And sew on
Reno has a new sewing makerspace
“there’s three types of zen,” said Melissa Gilbert. “This one is called grandmotherly zen.”
Gilbert spent most of her 20s in a zen monastery in California, thinking she might become a Buddhist priest—but she ended up taking a different career path. She teaches “home arts,” the skillsets that used to be called “home economics,” at Encompass Academy, a local charter school. And this “grandmotherly zen” she referred to is the simple practice of finding joy and satisfaction in everyday actions.
“I have a passion for cooking and gardening and things that, to me, are essential for being human on this Earth,” she said. “Everyday activity—that’s where you find awakening. You don’t find it out in the mountains. You find it in everyday things like doing the dishes.” She presents the concept to her high school students in a few different ways, sometimes through meditation, more often by teaching hands-on skills.
“She taught us how to cook and how to clean and how to sew,” said Alexis Lopez, a 2019 Encompass graduate. “She has a really open vibe. People really like working with her.”
Lopez said he appreciated the way that Gilbert and her colleagues at Encompass set the stage for creative exploration. Gilbert negotiated with the neighboring Bridge Church to donate a strip of land for students to grow corn, tomatoes and chiles on, and she held an essay competition, in which the prizes were sewing machines for students who were getting serious about sewing.
Lopez was one of the essay contest winners. He’s picked up sewing from Gilbert and quickly developed a passion for it. He started out making shorts and shirts, then learned to make backpacks and fanny packs and experimented with making shoes. Now, he plans to take community college classes in art and business, and he’s working with a few peers to start a company called R T Stas. (The name refers to several things. Among them, the pronunciation, “artistas,” is Spanish for “artists,” and when it’s capitalized, it’s RTS TAS, an acronym for “Real Truth Seekers—Take and Serve.”)
Meeting of the minds
Gilbert had been thinking for a while about how she might bring sewing education with a “grandmotherly zen” off campus, where the public could access it. Over the last several years, she’s worked with Valley Arts Research Facility, the Generator and the Potentialist Workshop, but she always dreamed of a space dedicated to sewing in particular.
“There are plenty of places in town that teach sewers for $40-60 a class,” she said. “We wanted to provide a lower-income option, and I wanted to provide a space where I could still connect with my high school students after they graduate.”
Meanwhile, Bree Kasper was looking for approximately the same thing. She’s a professional seamstress who’s been sewing since the sixth grade. As a teen, she made poodle skirts, culottes and bags. Since then, she’s worked in a few different fashion realms, feeling out each one to determine whether its particular challenges were her cup of tea. First, she tapped into the Burning Man crowd. When clients wanted to dress like, say, a skunk or a butterfly, Kasper made it happen. Next, she designed attire for weddings, where the garments she made required extreme precision. She said she reached her tolerance for “bridezillas” in that industry and switched to making upholstery. That requires strong hands, which was no problem for Kasper. She’s also a harpist, so her fingers are used to intense workouts.
She’s done garment repairs for Patagonia and, for the last 10 years, she’s taught sewing classes in her living room, where enrollment grew steadily. But eventually it grew a little too much.
“I wanted my apartment back,” she said.
One day while she was visiting the Potentialist Workshop, Kasper saw Gilbert’s sewing machine set up in the corner. The two women were already acquaintances, and they got to talking about opening a sewing makerspace. They planned and dreamed for about a year, formed a non-profit and found a small warehouse space in a mostly residential neighborhood near North Wells Avenue. The property owner temporarily waived the rent as the organization works to establish financial stability. They opened their new studio, Sew Together, on April 1. Kasper is director of operations, and Gilbert is the co-founder.
On a recent Monday, Kasper and a volunteer named Sebastian Elcano were in a small room running yards and yards of heavy gray fabric through sewing machines. They were making blackout curtains for the large, sunny windows at Acro Enso, an acro yoga and circus arts studio on East Fourth Street that opened earlier this year.
Adjacent rooms have a cutting table, more sewing machines, shelves of fabric, a few stuffed animals waiting to be repaired and displays of Gilbert’s quilted wall-hangings and Kasper’s furry dress-up hats. A storage room is already starting to pile up with donated fabric—much of if from Truckee Meadows Community College’s recently closed theater facility.
In the three months the space has been open, it’s seen a good amount of traffic.
“Sewers are just coming out of the woodwork,” said Gilbert. Posts on social media—especially on Meetup—have led to a lot of new acquaintances who want to learn to sew, teach a class or sew in a social environment instead of at home.
So far, Sew Together has been holding weekly meetup sessions like Mending Mondays and Fearless Fashion Fridays. Gilbert, Kasper and visiting teachers have taught workshops in skills such as taking measurements and making patchwork quilts. Ali Conway, proprietor of Strange Bikinis, taught a workshop on starting your own garment business.
Sew Together recently began offering monthly memberships and put several more classes and meetups on the calendar. In an effort to balance affordability with financial sustainability, drop-in classes operate on a donation basis, with a requested donation of $5-20.
Kasper and Gilbert intend to host workshops for recent Encompass graduates who need a place to keep sewing, and they want to build partnerships with various community groups. One friend who works with homeless veterans is coordinating with young sewers to make sleeping bags for her clients.
This type of networking is exactly what Kasper and Gilbert were hoping for. In the three months they’ve been in business, they’ve already seen people inspired by sewing together, and to them, it’s about more than just creative clothing and quilts. It’s about how making things by hand can affect the soul and the brain.
“That inspiration, to me, can get you through a lot of hard times and sorrow,” said Kasper. “I think the act of creation—or mending—caring for what you have, or creating something new, it’s what makes being human bearable sometimes.”
“The act of making things—there’s so much peace that can come from that,” said Gilbert. “When you create something, you get not just the emotional boost, but you’re learning skills that can translate into real life, help you communicate, help you moving forward.”