Sewing Labs hosts fabric grab fundraiser

Sewing Labs fundraiser in Columbus Park KC at Don Bosco community center - Fabric Sale
Photos by Abby Hoover

By Abby Hoover

Neighbors, crafters and sewers sifted through free fabric scraps, used sewing machines, unfinished quilts, and other supplies sorted on folding tables in the parking lot of Don Bosco Community Center at 526 Campbell St., home of The Sewing Labs, on Saturday, March 26.

The bi-annual Fabric Grab, which happens every third Saturday of March and September from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., is both a fundraiser for the nonprofit and an opportunity to clean house.

The Sewing Labs is an inclusive and welcoming community teaching the legacy of sewing for employment, entrepreneurship, and enrichment. In 2016, The Sewing Labs, was officially formed as a 501(c)3 with the mission to inspire hope in populations of women marginalized by generational poverty, addiction, incarceration, immigration or other life-challenges, through job skills training in the creative sewing arts, and networking.

“We get donations all the time – in kind donations of fabric, notions, patterns, sewing machines – and we try to put those all to work in our classrooms,” Executive Director Eileen Bobowsi said. “And what is excess, we bring out here and then the funds that are raised here come back.”

However, fabric scraps from their projects are given away for free – and you’d better get there early.

Sewing Labs fundraiser in Columbus Park KC at Don Bosco community center - Fabric Sale

“This whole row here is all free,” Bobowski said, gesturing to a row of folding tables. “And then everything else is by the pound or it’s marked, and then we’ve got all kinds of sewing machines. We try to re-gift those machines to the students in our program so that they can work on their craft from home, do homework and that kind of stuff and have a machine right there.”

She tells students they need a good 1,000 hours to really master a skill.

“There’s plenty of classroom hours, but we like to encourage people to sew as homework,” Bobowski said.

On Fridays, The Sewing Labs host Open Sew between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.

Anyone is welcome to come into their space in the basement of the recently renovated Don Bosco Community Center and sew on the domestic machines “if they know how to sew a straight line,” but they have volunteers who are around to help.

“Communities are a huge part of our mission, and this amazing community gets built at events like this and it’s been so great,” Bobowski said.

At the spring Fabric Grab on Saturday, there were people lining up before 8:30 a.m.

Sewing Labs fundraiser in Columbus Park KC at Don Bosco community center - Fabric Sale

“The line for paying keeps coming along and then shrinking and getting long and then shrinking,” Bobowski said. “That’s been a really good turnout and we’ll do this till two o’clock, then we will pick up.”

The Sewing Labs was fortunate to have amazing volunteers help with the event, Bobowski said.

“We set it all up on Friday night after 3 p.m., and we’re grateful to Don Bosco for letting us do that,” Bobowski said. “We’ve worked with Rockhurst students to get tables and heavy stuff outside, and then there’s a bunch of Rochurst students who are going to come back this afternoon and help us carry whatever’s leftover back inside. And then we also if there’s certain leftovers that didn’t move, we do have some that we line up on the wall and I posted to Facebook marketplace for free.”

All day, Bobowski and the volunteers checking people out encountered friends from the neighborhood, and travelers from ZIP codes they didn’t recognize.

Although this soft fundraiser brings many new faces to their facility, The Sewing Labs is preparing for its major annual fundraiser in June.

Make’n HERstory, the two part fundraiser, will bring in Jenny Doan from the Missouri Star Quilt Company as the keynote speaker for a June 4 conference at the Winnetonka High School Auditorium from 9 – 5 p.m. A week later on June 10, they’ll host a gala in the Crossroads from 6:30 – 9:30 p.m. for the donors that keep their operation successful.

“We are so grateful, we used to operate in the back of We’ve Got You Covered, the for profit business we grew out of,” Bobowski said.

Sewing Labs fundraiser in Columbus Park KC at Don Bosco community center - Fabric Sale

In the mid 2000s, there were two women who lost everything, homes, businesses, and one was ready to move into a shelter with her two children.

“Instead, they dug out their high school sewing machines – women our age, my age, would get a sewing machine as a graduation gift if you were lucky – they dug out their high school sewing machines and they started making pillows for Nell Hills.”

Soon enough, Nell Hills came back and asked if they could make 200 pillows a week, and they jumped at the opportunity.

“It’s just these two women entrepreneurs in their basement sewing,” Bobowski said. “Well, about the same time Sister Berta at Operation Breakthrough started with the 100 Jobs for 100 Women program and she said, ‘who will hire a woman?’ Kelly, one of our founders, was like, ‘I will! We have 200 pillows a week.’”

They focused on the Troost Corridor and hired women who were dealing with generational poverty, substance abuse and recovery, those who were formerly incarcerated, immigrants, refugees, and veterans dealing with PTSD.

“They built a very successful soft goods furnishing company called Weave Gotcha Covered, located over on 27th and Tracy,” Bobowski said. “Then they brought in a third person who had over 40 years of retail sewing experience. She worked at So-Fro, and Hancock, Singer, and she had her own indie pattern company. These three woman said, ‘We should be teaching people to be entrepreneurs.’”

In 2016, the three ladies launched The Sewing Labs while they were running their business, and they started teaching Don Bosco’s ESL students.

“Don Bosco, when they were getting ready to renovate this, we had received a large grant from the Kauffman Foundation to support 10 new pieces of industrial equipment, two part time teachers and student stipends,” Bobowski said. “Where are we going to put 10 new pieces of equipment in 900 square feet? And then Don Bosco comes along and says, ‘Would you guys consider being a tenant?’ So we actually pay rent to Don Bosco. We’re very grateful to Don Bosco and their partnership.”

They focus on recycling, upcycling and repurposing, which is part of the reason why the Fabric Grab has become so successful.

“We’re partnered with the Climate Council of Greater Kansas City because we are huge proponents of slow fashion,” Bobowski said. “We’re working with the State Department to bring a fellow here to Kansas City from Chile. This girl does a whole bunch of upcycling and recycling down in Chile because the coastal waters are just packed with clothing that’s all from countries like here, and they go to all these third world countries and just dump it.”

Sewing Labs fundraiser in Columbus Park KC at Don Bosco community center - Fabric Sale

The Sewing Labs honors Kansas City’s rich cultural history in the Garment District, and remembers women immigrants who provided for their families as seamstresses, doing laundry and alterations.

“We’re trying to keep that legacy alive,” Bobowsi said. “Now we’re partnering with the US Department of Labor to offer an official industrial sewing machine 30-week program, then it includes another 20 weeks as an apprentice and we can’t keep up with the demand.”

Just the other day, a group of men who were eating lunch at Vietnam Cafe stopped in at The Sewing Labs to inquire about potential employees for the sportswear company they started during the pandemic.

They said, “The equipment you have in the room is what we have in our room.”

“Last Friday, we had four phone calls alone from different companies, even the one that made our awning because they’re looking to hire two people, and they’ve got two more people who are aging out,” Bobowski said.
For more information on The Sewing Labs, visit https://thesewinglabs.community, or drop in to Open Sew on Fridays at 526 Campbell St. in Columbus Park.

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