Stitching together a community for all
5 August 2020 at 8:25 am
At first glance, Second Stitch looks like your average alterations and crafts studio. But unpick the seam a little and you’ll find a bustling community hub that’s empowering refugee and asylum seeker women, writes Maggie Coggan in this month’s Spotlight on social enterprise.
In 2012, Rohini fled Sri Lanka, arriving by boat to Australia as an asylum seeker with little English and no connection to community support.
“It was really hard at that time because I didn’t have a connection to a community, and I didn’t have a job,” Rohini tells Pro Bono News.
In 2016 however, she was introduced to Second Stitch, and things started to turn around.
“When I came here, I got an interview and then I got a job. I was so happy,” she says.
Created by VICSEG New Futures, a charity providing support and training to newly-arrived and recently-settled migrant communities, refugees and asylum seekers, the enterprise started as a way to bring together women in a safe environment, to share and celebrate cultural crafts.
A few women however, embraced the program not only as a way to build their skills as seamstresses, but to find a place for themselves in the community.
Caspar Zika, the general manager of New Futures Training tells Pro Bono News that the program soon grew into a small scale alteration service, used predominantly by students and staff at the organisation.
As the community got wind of the service, and popularity grew for the business, Second Stitch launched a small line of homewares to sell to the public including cushions, tote bags and material plant holders.
But when COVID hit around six months ago, the organisation was able to pivot, launching an online store to sell reusable fabric masks to Melbournians.
“That’s when it really went bananas,” Zika explains.
To keep up with the explosion in demand, the enterprise has taken on six new seamstresses, bringing the total number of women employed to 14.
All money made from the social business is fed back into paying the seamstresses a wage, running a Certificate Three course in clothing and textiles production, and supporting periphery programs around mentorship and developing skills around running a small business.
The organisation also runs a free weekly community sewing day, which Zika says is a good way to engage women who don’t have the time to fully commit to their employment program.
“A lot of people have got a whole lot of complex things that they’re dealing with, they might just drop in once every two weeks or once every three weeks to that community program,” he says.
Due to COVID, the community program has been put on pause, but will pick back up as soon as it’s safe to do so.
A place to call home
While Rohini had done some sewing in Sri Lanka, she says that undergoing proper training has really helped to develop her skills and confidence as a trained seamstress.
“I’ve learned so much here. I used to just alter clothing, but now I can create products like storage tubs and cushions that we sell to the public,” she says.
Zika said that being able to provide a way for Second Stitch employees to become financially independent, and find a place in the community, is where the organisation makes the most impact.
“For around 80 per cent of the women employed in our program, this is the first job that they’ve had in Australia,” he says.
“Migration is often viewed as just the trip from one country to another, but the period following that, developing that sense of belonging in a community is often really hard.
“So being able to see to facilitate that, and see these women grow has been amazing.”
It’s one of the things that Rohini has loved the most about working for Second Stitch.
“There are so many people here from different countries as well, which I love, because we are able to talk about our cultures,” she says.
“This is my home now, I really love it.”
Rolling with the challenges
As Zika explains, supporting women who are coming from very vulnerable circumstances is not always simple or easy.
There are complications with applying and obtaining visas, as well as dealing with the trauma of fleeing violence and persecution in their home countries.
“Three of our seamstresses who are currently waiting for their claims for asylum to be heard have been put on a Safe Haven visa, which means they are required to live and work in a rural area for three and a half years out of their five year visa,” he says.
“So it’s around finding ways to support these needs. I think our organisation is really well set up to do that though.”
Second Stitch has a substantial welfare team behind it, providing support for everything from navigating daily life, to more complex psychological issues.
COVID-19 and beyond
For many businesses, the impacts of COVID-19 have been financially devastating. But in the past six months, Second Stitch has gone from strength to strength.
In the past few months Second Stitch’s profit margins have been bigger than ever, and Zika is hopeful that the exposure via social media and the flurry of community purchases will have a lasting effect on the business.
“We understand that the current boom isn’t going to last forever, but we’re using this time to hopefully build something a little bit more substantial,” he says.
“I think it’s really shown us that there is a real customer demand for socially conscious products, because people are prepared to pay a little bit extra to know that the money is going towards a social good.”
The organisation is now in the final stages of becoming Social Traders certified, which Zika believes will give them more opportunities in the social procurement space.
“We actually got an email yesterday from John Holland who’s running a massive construction project in the area, inquiring about our reusable masks,” he says.
“[Another benefit from the last month] is that we’ve developed some really good relationships with wholesale fabric suppliers and such, so that when we get a minute to sit down and breathe, we’ll be able to figure out how to expand our product range and run more programs.”
You can check out Second Stich’s range of reusable masks here to keep you looking safe (and fashionable) during the pandemic.