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October 2008
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Sewing Up Life’s Little Memories

Bruce Howser, who owns the Extra Touch in South Tampa, makes personalized pillows and other items using vintage fabrics from things like old quilts, children’s clothes, handkerchiefs and ties. The pillows tossed around Bruce Howser’s tiny, luxurious sewing workshop are meant to commemorate life’s little moments. Stylishly.

An embroidered heirloom hankie meets a bejeweled brooch on up-to-the-minute pillow edged in funky trim. Neckties, baby dresses, needlepoint — even sentimental T-shirts — find their way into pillow form in Howser’s store.

“Everyone has something like that tucked away somewhere,” says Howser, who sews everything from drapes to shower curtains to bedspreads in the 500-square-foot shop, The Extra Touch, at 3645 Manhattan Ave. S in Tampa. “One client even brought in tea towels that had belonged to her mother who passed away. So we made pillows out of them. That way, they’ll last a lifetime.”

The space offers plenty of room for Howser’s sewing machine, cutting table as well as artful displays of his handiwork among a chic collection of antique chairs, tables, benches, lamps — all for sale.

“I wanted it to feel like an extension of my living room,” explains Howser, 42, who hung a glamorous chandelier and swirl of sheer white chiffon fabric from the ceiling to add interest to the workshop.

A black-and-white toile roll-up “stagecoach” shade takes the edge off a wall-size mirror that came with the space. Black toile chair seats and matching striped chair skirts complete the look.

Using his first sewing machine — a $400 Kenmore — Howser turns out custom window treatments, bedding, cushions and other one-of-a-kind items for the home. “It all has to do with needle size and tension,” he says of his ability to work with heavy fabric.

He will even resize custom bedding and drapery sets for customers who are moving.

“Custom bedding and drapes can cost as much as $10,000, so it’s worth it for people to take them with them to a new home,” he says.

Howser’s workshop is unusual because it caters to the public rather than just interior designers. A talented decorator himself, Howser also offers a “room enhancing” service, helping clients arrange furniture and accessories.

“A lot of people have great things that are just in the wrong place and they don’t see it,” says Howser, who jokingly calls himself “a decorator who does his own sewing work.”

No project is too big or small. His custom pillows range from $40 to $80 for customers who bring in their own fabrics, trim and heirlooms they want incorporated into the pillow. He can work in just about anything from an antique linen handkerchief to a cameo to a baby’s sun hat.

“Children’s clothes are quickly outgrown and often end up in a box in the attic,” he says.

Largely self taught, Howser, who grew up in Ithaca, N.Y., learned to sew draperies from his mother. He spent 10 years working in customer service (eventually working his way up to human resources director) for a company in Largo, all the while taking on sewing projects at night for friends.

“I really felt strongly that this (sewing and decorating) was my calling in life. It made me happy and came so easily. I felt God had given me a gift.”

Howser left the corporate world to venture out on his own. He first sold his goods at Savannah’s in Carrollwood, and then opened his own shop in South Tampa — operating out of shops first on Howard and MacDill Avenues. He eventually landed at his current location, a small shopping plaza along Manhattan anchored by McNatt’s Cleaners.

Customers bring in their own fabrics for recycling into pillows or other objects. One woman brought a threadbare, antique quilt and Howser transformed it into beautiful pillows. He will also shop with clients who need help picking out fabric for drapes, shades or bedspreads.

Says Howser: “I’ll do as much or as little as a client wants.”

For more information on The Extra Touch, call 813-839-8407, or you can read more of Howser’s story in The St. Petersburg Times.

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Author, Instructor & Pattern Designer

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