Who made your clothes?
With 98% of our clothing made overseas, most of the time, the answer is “I don’t know.” But for a growing group of tweens and teens (and their parents!) in Nelson, B.C., the answer is, “I did!”
They’re the clients and students of the Nelson Stitch Lab, a retail space and sewing studio with a mission to bring sewing skills — and community — to the residents of Nelson, a town of about 10,000 in B.C.’s southern interior.
Owners Deborah Achleitner and Sarah Albertson (who met when Sarah took a pattern-drafting class from Deborah) joined forces about five years ago to create the space, which had an earlier incarnation in Deborah’s home: there she ran an after-school program teaching kids how to sew. She relied almost exclusively on fabric donated by community members, which her students upcycled into fantastical creations.
“Fabric is addictive, so you get sewers who have been collecting for 25 years. And maybe they pass away, or maybe they realize that they’re never going to be able to sew through their stash, and so they donate some (or all) of it. Which makes the program less expensive for everyone.”
Deborah and Sarah combined the studio concept with a retail space, providing more programming and courses for their community.
Today, the Nelson Stitch Lab — now situated in the city’s downtown — buzzes with creative activity, from the kids taking after-school sewing programs and weekend lessons, to the individual clients who come in for guidance on how to cut and sew drapes or a skirt. Folks drop off garments to be altered or repaired (or to learn how to do it themselves at one of the studio’s many workshops). There’s a great selection of fabric (much of it sustainably produced) as well as patterns, with a focus on independent (and often Canadian) designers, and accessories and books — like Elizabeth L. Cline’s Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion.
The studio hosts sewing birthday parties, and rents machines (and the owners’ expertise) by the hour for sewers who want to work on a project with some company and guidance. They even teach people how to use their sewing machines — often, explains Deborah, people inherit machines and have no idea what to do with them; so the studio can make any necessary repairs and get someone stitching on their grandmother’s vintage Singer or Bernini. The store also has a big online presence, with an active Instagram page where followers and customers post pictures of what they’ve made.
“We call it a public sewing studio,” says Sarah, 49, and a mom to two daughters: Hannah is 17 and Chloe, 13. “We’re trying to create a community space, where people feel free to come in and sew and talk about their projects, and get advice not only from us but from each other, from elders in the community.”
Recently, for example, the Stitch Lab hosted a workshop on punch hooking — a traditional rug making technique that’s making a comeback. “We had eight people in the back, learning how to punch-hook from fibre artist Sara Judith, who has practiced the skill for decades.” Upcoming workshops include both simple and more advanced projects: from making a cosmetic or tote bag to a set of elegant pyjamas – even a jacket.
The studio still relies on donated fabric, especially for its beginner and kid sewers, who are free to practice on bins of scrap material, which often makes its way into finished projects. The kids (and the adults) are super-proud of their creations. “One of our first projects for beginner sewers is a drawstring backpack because they incorporate a lot of different skills. I see those backpacks all over town,” says Deborah. She recalls one little girl who was so proud of her handcrafted stuffed pig that she carried it around town for a solid week, “just waiting for somebody to ask, ‘Did you make that yourself?’”
And that’s the primary motivation behind the Stitch Lab, says Deborah, who learned to sew from her mom: “getting people to experience the joy of making, of understanding and enjoying the journey and the time it takes to create something beautiful.”
Giving people sewing skills, she says, gives them a certain sense of independence and control. “It eases the guilt that can arise when you throw something away rather than repair it, or of having a closet full of clothes that don’t fit right because they need to be altered.”
It also builds connections — from coaxing kids out from behind their screens into a creative practice to bringing together newer and veteran sewers to share ideas and talk shop. Whether their students are making a simple tote bag or T-shirt, or a complicated garment, the women behind Nelson’s Stitch understand what they’re ultimately creating is a stronger and more sustainable community.
SUSAN GOLDBERG is a regular contributor to the Whole Family Happiness Project, where she is thrilled to eco-geek out on composting, reducing plastics, and other low-carbon life hacks. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Ms., Toronto Life, Lilith, Today’s Parent, Full Grown People, and Stealing Time magazines, and several anthologies, including Chasing Rainbows: Exploring Gender-Fluid Parenting Practices. She is a regular contributor to several websites, including CBC Parents, and co-editor of the award-winning anthology And Baby Makes More: Known Donors, Queer Parents, and Our Unexpected Families. Susan is based in Thunder Bay, Ontario, where she can often be seen picking up cans to recycle on her neighbourhood walks.
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