Meet the Neighbors! Patti Barnatt & the West Side Sewing Studio

How’s it going Yardies!? Over the next couple of months, we’re going to be sitting down with our neighbors to talk about their businesses, studios, practice and more! For the month of January, we walked across the hall to our closest neighbor Patti Barnatt who runs the West Side Sewing Studio… here’s the full scoop.

When you walk into the West Side Sewing Studio you’re first greeted by a warm, open, naturally lit space with yards of various fabrics, patterns, textures, and tools tucked neatly into every corner.  Patti stands in the middle of the room surrounded by rows of work tables and sewing machines. She’s on the phone wearing a comfortable and flattering yellow top and gray pants ( (that she made herself… Patti makes ALL of her own clothes.) She’s on the phone with a new student who’s clearly excited to take a class, she says, “Well, what would you like to learn?” THIS is an important detail for later, so keep reading. She finishes her call and we sit down and get right into business…

SY: Patti! How are you- let’s get started, WHERE are WE? What is the West Side Sewing Studio?

P: Well… We are in a room- I don’t know how many square feet, I’ve never measured… 600ish, one of these days I’ll measure. We are in a place of sewing instruction, a studio, fully equipped for the work of sewing. 

Patti goes on to point out each piece of furniture in shop that her son, who I learn is a RISD graduate from the Furniture Department, custom made for the business and how each piece was designed at the appropriate height as to not hurt your back while working (to her specifications, she points out, more than once.) 

P: …We have 6 sewing machines, purchased from Blaine Sewing Machine Center Inc in Cranston. (They’re good, only one repair needed in 6 years, highly recommended!). Sergers, and a cover stitch machine. Everything you’d need to work. 

Patti goes on to show off the ironing table (built to her specifications) fully equipped with space-age touch sensor iron technology. Then scoots over to proudly display an example of a cover stitch on a dress for her granddaughter that she’s been working on. 

SY: Looks like you’ve got everything you need here Patti! 

P: Yes, I think so… We can sew here in a way that doesn’t look, “homemade” in the negative sense. 

SY: What about high-end fashion stuff?

P: Yes, that too. We have all the equipment that you need to make things that look darn good. Whatever you want. 

SY: So… people who take your classes get to sew whatever they want?

P: I teach what people are interested in learning. I call it “individualized instruction.” A lot of other places, tell you WHAT you are going to learn… the first question I ask is, “What would you like to sew?”

SY: When did you come up with this structure of a student-led curriculum?

P: 1997…Franklin Mill Store [Franklin, MA], I was teaching 10 classes a week in the late 90’s. I was asked to come in and teach sewing. The person who taught before me at this place would one week teach how to do seam finishes, then the next week how to do zippers. It didn’t make sense to me cause you would have to find new people every session!  So I changed that format.  I approached it like, alright person, “what would you like to sew?”. That way, people could come back every week. 

SY: Do you provide general demonstrations to the class?

P: Back when I first started doing this in 97’ I started with demos.  I quickly learned that People want to learn something when they’re ready… if I do a demo on a zipper, and they don’t give a whoop about zippers at that moment, they’re not gonna learn it. It’s a waste a time. They wanna know how to put a zipper in when they’re ready.

SY: So you were hired to run the sewing program in Franklin?

P: Well no, I was contracted- it was their space, their machines, their setup- I brought people in and kept them coming… and they would take a percentage of the class fees. 

SY: In addition to teaching sewing- you’re also a great ceramicist, correct? You’ve also been teaching at the Steel Yard for many years… how’d you find the Yard?

P: I had been living in Franklin, teaching there and living in the woods. I hated it. It made sense tho for work. I hadn’t touched clay in years. At the end of 2007, I decided I wanted to get back into clay work,  I was stuck thinking, ”do I really wanna do this again?” So I took a class at the Worcester Center for Crafts. After that summer, I decided to do a session at the Penland School of Craft and blow my entire retirement fund. After I was like, “YES, yes, yes, I love this!” But when I got out of school didn’t have a place to work and I was like, “but now where am I going to do clay!?!” My son recommended the Steel Yard. I was like “what, what is that (haha), in Providence!?” He called and made an appointment with Dave Allyn… we walked around the space… there was no running water inside at the time and I was like, “I don’t think so.” (haha) But afterward I decided to come back and I took a class with Joan Wyand who now works at Nicholson File. She invited me to join as a CoOp member. (Before the Steel Yard had its residency program.)

SY: What kind of similarities/ differences between the sewing and ceramics. Does being a potter inform your sewing, does being your sewing inform your pottery?

P: Hmmm, well I can do both for five hours without stopping! (haha) Well, okay, one of the things… back in the ’70s, I was doing clay before I had children. I loved loved loved hand-building.   So then I had children… I would go into my cellar (I had a set up down there) while my child was napping to get some work done. But a baby wakes up and needs to be cared for.  Clay doesn’t wait for you in the same way that fabric does. Clay will dry out, fall over. It is much more tricky than fabric that way.  With fabric, I could take a break and take care of a crying child. Also, I could work at the kitchen table instead of the cellar. I could be where my kids were and still work. Sewing as a creative outlet worked for me!  

SY: So how did you get from teaching classes in Franklin, MA to running your own sewing studio in Providence, RI?!

P: At this point, I was still working and living in Franklin and spent two years commuting to the Steel Yard. I decided it was time to move to Providence…but still work in Franklin. It was clear tho something needed to change and I started looking for my OWN space for sewing. One day I was working in the clay studio and a fellow CoOp member, Nidal, mentioned there was space for rent out of the main office building. I took off my apron, walked right in, knocked on the Executive Director’s door and said I was interested. I started renting this space from the Steel Yard in 2012. 

SY: That’s awesome… 

P: -Mind you I had nothing to put in this room. Nothing! But I committed to the place and began talking to Blaine’s about machines and then my son & I went to Ikea… to start outfitting the place, tables, lights….

Patti gestures to the tables and lights and machines in the back.

SY: WAIT, those are the same lights?!

P: Yep, 6 years later! What I didn’t tell you is, at this time my mother was dying. She had a tumor on her liver… she lived a week and a half after she found this information out. I was driving to the Cape, teaching in Franklin, AND setting up my studio. It was some month. 

SY: So tell me Patti….WHAT happened to make you decided to do this by yourself. Deciding to run your own sewing business?

P: Well… I knew I wasn’t tired. I liked doing it and i knew I was good at this. I knew this. I had the evidence and a good record. I wasn’t bored yet and I was still having fun. Which is key for me… The other thing is I needed to earn my living. I was not in a position to retire…I needed to work. So I was like, do I want a boss? And I was like, no, I don’t think so… but then I was like do I NEED a boss… NOPE. So I said, let’s do it… for this??? I don’t need a boss.  

SY: And you did! Had you ever run a business before West Side Sewing Studio?

P: No. But I’d done a lot of freelance work, contracting and like…  custom dresses, costumed Providence Newspaper Guild Follies for 20 years… The issue was “How the heck was I gonna pay for all this?!”  I had no idea, but I did it anyway. I never really had a backup plan… but then I never really need one. You figure it out. It figured itself out. But business is up and down, and I don’t make the same every month. 

SY: I promise, I’m not about to audit you. 

P: Can I tell you what online banking has done for my business? Do you know what we had to do in the middle ages!? (haha) You had to pull out a pen and paper… or like go to the bank and ask for your balance. Otherwise, you had no clue what you had. ”

We then proceeded to gush about the modern conveniences of cell phone technology- card swipers, mobile deposit, money transferring apps. 

SY: So Patti… Tell me, do you identify as a Yardie? 

P: Yes, I do. The Steel Yard was my community from the time I started here in ’08.  I found people, who like me, have a need to make things. Developing and nurturing that community relationship is important. I was at a meeting just the other day, not Steel Yard related, and I actually introduced myself as a Yardie (haha) among other things… so like yeah,  I’m part of this place. 

SY: So what’s makes a Yardie to you? Is it the cool social stuff?

P: No (haha) I think of the Yard as community, events, teaching, instruction… and when I say community I am thinking really large!  I realized it was something I really wanted. I found my people… ya know you’re always looking around trying to find them. [At the Steel Yard] people are making. It’s who I am… it’s who they are… there’s your community. The word Yardie has to do with involvement… volunteering is a huge thing for that. Like when I get a job [at an event]… you have to really love a place to take out the trash. There it is… you care, and you’re doing something in it. You’re physically involved with space. Part of being a Yardie involves work.

SY: You’re an instructor, a past Resident & CoOp member,  a volunteer, a neighbor… and… 

P: AND a Tenant. If my toilet breaks! You all will fix it… we have a relationship (haha).

SY: How do you think being an Instructor has impacted you as an artist/maker?

P: I’m always learning things from students in many ways in many levels… sometimes when people make a jacket or coat… I think- why haven’t I done something like that yet! 

SY: So, Patti as we wrap up- what’s the THING you want to say. What you wish everyone knew…

P: About this is a place? Hmmmm what do I say to people who ask if they can come in and learn…? I always say… “you are very welcome… we’d love to have you.” We create a community here too, I see that in my returning students. If you have any interest in a class, and interest in sewing… I’d like to teach you… .Also, I always say… Satisfaction high, low frustration…. because then you’re going to learn easier. Sewing is a skill… and you have to build a skill. But you don’t walk in thinking you’re gonna make the prom dress the first day! You build on it…. The first thing you do when you sit down at a machine the first time… is the same thing you’re gonna be doing when you sit down 80 years from now at a sewing machine. 

SY: Wonderful- thank you so much, Patti, seriously. 

P: Thank you! Now come on back and we’ll make those crop tops in all of these colors I have that you want. You’ll have one of each.

SY: You got it! 

To learn more about Patti & the West Side Sewing Studio be sure to contact her below!

Patti Barnatt
West Side Sewing Studio
27 Sims Ave. 1st floor left
Providence, RI 02909

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