Near the Ithaca Commons, right next to the Bickering Twins Restaurant on North Cayuga Street, stands a door with “IthacaSews” adorning its window. Walk inside, and one is greeted with the sight of a dozens of sewing machines lining practically every wall of the small space, with a workshop in the corner and fabric adorning the window.
This intriguing place is a new business that opened last month in the same space as SewGreen, a not-for-profit sewing reuse store in downtown Ithaca.
Wendy Sue Skinner is the founder of SewGreen and IthacaSews, and she said after 10 years at SewGreen and putting all the revenue back into funding the nonprofit, she wanted to start making money for herself.
“As the founder and director of Sew Green for more than 10 years, every time we made money, it went back into the organization, so it occurred to me, at age 100, that maybe I should make a living,” Skinner said. “So, I’m trying to make a living in this little shop.”
Skinner, who is now 72, was in her 60s when she opened SewGreen, and she ran it for 10 years without ever learning sewing beyond the basic levels. She was too busy with running the business to learn the craft, she said.
“There’s a lot more to sewing than I thought there was,” Skinner said. “I thought you just put in some polyester thread and you start to sew.”
Though Skinner has had what she calls a “sneaky interest in fashion and design,” she started her journey in the world of journalism, where she worked for the Trumansburg Free Press and, later, the Ithaca Times. Getting into the nonprofit business came much later, Skinner said.
“The sustainability movement about 14, 15 years ago was starting to get a toehold in Ithaca,” she said. “I felt that there was nothing more important in my life than being contributive to helping to save the planet. I just thought that everybody should feel that way.”
She was looking for a place to fit in and spread sustainability, so she went to a sustainability talk and asked the speaker what she could do as an older woman to get involved. He told her to think about what she does well and apply it.
Thanks to her background, she had marketing, events management, publicity, art, writing and journalism skills. Combine that with her interest in fashion and design, and she found her purpose in helping to educate others how to sew. She saw a need for a place to buy fabric inexpensively and buy and repair sewing machines. From there, through a series of sales and support, SewGreen was soon born and became a big success.
But, as Skinner said, after over a decade of running a nonprofit, it was time for her to move on.
“We had one good idea, and I was relentless in pursuing it, and it was exhausting and difficult but very rewarding,” she said. “And I don’t regret anything, but I’m ready to walk away. This ship is sailing. … I spent 10 years of my life doing it. I’m tired. I want to do something different.”
Starting IthacaSews has not been an easy journey, Skinner said. Having SewGreen already established meant she could rent a small space in the same building for a relatively low price. The biggest step was learning all she could about sewing machines, which led her to Janome, a Japanese sewing-machine manufacturer that she said stands for quality.
“I couldn’t, in good conscience, have anything else because I just believe that that’s a key to sustainability,” Skinner said.
IthacaSews is a certified Janome dealer, selling new, high-quality home machines. Skinner said offering better products helps them last longer, harkening back to her desire to be environmentally sustainable. Skinner also fixes and resells old, vintage sewing machines, which results in quite the variety in such a small space.
“I have tiny, tiny space that also serves as my office and my repair shop with my tools,” Skinner said. “I need to be the gracious dealer of these magnificent sewing machines, some of which I don’t understand yet, but I’m getting there.”
Skinner said that, the more she has learned about sewing and especially sewing machines, the more she has understood why the machines are worth an investment to many people. Hearing people’s stories as they bring in sewing machines to donate or have fixed has shown her that there is sentimental value, as well.
“When people give up these beloved objects that they’ve used their whole lives that have memories attached, … they want to tell you a story, so that brought the personal approach,” Skinner said.
While she learns more about the machines, Skinner is also learning more about the craft, teaching herself how to sew and taking an apparel sewing class. She said this has helped her get better at knowing what machines work for which projects and how to best provide her customers with the machine that is right for them.
“Something that distinguishes me from other shops both new and old is I develop a relationship with people. It isn’t just ‘ka-ching’ and you’re out the door,” Skinner said. “I like to match people with their sewing machines so that they’re more likely to sew.”
Business has been a bit slow for Skinner, but she remains optimistic. She provides a unique service that fits into the diverse culture of downtown, she said, attracting all ages and types of people to learn a valuable skill.
“In this area, I’m getting to be the only game in town,” Skinner said. “People need sewing machines. Sewing machines give you independence. They create empowerment for children and teens.”
Being in the same building as SewGreen means there is a synergy between them, Skinner said, which provides the benefit of marketability with the downside of how to distinguish her for-profit business from the nonprofit under the same roof.
As a one-woman team, Skinner said she still has much she wants to accomplish in the coming months, like improving advertising and learning more about the machines and sewing in general. All in all, she really just wants to stay connected to what she loves and the people that share the same interest.
“It was the machines that I fell in love with [at SewGreen],” she said. “I really need people. I really like to talking to people. I need those interactions.”
In years to come, Skinner plans to continue to advocate for sustainability by showing customers the value of high-quality products and encouraging Janome to stick with that high standard. She has learned that establishing goodwill can add value to a business, so when she is 80 or so and passes on IthacaSews, she plans to maintain that sense of a person-to-person style of business.
Skinner’s business, along with others that recently opened downtown, was celebrated with a ribbon cutting on Wednesday, July 24. There were about 20 people at Wendy’s ribbon cutting, which delightfully surprised her, she said.
Wonderful service to the community!
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