There’s untapped sewing potential in Eugene-Springfield, and Mitra Gruwell believes a plan she’s stitching together could help put those skills to work.
The former St. Vincent de Paul fashion designer is setting up shop inside a sewing machine and vacuum repair shop in Eugene where she expects to establish a gig-working space for sewists, tailors and crafters as well as provide community access to her industrial sewing machines in an effort to train the local textile workforce.
“We’ll strengthen and grow our textile manufacturing industry in the community. We’ll create more access to high-paying jobs. People just don’t have the skills to use these machines, but there are lots of jobs in our community for using them,” Gruwell said.
Gruwell’s passion is upcycling, taking ratty or old clothing and giving it new life with her skills. She’d been doing that kind of work for St. Vincent de Paul, but lost her job because of the pandemic. Now the mission is to share her skills and give independent or amateur sewists access to new tools and customers they otherwise couldn’t reach.
“My focus is accessibility,” Gruwell said. “We’re targeting the sustainability, DIY market with services like repairing your clothes as an alternative to throwing them away.”
Lane County Workforce Partnership recently gave Discard Upcycling $55,000 for the project. The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality announced Wednesday that it’s giving $10,000 to Viking Sewing, Vacuum, Spa and Stove, Gruwell’s project partner.
“What we’ve heard from the industry is there’s just not a pipeline of sewists with industrial skills in this community,” said Lane Workforce Partnership spokeswoman Ashley Espinoza. “It’s something people have been talking about for several years.”
Espinoza said local businesses such as Western Shelter Systems, which manufactures emergency shelters, and Marley’s Monsters Eco-Shop, which crafts reusable products and baby goods, need workers with industrial sewing skills.
Espinoza said the Lane Workforce Partnership funding is a yearlong deal meant to use Gruwell’s new maker space to establish an industry-recognized certification program.
Gruwell’s new business is called Discard Upcycling, and she’s finding space at Viking Sewing, Vacuum, Spa and Stove on West Sixth Avenue. Partnered together in the sewing mission, the organization will be known as the Viking Textile Maker Hub.
“It’s been a core part of our business for years, the sewing machines,” said Viking Sewing, Vacuum, Spa and Stove owner Scott Hellier. “It’s just a great way to expand on our sewing side, fit a need in the community and hit something missing around here.”
Downstairs, there will be space for gig work. Locals with the skills to make alterations to clothing will have space to work with Viking’s sewing machines. The hope is Viking customers will become their customers, giving independent sewists more business.
Gruwell said she wants to open that space by Aug. 1.
“They’ll be able to plug in and sign up for the shifts that they want,” she said. “If they want to take a day or a couple hours, or bring customers so they have a private space.”
Gruwell said independent sewists will be able to do work there on contract.
Upstairs, Gruwell has set up 10 industrial sewing machines given to her as a gift. The machines are designed to handle heavy materials such as denim and leather.
“There’s a lot of things you literally cannot repair on home machines,” Gruwell said. “It’s really frustrating when you want to work with certain materials and you just can’t.”
It won’t be until January that Gruwell is ready to open that space for membership-based access to the machines, but she said once they’re up and running locals will be able to work on items they probably can’t fix at home, such as tents and backpacks.
“The maker spaces in this town do not have industrial sewing machines,” Gruwell said. “They need access to machines, and they need to be taught how to use them.”
Some of the machines cost a couple thousand dollars, Gruwell said.
“I have been a seamstress and fashion designer and sewist my entire life, and only when I was gifted these machines was I able to have one myself,” Gruwell said.
By October, Gruwell hopes the Viking Textile Maker Hub also will be operating classroom space where lessons will be offered on subjects such as upcycling.
“I ultimately want to build a community,” Gruwell said. “Artists and small businesses right now really need help. Helping people start their own arts business and gain new skills that can be used to make a living is going to benefit a lot of people.”