,” and shows like the UK’s “Great British Sewing Bee” have contributed to a knitting, embroidery stitching, and now, sewing craze.
“Sewing is really an up-and-coming thing,” she said.
The Center of Entrepreneurial Leadership program funded by Allstate at the University at Buffalo has also been helpful to the entrepreneur. The program structure consists of business classes that are offered to entrepreneurs every two weeks from September to May. Grabenstatter is in her fifth year in the program and will graduate next month.
“I’ve gotten a mentor out of it and a lot of support from the women-owned businesses in the area,” she said. “It’s been very nurturing.”
Her family is also tremendously supportive when it comes to her vision. They helped her with financing in the beginning so she could set sail.
“It’s entirely bootstraps,” the entrepreneur said of her business. “It’s a bit of a leap of faith, but I’m trying it.”