Photo and story by Angela Reid, Story Writer Volunteer
If Stitch Kitchen was a garment, its dominant threads would be volunteering, community and creativity. Its fabric would be sustainability. The pattern guiding it? A local solution to a global problem.
On one level, Stitch Kitchen is a place where people who enjoy the solitary activity of sewing or textile craft can find a sense of community. But it’s not just a creative interest being shared here, and you don’t even need to know how to sew to be welcomed through its doors. People who come here are doing their bit to care for our ailing environment.
“We started considering the textile waste that was happening, and how can we get more people to reduce the amount of waste that’s going to landfill,” says co-founder Fiona Jenkin. “And just how to also stop seeing stuff as disposable and temporary, getting people to understand the value of fabric and the value of the labour that goes into making the fabric and making garments and making products.
“And then it’s kind of all expanded from there into teaching — teaching mending, teaching sewing, teaching people how to make their own things. And then that gives people an understanding of how it’s made and then they value and are willing to repair, when they understand that it takes that long to make something.”
Fiona is sitting in the large room at the back of Stitch Kitchen’s open-plan community studio at 474 Princes St, Dunedin. To her left, a wall of labelled boxes contain donated materials, part of the Makers Pantry which is curated by volunteers. The pantry is a treasure trove of over 3000kgs of preloved fabrics, trims, buttons, patterns etc. which can be browsed and exchanged for materials, time (‘time banking’) or cash.
In the front room a squad of masked volunteers are beavering away, measuring, cutting, making pom-poms. A woman sitting on a couch near the entrance is working on a penguin weighbag, her small white dog on its best behaviour beside her. Background music accompanies them. There are bouts of laughter, the odd exclamation. This is a place of community and sharing.
Fiona started the project with fellow fashion entrepreneur Fiona Clements in 2015, when they established the Just Atelier Trust. (‘Just’ as in ‘justice’ and ‘Atelier’ meaning “a workshop where multiple levels all come together to learn and to teach and to grow and to share resources”, Fiona says.)
The pair were concerned about social and environmental waste in the fashion industry. Their vision was to help tackle this global problem at a local level, with an initative focused on creative and sustainable textile practices and building community.
Their project has three goals: to minimise waste by re-using material; to develop community through colloboration and creating projects that meet community needs; and to promote creative learning through skill-sharing, via workshops and classes that provide life skills and opportunities for self expression. Volunteers may be drawn to any or all three of these elements, Fiona says.
When Just Atelier became a charitable trust in 2020, the two Fionas renamed their project.
“We spent a while thinking about ‘what’s a name that is memorable and easy to say and conveys that idea of coming together and sharing and stuff?’,” Fiona says. “And just one day thought Stitch Kitchen! The kitchen is like the heart of the home and people from the whole community come and, like, potluck lunches or cooking together and sharing ingredients and all that kind of thing. Yeah, that’s what we’re about. So it’s really that sort of shared kitchen table idea.”
The project combines community with creative problem-solving, two things that are vital if humanity is going to solve bigger problems, Fiona says.
Many people care about environmental issues but feel overwhelmed or powerless, that they can’t make a difference or the problem is too great. Often people want to help but don’t know where to start. Joining forces with Stitch Kitchen is a way to be part of a solution.
On an individual level, contributing to the solution can be as simple as mending your own jeans instead of buying another pair. And for those who don’t know one end of a needle from another, Stitch Kitchen classes can put them on track.
“It’s nice to present easy solutions where people can start making little changes or be involved in little changes,” Fiona says. “And that kind of helps you feel a little bit more like the world is a manageable place to be in. Without having to carry that huge kind of burden of all these problems, you can just be a part of a little solution.”
Some volunteers really care about Stitch Kitchen’s vision and values, says Fiona, who adds that the organisation couldn’t get by without volunteer support.
“It’s neat that we have some volunteers who come who’ve not had any sewing experience whatsoever, they just love the idea of what we’re doing in terms of reducing waste and having some of those life skills to be able to be independent and resilient in themselves. And then they’ll pick up skills as we go.
“So it’s really nice to identify what volunteers want to learn or want to experience, and just try to fit them in or develop new opportunties for them and help them with those goals.”
Volunteer numbers fluctuate but Fiona estimates about 20 people volunteer regularly. Volunteers hold a wide range of roles, depending on their skills and interests. Some have been involved for years, others stay only briefly before moving on.
“Everyone comes and contributes what they can, and we value that.”
Volunteers can make something for any of Stitch Kitchen’s various projects — there’s always something on the go. These projects support the likes of Cat Rescue Dunedin, Women’s Refuge, the Wildlife Hospital and Foster Hope. The 4KT Elephants project involves upcycling unwanted clothes to create soft-toy elephants which can be kept or donated to local charity Tedz4Kidz.
“It’s very important that we’re not telling volunteers ‘we must do this’. It’s got to be a project they care about, what they want to do,” Fiona says.
“So we’re always open to ideas and suggestions from our volunteers as to what projects we take on next, which is how the Blankets and Beanies project [for babies in the Dunedin Neonatal Intensive Care Unit] got started.”
Stitch Kitchen’s always keen for more volunteers to help with such projects, and to get involved with sewing bees, sorting donated materials, and providing administrative support. While the Stitch Kitchen team’s happy to teach people how to sew, volunteers who already have sewing experience are particularly valuable — as well as being able to “dive straight in”, their understanding of different fabrics is useful in organising the donated stock and coming up with ideas for their use.
Fiona thinks the multi-faceted nature of activities and opportunities offered by Stitch Kitchen may have been a factor in winning the Heritage and Environment section of the 2021 Dunedin Volunteer Awards. Their community-focused vision, values, and drive to tackle an environmental issue may also have contributed, she says.
Winning the award was “amazing”, although it came as a surprise to Fiona. She says the award serves as validation and a standard that can instil confidence in others when it comes to funding requests and collaboration, showing that Stitch Kitchen can be trusted and is already valued.
“It means a lot to have that support and that acknowledgment, that people from outside the organisation can see the value in it and can see our heart and… that we’re actually meeting our goals in terms of providing a really good service for our volunteers and for our community.”
Fiona also hopes Stitch Kitchen’s volunteers feel their work is being seen and appreciated, and that that encourages them to want to continue their involvement with the organisation.
Being able to come together with others and see what other people are doing makes the Stitch Kitchen experience fun and motivating, Fiona says.
Volunteers represent a cross-section of society, and classes and workshops also bring people together. Classes include Sewing for Beginners, the Kids Sewing Club, Mend and Make Awesome, Pattern Making and Freestyle. Private lessons are also available. While there is a charge for these, the flexible “time credit” system means volunteers can receive scholarships for classes or swap time for discounted fabrics, for example.
Fiona’s also keen to hear from anyone qualified who’d like to run a class themselves.
“I really love that it’s [classes] all ages and all backgrounds. We really are reaching a wide range of people and it’s neat to see people learning about each other and different backgrounds, and developing relationships, like intergenerational and intercultural, all those sorts of things.
“And it’s very easy, like, when you come here it’s not like sort of going to a meet-and-greet kind of pressure situation socially, you’re all coming just to work and then, as you’re busy, naturally conversations start and it’s very easy.”
Volunteers have literally left their mark at Stitch Kitchen. When the project outgrew its original premises and moved to its current site in July 2020, volunteers sprang into action, picking up paintbrushes and the like to help liven up what had been a long-vacant, dark and tired space.
The trust sourced second-hand furniture from the university, and fixtures and fittings from a rummage store. Old ironing boards were painted and reborn as pegboards.
“Pretty much everything in here has been repurposed”, Fiona says.
Some heart-shaped bunting made years ago by a past volunteer is a link to the previous site and a symbol of the organisation’s significant relationship with volunteers.
“So it’s nice having some of those touches of things that really special volunteers have contributed to making up the long-term elements of who we are and what we do, and things that other people can appreciate.”
Fiona invites anyone interested in getting involved with Stitch Kitchen to come in for a chat at their studio, 474 Princes St. They’re open Wednesday-Saturday 12-4pm or by appointment.
Their current volunteer role listings can be found here.