In a sunny conference room at the Jesse Epstein Opportunity Center, seven women gather around and watch closely as Deborah Vandermar demonstrates at a sewing machine. This is the first Industrial Sewing class in the three-month term, so the focus is on fundamentals – learning the parts of the machine, how to thread the needle and operate the machine.

The students, many of whom are residents of Yesler Terrace, hope to gain employment as sewing machine operators with local manufacturers or start their own home-based or cooperative clothing businesses.

The class originated as a pilot in late 2014. Wubnesh Habtemariam, a Seattle Housing Authority job counselor at Yesler Terrace, identified an interest among many residents in the neighborhood in learning to sew. She arranged a meeting for those interested and more than 40 people showed up. Of these, 25 wanted to learn to sew well enough to find a job.

The Seattle College system agreed to provide an instructor, and the pilot was launched in October. The second series of classes started in June. The Industrial Sewing program consists of 48 classes over a six-month period, providing 96 hours of instruction. While the classes are free to participants, there are several entrance requirements.

Students must be Seattle Housing Authority residents. They are screened by a case manager who makes sure that their English skills are adequate, that they have transportation and child care available and that they are employable and willing to take a job if one is offered. Interest in the classes remains high, and has sparked participation in social groups to pursue crafts, including knitting and quilting.

According to Ron Jenkins, SHA’s economic opportunities coordinator, the industrial sewing class responds directly to the specific direction and interest expressed by residents. “It is important for residents to know that we are listening to what they are saying, and then going after the resources needed to make it work. They are seeing it happening.” He also admits that this approach is challenging. “We’re building this plane as we’re flying it,” he says with a grin.

The first class project is a tote bag, which uses basic stitches.

The first class project is a tote bag, which uses basic stitches.

But watching the sewing class in progress, it is clear that it is well organized and rooted in sound teaching methodology. Vandermar is careful to speak clearly and slowly, engaging her students with all of their senses to help overcome any language barriers. In explaining how the machine works, she invites the students to touch the parts that move so that they can feel how the fabric advances.  They eagerly take turns, chat about what they are experiencing in their own languages and then laugh together as they figure it out. Later, at the end of class, students will convene and review what they have discovered and record their understanding in notebooks.

Each students portfolio demonstrates their mastery of various stitches and techniques

Each students portfolio demonstrates their mastery of various stitches and techniques.

Around the room, pictures and charts reinforce the learning. Students alternate between watching demonstrations, practicing at one of the eight sewing machines, and working on their own projects. Each student will complete a series of projects in the class, which will then become part of a portfolio they can show to potential employers.

Jenkins acknowledges that the hurdles to full-time employment for many low-income immigrants are significant – learning English, finding childcare, and arranging transportation. But he is hopeful that programs like this one that directly respond to the interests of the residents, hold promise. “When we are able to tap in to something that really speaks to their passion, then the barriers are easier to overcome,” he says.