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SeamWorks Offers Small-Scale Manufacturing, Training and Community for Textile Artisans

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From left: Kaya Binti, Anjelica Carroll, Karen Freeman and Rebecca McDonald - OLIVER PARINI
  • Oliver Parini
  • From left: Kaya Binti, Anjelica Carroll, Karen Freeman and Rebecca McDonald

My mother was an excellent seamstress; she could tailor clothes to fit precisely and was adept at the thrifty practice of darning. Worn socks were not to be thrown out on her watch. I tried to learn the ways of needle and thread. But the third time I stitched two pieces of fabric together backward while attempting to make a skirt, I concluded that sewing was not my thing. To this day, even properly securing a button eludes me.

On a visit last week to SeamWorks in Burlington's South End, cofounder Rebecca McDonald assured me that I could "master the button." She was too diplomatic to call it remedial home ec. But SeamWorks does offer all kinds of training in the textile arts, from sewing basics to fabric printing and manufacturing, even using high-tech equipment such as laser cutters.

The business opened a few months ago in capacious quarters above Tomgirl. Like so many other enterprises in the postindustrial Soda Plant, this one exudes creativity — and industry. A phalanx of sewing machines, each with distinct stitching capabilities, lines the perimeter of the room. Large cutting tables, which are angular islands with strict measuring guides, occupy the center. Bins, shelves and tubes store fabrics, like chrysalises awaiting transformation.

This room offers possibilities but also a broad array of finished products: Clothing and soft goods, from pillows to faux taxidermy animal heads to macramé plant hangers — all handmade by local artisans — are on display and for sale.

Cofounder Karen Freeman leased the space, a former salsa studio with a nice hardwood floor, last November. By February, she and McDonald had set to work pursuing a dream.

The two women had "bumped into each other at multiple craft fairs" over several years, McDonald explained — including the Champlain Mini Maker Faire that Freeman was involved with at Shelburne Farms.

McDonald was selling her whimsical throw pillows — cut in the shape of animals, fruits and other subjects — through her business Drumming Beetle. Freeman, a longtime "sewist," as she calls the occupation, has always been interested in repurposing old materials. And she had amassed a formidable fleet of sewing machines.

"We just ended up talking about combining our efforts and doing it all in one place," McDonald summarized.

SeamWorks founders Rebecca McDonald and Karen Freeman - OLIVER PARINI
  • Oliver Parini
  • SeamWorks founders Rebecca McDonald and Karen Freeman

Freeman is a board member at Generator, Burlington's maker space, and for more than 30 years has been conservation director of the Vermont Housing & Conservation Board. The organization's motto — "Getting things done" — seems to be her MO, as well.

"Building community has always been in my background," Freeman said. "Making connections in the community, making things happen ... I've had this desire to support home sewing and bring back local manufacturing." She has loaned out her machines at maker fairs and for community endeavors, such as a sewing project with Somali Americans.

"This is very exciting," said Steve Conant, Soda Plant owner and landlord. "It's a great opportunity to develop more small-scale industry, and the South End is the place to do it."

Like Freeman, Conant is on the Generator board and has witnessed the previous sewing projects she has supported. "Karen is very, very capable," he said, noting that SeamWorks has the capacity to help individual textile artists grow their production.

Meantime, McDonald and two other sewists at the studio — Kaya Binti and Anjelica Carroll — are already fulfilling contract work for local soft goods manufacturers, including Skida and Select Design; McDonald is currently creating a large custom cushion for Barge Canal Market, an antique store on Pine Street.

During this week's South End Art Hop, SeamWorks is featuring fiber artists from Edie & Glo and van Reno Vermont. Freeman and McDonald envision continuing to host events and gatherings around sewing and related crafts. "I'm trying to encompass all fiber arts, working toward felting, crochet, yarn," McDonald said. "Some of the vendors work at home, but [SeamWorks] gives them a public presence."

In the bigger picture, the women aim to help fabric-based startups with workforce training and skills development and to connect them with potential capital.

"It's not just about the technical production but also about the people we'll be bringing together," Freeman emphasized. In addition to the sustainability ethos inherent in making, repairing and upcycling, she noted that SeamWorks is "very committed to access, diversity and inclusion."

Accessibility is one reason the nascent business is already seeking an additional, first-floor space in the South End; the other is that machines are hella heavy. An antique Singer made of iron, now parked in one corner of the studio, was no fun to carry up steep flights of stairs, McDonald said.

Navigating fabric, needle and thread is easier, she promised. Maybe even for the sewing averse. 

SeamWorks, 266 Pine Street, Soda Plant, in Burlington, seamworksvermont@gmail.com. Learn more on Instagram: @seamworksvt.

SeamWorks hosts textile artists from Edie & Glo and van Reno Vermont during the South End Art Hop, Friday September 10, through Sunday, September 12. seaba.com/arthop

The original print version of this article was headlined "Old Skills, New Tools"

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