Members and mentors of the Sew Much Love sewing club work on a Christmas project that was donated to the Rice Lake Pregnancy Help Center. (Catholic Herald photo Jenny Snarski)

Jenny Snarski
Catholic Herald staff

Every parish has certain members who just make things happen. At St. Francis de Sales in Spooner, Jacene Silvis is one of those. When her daughter, Anna – who is passionate about sewing and helping others – expressed interest in starting a sewing club, Silvis knew what to do.

Reaching out to other women in the cluster who loved to sew, mother and daughter formed a group in January 2017 to “connect multi-generations, those that have skills to share them with those who want the skills, and then find something they can do together to impact the community.”

Meeting one Sunday afternoon a month, mentors work with a handful of girls, ages 11-14, who named the club Sew Much Love.

The mentors’ sewing background is varied. Most learned from their mothers who sewed their children’s clothes. Nancy Stellrecht still has her mother’s sewing machine – the one she learned on 45 years ago. Judy Halvorson, who is a club mentor with her sister Karen Schultz, was 15 when she got her first store-bought dress. She made many outfits for her own four children, including wedding dresses for her daughter and a daughter-in-law. Schultz sewed her three daughters matching dresses for years; both sisters have created and recreated dozens of Halloween costumes.

Halvorson sees great value in both passing on these old-fashioned skills and in the opportunity the group provides for the girls to “learn to appreciate [women from older generations] for what they’ve been through and really think about the changes that we’ve seen in our lifetime.”

She acknowledged the primary role technology now plays in young people’s lives. “Too many kids rely on that for entertainment and don’t have hobbies,” she said. Many aren’t learning skills that can give the personal satisfaction of accomplishment.

Assuming the girls wanted to learn to make some things for themselves to wear and use, the mentors were gratified when club members wanted to do projects that would benefit others instead.

These have included: toiletry bags for the Embrace Safe Shelter in Ladysmith, a veteran’s Final Salute quilt donated to Lakeview Medical Center’s Hospice Care in Rice Lake, and pillowcase dresses for children in Haiti. That project included a visit to the local nursing home to enlist help from the residents, some of whom are cluster parishioners, in choosing lace and embellishments.

For Christmas, they made stockings to be given out by the Rice Lake Pregnancy Help Center with fleece hats and burp cloths.

During the monthly gatherings, more than pieces of fabric are being stitched together, more than sewing tips and techniques imparted. Lives – young and old – are being shared and intergenerational connections made; members are opening up to each other’s frames of reference, interests and ideas.

Drawing from her own family and nursing career experience, Halvorson said these interactions give “a broader understanding of people and how important people are… [It] helps them have a little better understanding that we’re not just what we look like we are. There’s so much more to our lives.”

The presence of suffering is a common thread in the lives of the mentoring women – from the loss of a spouse or child to the lifelong commitment parenting a child with special needs to the hardships of cancer.

For them, the sewing club has been a healthy distraction and a form of group therapy. In their own words, it has provided: “a time you don’t have to think about your own issues;” the chance to “spend your time to do something for someone else less fortunate;” and a place for “mutual encouragement and support.”

Affirming the shared experiences, Stellrecht reflected on the Christmas mystery. She said they’ve all had “things that we didn’t expect and that were presented to us. And we have to deal with them regardless, because that’s life.
“Jesus came here to die for us. He was born here with that purpose. And he’s giving his life – I look at this group, a very giving group of people, and it’s so refreshing to see that in the younger generation,” she said.

Halvorson, who was diagnosed with rare adrenal cancer two years ago, feels “like I’m passing on something important, having all these girls learn [to sew], a basic skill that’s going to last.” Sewing has taught her patience, resourcefulness and the importance of letting go of perfectionism.

Admitting it takes time to learn “to be happy with less than perfect” and focus on what’s really important, she appreciates the opportunity to help the young sewers learn “if you make a mistake, just take it out. That’s what they made seam rippers for.”

Simultaneously jesting and serious, Halvorson spoke of the life skills the club cultivates through sewing and social interaction – skills and virtues like resiliency when dealing with the frustration that something didn’t go as planned; learning to follow a pattern, and knowing when and how to adapt that pattern; repurposing items and being resourceful; diligence and delayed gratification; teamwork and dependence on each other.

Schultz described sewing as “taking a one-dimensional piece of fabric and creating something three-dimensional.” A two-time cancer survivor, she has seen the club take this process even further – from craft to corporal work of mercy.