Every Thursday, in a room on the first floor of Madison’s downtown Central Library, a group of avid sewing experts gather to help mend and repair clothing, handbags, and even dog collars.
It’s known as The Mending Project, an arm of the nonprofit organization called The Sewing Machine Project.
The mending project first began in 2015 as a one-off event hosted at the Madison Public Library Central location. The event was a hit, and the library quickly reached out asking them to become a regular fixture of the library. Local artist and member of the nonprofit group called The Sewing Machine Project Bird Ross approached the group asking to make it a permanent event. The Mending Project has been running ever since, eventually being able to expand to locations across Madison, though they currently only operate out of the Central Library due to COVID.
The mending project is open from 10AM to noon every Thursday, and can usually take on around five to seven people per day, depending on what the volunteers can handle. Ross, who has been running the project, says the mending is free and open to everyone.
“We served a lot of the homeless population in the first few years and it’s opened up so that everybody knows about it now. So if anyone is (curious), we want anybody and everybody to come,” Ross says.
The sewers can fix almost anything made of fabric.. Well, except zippers. Those require tools that are too specialized. But over the past seven years the mending project has fixed shirts and pants, pet leashes and harnesses, sleeping bags and backpacks. Lots of backpacks.
“I think it’s really interesting when people bring in their backpacks, because backpacks, especially for people that don’t necessarily have a place to keep their things, they’re really important. And their coats, really important because of all the pockets, it’s the way that they carry their things, with them and on them. So I have to say that you know, sometimes when backpacks… we’ve even offered to, we’ve said, ‘this backpack is really on his last leg. Can we offer you another one?’ For example, we might have one on hand, and they’ll say, ‘Well, no, really, I want to use this one,’” Ross says.
Ross says that one of her favorite things about the mending project is being entrusted with items that have underlying sentimental value.. She says that people will bring in old coats that belong to their mother, or the leash for their beloved dog, and that when they learn more about the item being mended, it shapes how they intend to fix them.
“Sometimes people have a really loved item of clothing that is literally on its last thread. And people will say, ‘can you mend it?’ Either we say we can try, or we say it’s beyond what we can do to make it last longer. And those conversations are delicate and really interesting and really, I feel like we learn a lot from being able to have the conversations with people over these personal items that they’re bringing to us, and they’re entrusting us to give it more life,” Ross says.
Sometimes, people bring in items that simply stump the menders. How does one go about fixing a beloved object that is almost beyond repair? Ross says that she loves to try and solve seemingly impossible problems.
“I think that’s one of the joys of doing it with a partner is because it’s like, what would you do? What would you do? Oh, you know and the light bulbs go off and sometimes the light bulbs get combined and that really works really great. I think that’s one of the reasons why I sew is I love the problem solving aspect of it. And I would say, I think it’s really safe to say that that’s why a lot of people come because they want to try to fix something that they didn’t know before what the situation was. And so, problem solving is a lot of what we do,” Ross says
The mending project is part of a larger effort here in Madison to spread the love of sewing across the world. It’s called the Sewing Machine Project, and it began in 2005 after a tsunami tore through several countries in southeast Asia After reading about a woman who had lost her sewing machine in the resulting floods, Margaret Jankowski founded the Sewing Machine Project, collecting sewing machines throughout Dane County to send to people affected by the tsunami.
As more disasters, both natural and man made, occurred throughout the world, the Sewing Machine Project began to take its form providing free sewing machines to people in need.
While they no longer try to attend to the needs of people worldwide, Jankowski says the project is still very active, both here in Madison and across the country.
“At this point, we work mainly locally and nationally. So here in town, we work in collaboration with community centers, and we offer sewing classes to the clients of the centers, and then we have the mending sites. And then nationally, we have an application process for machines and we ship machines all over the country to groups that are serving people in various situations where machines could be super helpful,” Jankowski says.
The sewing machines used in all of their programs are donated by people across the country, and are more often than not then donated to people in need through either their nationwide program or through their local classes.
The classes run for around six weeks, where members of local community centers are invited to learn how to sew. They spend the course creating something that can be used at the community center, such as a blanket. Then, at the end of the course, participants are able to take the sewing machine home with them, that they now know how to use.
These classes are not open to the public, and started out for Bhutanese immigrants who have settled here in Madison. Jankowski says that the class saw great success, and they are looking to start another class in Madison that will focus more on repurposing old clothing.
Because all of the sewing machines are donated to the project, and then given to people in need, Jankowski says that they have to be a little picky when it comes to what machines they will actually take. If they aren’t in perfect working condition, they say that they cannot use it, because they don’t want to give someone a machine that only lasts for a short while. Regardless, Jankowski says, things do happen, and the project is working on solutions for new sewers to help guide them in fixing small issues with their machine.
“Another thing that we’re really working on is we’ve recognized that with our local centers, sometimes people do receive these machines after six weeks, and then they take it home and they sew on it and something happens with the machine, either it might just be misthreaded or something might be a little wonky on it, and it’s not sewing right. We want to be a little bit more responsive to that. And so we’re developing a series of videos, one library of project videos and then another library of kind of simple maintenance videos and we want to offer that as a resource to our local clients, to our national clients and then to anybody who needs it,” Jankowski says.
I am an outdoorsman, which means that, inevitably, some items of clothing are going to be torn on a loose branch or thorn bush. I brought an old t-shirt with me to the Central Library in March to see if the menders could give my shirt a second chance at life.
The prognosis was worse than I thought, but I got to see the process of deciding how to fix something firsthand.
We brought the shirt over to the expert team of menders, and after much deliberation, they decided the shirt could in fact be saved. They went over a few options with me, from trying to find a piece of fabric that could patch the hole, or if it could simply be sewn shut. The team landed on sewing the hole with a zig-zag pattern to reinforce the fabric. Though the shirt was a touch tighter in the sleeves, an outcome that was run by me beforehand, the shirt was able to pull through and was given a second wind.
The menders told me sewing is a relaxing use of their time. As I watched them mend my shirt, the volunteers worked together to fix my shirt, troubleshoot any equipment issues, and escape from the world, even just for a short while. Jankowski says that this is what draws her to sewing.
“The news of the world feels pretty overwhelming, and it’s a little hard to know how you can make some sort of a difference. And this is a way to make a difference right in your own community. I feel like that’s important and I think it’s something that people need right now,” Jankowski says.
Ross says that the Sewing Machine Project, and by extension the Mending Project, is open to everyone.
“(We want people to) to realize that we would love to have anybody that’s curious about this initiative to come to the library and check us out and see what we’re doing. If anyone would like to volunteer to mend, we would love to have you. You can go on the website, and fill out the volunteer form (that) you want to mend and then we can send you all the info. And we certainly invite anybody to come and have a look to see what the mending is all about. We’d love to have more folks join us,” Ross says.
Starting next month, the Mending Project is expanding to Hawthorne library on East Washington Avenue. The mending will take place the second and fourth Wednesdays of every month from noon until 2PM. As of right now, the Hawthorn expansion is on a 3 month trial period, though Ross says that if the interest is there, they will certainly stay for longer.
You can find more information on the Sewing Machine Project on their website at thesewingmachineproject.org.
Photo courtesy: Nate Wegehaupt / WORT News Team