Business Unusual: Sew Loved Women’s Center Fights COVID-19 with Sewing Machines

One South Bend, IN, nonprofit is sewing and distributing thousands of free masks to locals in need, and collaborating with neighboring businesses to make it happen.

How a network of home-based sewers is playing a critical role in an unforeseen health crisis

Pictured above, Vicki Miles, co-founder and director of Sew Loved.

An image of Rosie the Riveter with a tattoo of a sewing machine on her arm is the mascot at Sew Loved Women’s Center. The South Bend, Indiana, nonprofit — which teaches marginalized low-income women and at-risk teens how to sew, quilt, and sell products — got publicity last year when Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign hired it as its official embroider making the 2019 “Women for Pete” hats. Now the organization is getting notice for fighting the pandemic with its most trusted weapon: sewing machines.

“Who knew the whole country would get shut down?” says Vicki Miles, co-founder and director of Sew Loved. She spoke to Workest from her home in South Bend. “I think most businesses, our whole culture, and government were really blissfully ignorant about our dependency on goods from foreign countries.”

Sewed Love

Rosie the Riveter with a tattoo of a sewing machine on her arm is the mascot of Sew Loved Women’s Center. Image courtesy of Sewed Love.

Volunteers and collaborators

Miles co-founded Sew Loved in 2012 with her best friend Pam Duerksen. After Sew Loved’s 5,000-square-foot facility with 34 domestic sewing machines and 12 industrial sewing machines shut its doors due to COVID-19 on March 12, the grassroots operation instantly pivoted from training students to producing masks. While the Sew Loved masks aren’t constructed with certified N95-grade material, they are made with sterilize-able, surgical-grade fabric to provide a greater level of filtration than cotton masks.

The goal? Sew and distribute 90,000 free masks to protect locals in need.

The goal? Sew and distribute 90,000 free masks to protect locals in need. Miles is leading this project and has organized a network of over 400 volunteer home sewers using pre-cut American-made materials.

And it’s become a collaborative effort with neighboring businesses. Manufacturers in the area — 9 In Motion and Veada — volunteered to do most of the initial fabric cuttings. They’re also only charging Sew Loved pennies per cut. Online Data has been doing all the mailing, waiving service fees so that Sew Loved just pays for postage.

“Once word got out to healthcare, I could not get off the phone getting requests for masks,” Miles recalls. Regional first responders and essential personnel — United States Postal Service workers, nursing home and clinic workers, and utilities workers — have reached out in need of personal protective equipment.

South Bend Fire Department

Regional first responders and essential personnel have reached out in need of PPE. 

Donations and business opportunities

In March, Sew Loved launched a Facebook fundraising campaign, built Donate buttons on its website, and got support through donors.

(Pro tip: Facebook Giving in cooperation with PayPal allocates 100% of donations with no processing fees.)

All money raised has gone towards the purchase of materials and mailing costs to get fabric kits out to sewers. A volunteer put together a new Sew Loved website (sew-loved.org) for people to sign up and help the cause.

Miles says the project’s adding to Sew Loved’s “street cred” and garnering potential profit-making partnerships with Indiana and private companies. Such business opportunities, and more donations, will help some of Sew Loved’s upcoming projects move forward. They will support the opening of Sew Loved’s upcoming industrial-sewing school and training program expansion planned for when shelter-in-place lifts.

Sew Loved launched meetings out of a food pantry 8 years ago. What humbly started as just 12 women coming twice a month has since grown to more than 300 visits a month at its current large location. Hundreds of women — including many dozens of teens — have gone through its classes to learn how to sew.

“Some of our original women are still with us sewing,” Miles says.

sew-loved-womens-center

Paying it forward

A business leader for 40 years, Miles navigated the ups and downs of the IT industry prior to Sew Loved. She has seen some bad economic times in her career, and the effects of COVID-19 have her back to thinking outside of the box. Sew Loved was born out of her desire to “pay it forward” by sharing “the joy and self-confidence that sewing and the arts give us — and to see it awaken in women and teens.” Today, it’s playing a critical role in an unforeseen health crisis.

“Small businesses have to create a product or service that becomes a necessity based on what you’re good at and what innovation you can pull out of that,” she advises. “You have to find somewhere you can pivot, and not everything works. For Sew Loved, creating U.S. PPE on our own shores is that key.”

“Sometimes I go, ‘What the heck did I do, I’m supposed to be retired!’ Especially these last 6 weeks,” she quips. “But every night when I watch the news and see these essential workers working with no masks or using cotton masks, it kills me. Cotton masks are vital and have a place, but the issue of medical personnel not having proper masks is killer.”

“Small businesses have to create a product or service that becomes a necessity based on what you’re good at and what innovation you can pull out of that.”

Rosie the Riveter inspiration

Just as women during WWII powered industries that emerged at home while men were at war — bringing about that Rosie the Riveter “We Can Do It!” phenom — Miles says the same mindset is necessary today. She says U.S. businesses need to meet present demands and convert local operations to create new and self-reliant systems.

“I hope we’ve learned something from this [crisis],” Miles says. “We need our own resources. We need our own stockpiles.”

To donate to Sew Loved Women’s Center and support its mask-making efforts and upcoming school, go to sew-loved.org and click on the Donate button. To purchase products made by Sew Loved Women’s Center students, go to The Sewing Lab Shop

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