The Sewing Cafe in Joliet stitches together sense of community

Patrons gather to sew, relax and have a good time

Brenda Wood ,owner of The Sewing Cafe, talks about how she came up with the idea of her business on Thursday, Jan. 25th, 2024 in Joliet.

The Sewing Cafe overlooks a picturesque part of downtown Joliet where patrons can view the city streetscape as they practice a craft that could become a lost art if not for people like Brenda Wood.

“I’ve been a seamstress for over 30 years,” Wood said, showing the former office space that she, her husband and a contractor converted into The Sewing Cafe.

A few women in the shop practiced the craft as Wood discussed the business that she dreamt of opening before doing so in September.

“It’s a name that came to me about 20 years ago,” she said of “The Sewing Cafe.”

She remembers sharing the name and her vision with her husband, Michael, during one of their regular exercise walks.

“I told him what my dream was,” Wood said. “I told him I wanted to have a place where people could have coffee and relax.”

And sew, of course.

Diedra Hills, one of the ‘Sewing Sistas’, shows off a quilt they made at The Sewing Cafe on Thursday, Jan. 25th, 2024 in Joliet.

Wood teaches sewing, which she already has done for years at her church, Prayer Tower Ministries Church of God in Christ in Joliet. She provides basic machines for women just learning to sew and advanced machines for those who want to develop their craft.

The Sewing Cafe also has a coffee machine, although not yet the coffee bar that Wood originally envisioned.

But it’s a cafe in other ways for the patrons who gather there.

“I like it,” Linda Martin of Joliet said as she took a break from sewing a quilt cover. “Plus, it’s calming. It’s very relaxing. We have a good time.”

It’s a communal place, and sewing there is different than sewing at home, Martin said.

‘Sewing Sistas’ Diedra Hills and Linda Martin work on a projects at The Sewing Cafe on Thursday, Jan. 25th, 2024 in Joliet.

“Sewing at home is when I want to get away from my husband when he’s watching sports,” Martin said. “It’s quiet time. Here, I’m with the ladies.”

The Sewing Cafe is not for women only, although that’s who has come so far. Wood said she’s taught men to sew, too, but her pupils typically are women.

Making the craft accessible

Even among women, however, sewing is not what it used to be.

Wood, Martin and others at The Sewing Cafe talked about how learning to sew was mandatory for girls when they went to high school.

It’s not anymore, which may make learning the craft more special – but also more intimidating.

“Everybody’s so afraid,” Wood said, noting that many find sewing to be a daunting proposition.

Baby blankets and quilts hang at The Sewing Cafe on Thursday, Jan. 25th, 2024 in Joliet.

It’s not unusual, Wood said, for a woman to get a sewing machine for a gift and be afraid to get started with it. One prospective customer confided that she was wary of even taking the machine out of the box.

“I said, ‘Get in here. Let’s go,’” Wood said. “I make it fun. By the time they leave, their confidence level is off the charts. They’ll say, ‘I never knew it could be fun.’”

Wood has confidence to share. She and husband already have been in the business of remodeling homes for years. When they came upon what was a cramped space consisting of multiple offices in the Crystal Building at 81 N. Chicago St., they knew what could be done to open it.

The Sewing Cafe now occupies spacious quarters that have been renovated and offers a view onto Chicago Street from large windows that make the city streetscape seem like part of the decor.

“It’s nice. It’s open,” said Terri Coleman, another patron from Joliet. “If I sew at home, I’m in a little room.”

The Sewing Cafe specializes a variety of sewing products, from personalized bags and appearal to quilts.

In addition to having an open place to gather, patrons benefit from the depth of Wood’s experience and the machinery she’s collected in her three decades of working as a seamstress from home.

The main room of The Sewing Cafe contains two rows of basic sewing machines. Another row of sergers can be used for advanced stitching. There is a separate cutting room with irons, and Wood has a long-arm quilting machine that can be used for putting designs into quilts.

Wood’s own experience includes making clothes, drapes and quilts. She does custom embroidery and custom T-Shirts. She also does upholstery.

Even with her experience, Wood recognized that she needed help starting her own business.

She went to the Joliet Junior College Entrepreneur and Business Center, which provided early assistance in developing a business plan and continues to provide help with marketing.

The Joliet City Center Partnership showed her sites downtown and eventually guided her to the location she selected. The CCP also provided a grant for renovating the space.

“I love the area,” Wood said of her location, noting that the new city square is expected to be built next to the Crystal Building, and Chicago Street will be redesigned. “It’s going to be amazing. I want to be a part of it.”