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Machine-learning creates a buzz in Belmont

Flagstaff Team

Katie Mantell’s sewing-lessons business has caught a worldwide wave of interest in a craft once seen as outdated. She tells Helen Vause how a dress for a school disco opened her eyes to sewing’s potential.

Social fabric… Katie Mantell says many students form new friendships while sewing, and that the craft offers the mindfulness that more people are making part of their lifestyle

It was by happy coincidence that Katie Mantell decided her future – and maybe a business – lay in sewing, just before the global resurgence in the craft.

While the 24-year-old founder of the Thread Room in Belmont has been working flat out to make her dream come to life, sewing-machine sales have boomed internationally, sewing has made a comeback in lifestyle media and an activity once associated with yesteryear is now seen as cool. The stigma of ‘home made’ has evaporated.

In lockdown last year, Trade Me reported thousands more buyers were looking for sewing machines online. And more recently, elastic has become hard to find due to high demand.

Many more women and girls – and more than a few men – are running up their own threads once more.

Mantell’s hunch about the growth of a new sewing community proved to be right on the mark.

In recent weeks, her busy sewing machines have been temporarily silenced by lockdown. But before that interruption, she has had about 150 adults and children turning up to classes every week, creating toys and fashion or just learning how to make their own clothes.

Her business is growing by the week, though lately she’s had to take it online, opening a virtual ‘door’ to her students.

When the Flagstaff caught up with her, she was working with home sewers online and also painting another space at her Lake Rd studio to make room for future students who have been waiting to join her in-person classes when they resume.

Mantell grew up in Devonport, seeing her mother and aunts getting behind sewing machines and whipping up clothes.

She was a creative kid, and she says her lightbulb moment about the possibilities of it all struck when she was an eight-year-old at Devonport Primary School.

A school disco with a ‘blast from the past’ theme was coming up and she decided she just had to be togged out in a Victorian ball gown for the occasion. Nothing less ambitious would do.

“I found pictures of gowns in the library, and Mum and I got some gold material from Ike’s Emporium. Mum made the most amazing gown for me and I thought it was just fabulous.”

Mantell grins at recalling squeezing herself into the same golden gown for a teenage gig some years later.

She took soft-technology classes at Takapuna Grammar. “Maybe that’s really where it started for me. Mrs Woodward, the teacher, was an absolute inspiration to me and I fell in love with sewing and with fabrics and all the endless possibilities of making things.”

Mantell went on to complete a bachelor’s degree majoring in fashion.

“I didn’t really know where I was going then, but I soon forgot ideas of being a fashion designer and became more and more interested in the skill of sewing and all that goes into making garments, from pattern-making to cutting. And in the back of my mind I’d always wanted to have my own business and I was beginning to think about how it could develop.”

She graduated to work in the fashion industry, and did some travelling, but soon enough she was making and selling her own designs online.

“But I had come to realise I wanted to teach people to sew and I did feel the time had come for that, and that there was much more interest in sewing in the community. Of course I didn’t have any business skills at that stage, but I did have the support of my parents.”

Before Mantell could set up her sewing school business, she had to persuade her father out of his double garage in Bayswater, with all of its oily bits and pieces, and get it cleaned up with fresh paint and curtains to be launched as a little local sewing studio for whoever might want to learn.

Plenty came, of all ages and stages of ability. The garage classes were bursting at the seams by the end of the first year.

It was time to step up, take on premises, bring in other sewing instructors, hang out her sign and get down to quickly learning about running a little business.

Pre-lockdown, she had about 28 classes a week for kids and for adults, with about 30 entry-level machines for students. Although they may not have the grunty heft and hum of grandma’s old model, they’ve put in many good sewing hours over the last couple of years.

Mantell has seven part-time sewing instructors on board, one of them a pattern drafter.

She has herself drafted about 50 of the core patterns many of the students use to make fashion dresses, tops, trousers and bags, and will continue drafting new styles.

“But we encourage people to bring their own patterns and come with a clear idea for their own project. Here, they upgrade their sewing skills and they get expert guidance and after a term I hope they can build their confidence to follow their own creative journey.”

Some come back term after term. Young people come from all schools across the Devonport peninsula.

Reaping what they sew… Whether making toys, garments for pets or fashionable clothing for themselves, students at Thread Room classes get the chance to upgrade their skills and get expert guidance

Adults come from all over Auckland. Sometimes the Thread Room heads over the bridge to take classes at other sites. Demand is high and Mantell says the next steps required to grow her operation have given her plenty to think about in the quiet of lockdown.

No two sewing students come with the same ideas, but Mantell insists everyone can learn the basic skills of sewing. “It really isn’t as hard as a lot of people think.”

Some have come for help making dog clothes and dog beds. Others come to make their own wedding dresses. Some want to repurpose, repair and update their clothes. Many little girls have started their sewing and craft journey through the classes.

“We get all sorts of people from all walks of life and lots of them form new friendships while they are working and learning. I was not a natural teacher but I absolutely love teaching people to sew and to see the thrill they get of completing their projects.

“I think the big comeback of sewing is all part of the ‘slow movement’ and the mindfulness that more people are getting into in their lifestyles. There is much more interest in being able to make things and create something useful with your own hands.”

Not long after the establishment of Mantell’s business, her little army of sewers took the opportunity to turn their skills to community service.

During the fierce Australian bushfires early last year, wildlife was perishing daily and many orphaned animals were being picked up in desperate rescue missions. The sewers heard of groups in Australia making little ‘joey’ pouches for tiny kangaroos and took up the call to help.

“That was a wonderful day here that I will never forget,” says Mantell. “We had about 30 machines going all the time and over the day there would have been more than 100 sewers. Some bought their own machines and could go at it much fast than others. There were people working on the floor, in the hallways and anywhere they could squeeze in. That was a day we were all very proud of.”

She wants to find more ways to be part of community events: “I’m sure we will.”

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