By the time General Hospital star Rebecca Herbst realized she had nothing to wear to the L.A. premiere of The Mask of Zorro in July, the gala was just 24 hours away. But she didn't worry, she got to work. "I just made a straight black tube dress with two slits up the side," says the actress, who plays scheming-teen-turned-rape-victim Elizabeth Webber. "I did it in 45 minutes. I was pretty happy."
Though only 21, Herbst has plenty of experience behind a bobbin. A former amateur ice skater, she used to watch closely as her mother, Debbie, stitched up her costumes for competitions. "I used all the extra scraps to make clothes for my Cabbage Patch dolls," she recalls. "It always came pretty naturally to me."
These days, Herbst, working on a computerized Quantum Singer machine she got as a high school graduation present in 1995, channels her energies into special-occasion garments. She made her mauve chiffon gown for the Daytime Emmys in May and her stretch velvet tube dress for the Soap Opera Digest Awards in February. "I don't just make a pair of pants or something," she says with a laugh.
Herbst, who lives in Agoura Hills, Calif., has also created a blanket and romper for the baby daughter of GH costar Sarah Brown. "What I really hope is that one day people will be wearing Rebecca Herbst clothes," she says. "I've always had a designing bug in me."
The handmade look didn't always work for Loretta Sanchez. "In junior high, everyone was wearing bell-bottom jeans, and I had these bright-pink polyester pants, high-waisted, with a zipper up the back," recalls the 38-year-old Democratic congresswoman from Orange County, Calif. "People would say, 'God, can't you afford real clothes?' "
But nobody's criticizing her now. Having abandoned that pink polyester for rich fabrics like satin and raw silk, Sanchez wins praise for her home-stitched designs, which include everything from the bedspread in her Washington, D.C., apartment, to evening gowns she wore to various Clinton Inaugural galas in 1997. She also tinkers with store-bought outfits, adding buttons or sewing up a new skirt for a suit, "so when you see it on someone else, you don't know it's the same suit," she says. At times, Sanchez, a former financial analyst wed to securities trader Stephen Brixey III, even muses about a postcongressional career as a designer. "In government, where it takes years to see the end product, sewing is great because you see it like that," she says, snapping her fingers. "It's instant gratification."
It isn't frugality that keeps former Baywatch star Traci Bingham bound to her basting thread. It's a desire to be different. "I like to do things that people don't have," says Bingham, 30. "Things that grab attention, so you walk into a room and people say, 'Oh my God, like, where did she get that?' " Hence the black velvet bedspread in her Studio City, Calif., condo and the suede bathing suit she's currently working on (with designer/friend Anastasia Stevenson) for a 1999 calendar. "I'm dying to sew rubber, because I love rubber dresses," says Bingham, who estimates that 55 percent of her wardrobe is custom-made.
Aesthetics aside, the custom look is also practical for Bingham, who has trouble making off-the-rack garments work on her curvy (32D-21-32) frame. "My measurements are very strange," says the actress, who recently wed rock musician Robb Vallier, 28. "Nothing fits; So to have the knowledge of sewing is power."
No fancy electronic machines for Erykah Badu. The hot R&B singer prefers to create her trademark African-style head and body wraps with an old-fashioned needle and thread—and lots of imagination. "I'm much better at hand stitching," says Badu, 27. "I never became a really good sewer, but I can work wonders with a piece of fabric just from experimenting, playing around and being creative."
Badu began sewing as a child, making clothes for her dolls and teddy bears ("anything I could dress like a baby," she recalls). But it was when she was starting out as a singer in her hometown of Dallas that her creativity really came in handy. "I couldn't afford a lot of the different styles I saw in stores, but I could spend $10 or $15 on three yards of fabric, throw it together and have myself a fly little outfit," she says. She also scoured thrift stores for styles she could remake and embellish—"recycling," she calls it—with embroidery, beads and appliqués.
Lately, Badu directs much of her effort toward outfits for her 10-month-old son, Seven, for whom she has tie-dyed, painted and patched jeans, T-shirts and even diapers. "I'm just being an artist," she says. "Everything is an art to me, the clothes I make, how I choose to wear them, how I wrap my head. I close my eyes, and it comes out art."