Chris Tock replies to every comment on his YouTube videos. Each morning at his home studio in the Dallas suburb of Carrollton, he wakes up, drinks two cups of coffee, and sits down to reply to comments. “Thank you for watching. Hope you’re doing terrific this week,” he writes, with a smiley face. It’s part of his practice of helping new crafters out, answering beginner sewing questions, and nurturing a community whose members take care of one another. His comment section is generally filled with sweet-tempered affirmations (a rarity on YouTube, where a common forewarning is “don’t read the comments”). On his Tock Custom channel, it’s not uncommon for viewers to write notes of profuse thanks: for inspiring them to buy their first sewing machines or create their first cosplay costume; for providing a calming and accessible pace at which to learn; and for speaking openly about mental health and personal struggles.
Tock, 37, started sewing seven years ago after a bad breakup. He says he’d considered the hobby earlier, but past partners discouraged him from trying, partly because he’s a man. He rejects this—“Do people actually care [about that]?”—but it’s true that he doesn’t conform to stereotypes about what sewers and crafters look like. Tall, with long brown hair, a bushy beard, and a deep voice, he’s been dubbed “Sewing Jesus” by some affectionate followers. “I look at this guy and just think, ‘Yes, I trust the long haired man,’” one comment reads.
Tock initially took up sewing so that he could make cosplay costumes to wear to Comic Con with friends, and he’s carved out a niche in that area. He also sews men’s clothing and messenger bags. When he was first learning the craft, it was “old, white ladies” who helped him, albeit with some bemusement, at his local Jo-Ann fabric store in Milwaukee, where he was living at the time. “I didn’t know what the hell I was doing,” he says. “I broke a hundred needles, and bought the wrong kind of fabrics and the wrong kind of thread.” But he wasn’t dissuaded. “Every time I failed, I learned something.”
Tock launched his YouTube channel in 2016, but the onset of COVID-19, and the attendant surge in interest in DIY projects, brought him a much bigger audience; his “How to use a sewing machine” video has more than one million views. Tock’s subscriber count doubled over one week in March 2020 alone, as thousands of quarantined Americans searched for sewing tutorials. The surge eventually subsided, in part because skyrocketing demand and reduced manufacturing meant sewing machines were out of stock for most of last year.
Tock, for his part, has always seen sewing as a part of his mental health. “This work, for me, is therapy, and it is for a lot of people,” he says. He bought his first sewing machine after almost ten years working as the IT director for a group of mental health clinics in Milwaukee focusing on drug and alcohol treatment and trauma recovery. A recovering alcoholic himself, Tock got sober when he was seventeen. “With my background in mental health, I love helping people, teaching people, and giving people hope when there is none,” he says. That calling felt especially urgent during the pandemic.
In another twist on convention, Tock came to sewing not out of a desire to make regular clothes, but through his love of cosplay. Cosplay, a portmanteau of “costume play,” is an activity in which participants wear costumes to represent a specific character from a video game, movie, anime or manga, or another work of pop culture. Especially popular in Japan, cosplay exploded in the U.S. throughout the 2010s. When one of Tock’s friends invited him to the 2014 Milwaukee Comic Con, he worked for two and a half months to build two meticulously detailed costumes: one for his friend, of the character Link from the game The Legend of Zelda, and one for himself, Ezio from Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood.
Many cosplayers draw from digital animations or games whose creators had never intended to actually produce the costumes; this makes creating them quite a challenge, but a rewarding one. “I wanted to start making clothes because it was an engineering thing to me,” Tock says. When I visited his studio, he showed me a 31-piece armor set he built with foam, incorporating cast resin and electronics like lights and microphones. He’s now at work on a series of books for C&T Publishing on the basics of thermoplastics, leatherworking, armor smithing, casting, sewing, molding, and photography. Many of his costuming projects go far beyond sewing and take months to finish, involving silicone, plastic, and motion-sensitive lights.
Despite the seemingly infinite well of hard work that competitive cosplayers put into their costumes, the market for materials has been slow to catch up. The Dallas-based TNT Cosplay Supply, where Tock also works as the marketing coordinator, was the first company in North America to start selling supplies specifically to cosplayers. They needed one material in particular: foam. “People used to just use random stuff, literally cardboard or yoga mats or floor mats to build armor,” Tock says. Still, big arts-and-crafts stores haven’t caught on. Longtime Hollywood prop and costume maker Ted Smith, known as Evil Ted to his YouTube followers, says he has argued with executives of the craft store megachain Michaels about whether cosplay materials are too niche. Yet the world of cosplay is booming—hundreds of thousands of Americans attend Comic Con and similar conventions each year.
Meanwhile, Tock hopes to foster community for both cosplayers and others who watch his videos. “It’s really important to me for everyone to feel safe and included,” he says, especially LGBTQ and nonwhite sewers. And while he exemplifies the obvious fact that men can sew too, he’s conscious that he’s been treated with more respect because he’s male, and that women are much more likely to face harassment on the Internet. “Female fashion is way harder, especially with costuming,” he adds. “I don’t know how to make a big cage bustle for a gown, and all the layers that go with it … and corset-making is a whole science in itself.” Nonetheless, he knows something a lot of people don’t. It seems like his viewers can feel it too. Making, and wearing, clothes might be an art—and a science—but Tock makes it feel like magic.