Words and Photos by Gianluca D’Elia
Above stacks of multi-colored fabrics, boxes of buttons, and shiny, black vintage sewing machines, there’s a sign in the doorway of SewGreen@Rochester that reads “Lives Stitched Together” in cursive.
It’s the perfect phrase to describe the cozy West Main Street corner shop, which prides itself on fostering community, creativity and sustainability through one of life’s most practical and fulfilling skills. The signs of a close-knit community here are evident: among an endless number of supplies, there’s an opening with wooden tables and chairs for visitors to spend hours getting lost in a project. A calendar and flyers line the walls by the entrance with reminders for the store’s classes, club meetings, and camps that are open to all ages.
Now one of the region’s most beloved sewing shops, the first iteration of SewGreen started in a food kitchen dining room. Director and founder Georgia Carney, a deacon in the Episcopal Diocese of Rochester with almost 30 years of experience as a costume maker at Geva Theatre, was eager to start a sewing ministry.
She had once heard a story on NPR about San Francisco artist Michael Swaine’s Free Mending Library—an initiative where Swaine would travel to various neighborhoods with a sewing machine mounted on a cart and tailor residents’ clothes for free—and it stuck with her.
Inspired by Swaine’s project, Carney took her sewing equipment to Gleaners Community Kitchen in Canandaigua. It was a slow build at first, she recalls.
“I learned that you need to build relationships for people to hand you their clothing to mend,” Carney says. “It’s more intimate than you’d think. So I brought in a shirt I was making for my husband, started sewing it, and that prompted a conversation. From there, I had two or three other people mending with me.”
“The most important thing I learned from that is to remember that we’re all in the same boat,” she adds. “People would bring me coffee and carry my sewing machine down the stairs, and I’d sit, eat lunch with them and have conversations. I thought I was doing a service, but really, I was there to listen to their stories and learn how alike we all are.”
As she continued to work on sewing ministries in the region, the birth of the SewGreen store was a result of good timing. A friend gave Carney a brochure for the original SewGreen store in Ithaca, not too long after she’d heard about a new grant opportunity from the Episcopal Church for projects that address poverty. After a few months of leaving the brochure out on her dining room table, it finally clicked.
SewGreen opened its doors in 2015, and has since taken off as a go-to location for learning, supply shopping, and perhaps most importantly, camaraderie.
“Community was always first in my mind,” Carney says. “My hope was that sewing would unite people beyond cultural, social, racial, or age barriers. And it really has. We’re a very diverse community.”
Spending time at the shop allows people to step out of their bubbles—something that happens too often in this city, Carney says. SewGreen is a place where a Cornell professor could strike up a conversation with a teenager living down the street in the Susan B. Anthony neighborhood, and anyone can try something new, regardless of money or skill level. Carney was intentional about starting the nonprofit shop on the west side of the city, believing that “if you take care of the people, the money will take care of itself.”
“People might tell me that’s naive, but I’m going to stick by it,” she says with a laugh.
Carney’s idea has paid off. Josefina Calzada, a longtime customer and volunteer who later joined the store as an employee, had the exact experience Carney was hoping for.
“The community has created an amazing place where people really feel like they belong. People tell me it’s like an oasis to come here,” Calzada says. “It’s a happy place for me and so many others.”
“I’ve met people I never would have met—people of all races, people who speak English or don’t speak English, people with thick accents like mine, older people and younger, boys, men,” says Calzada, who’s originally from Mexico.
Almost three years ago, when COVID-19 came along, the store’s role in the community became more crucial than ever. After closing for a short time, the shop kicked into action by creating and distributing more than 4,000 mask kits and moving classes to Zoom to help customers feel less isolated. “We were a really good thing in a really bad time,” Carney says.
This was especially true for Ansel Eklund, who fell in love with the shop after he came in looking for supplies for an online felted hat-making class in 2020.
“I’ve taken a lot of jewelry, crafting and felting classes, and nearly 100% of the time, I’m the only man,” Eklund says. “I remember Josefina’s response when I first came into the shop, and she was extremely welcoming. She wasn’t surprised, she asked me what I was working on and if I had pictures of it. The sense of community is very strong. I never think about being the only man. The focus is on what everyone’s creating, not what or who everyone is.”
As the world deals with major issues like the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the threats posed by climate change, sewing has become an increasingly powerful skill. Thanks to the growing need for masks and our craving for new quarantine hobbies in 2020, the sewing industry saw a massive surge. For a while, Carney could barely keep any sewing machines on the shelves at SewGreen. As she looks toward the future, Carney feels hopeful about the public’s interest in sewing, especially when she considers Gen Z’s concern for environmental protection and preference for sustainable products.
“A lot of older people say younger generations are spoiled,” Carney says. “But what I find is that they’re much more concerned about the world that’s coming, and they’re more likely to think about shopping at SewGreen and learning new things.
“I see young people who are upcycling and thrift shopping, maybe doing things their parents never would have considered. I have a lot of faith in the future. I see it at the shop.”
Find SewGreen at 438 W Main St., and on Instagram @sewgreenrochester.