GarCo Sewing Works celebrates its second anniversary this month. Founded with the goal of lifting single mothers out of welfare by teaching skills and providing work, the organization has helped 11 women so far find meaningful employment.
The women, referred by Garfield County’s Department of Human Services or Colorado Mountain College’s work/study program, work as nurses’ aides, administrative assistants, and in early childhood education. “They are wage-earners and support their families,” crowed Beth Shaw, dean of Business and Industry at Colorado Mountain College and co-founder of GarCo Sewing Works.
Shaw, CMC colleague Jill Ziemann, and clothing designer and manufacturer Doreen Herriott saw the need a few years ago to bring single moms on welfare into the workforce. “We thought it would be an asset to the community to provide a work environment for welfare moms to learn skills, get their lives in order, and get a work ethic under their belts,” Shaw explained.
Through their extensive business and local human services networks, the trio set up referral connections and in 2011, created a business plan that got the attention of Garfield County Commissioners. “They offered to find a location in a county building plus grant money for rent, and a grant for equipment,” said Shaw. The county provided $26,000 to cover start-up costs, which included the purchase of eight industrial sewing machines.
Today, GarCo Sewing Works has 10 workers, who train on the machines by making reusable items from recycled materials. In 2012, they made 10,000 reusable grocery bags from sturdy, black, automobile upholstery material. “Half went to CORE [in Carbondale] and half went to Durango,” said Shaw.
Bags made from sterile wrap donated by Valley View Hospital and Grand River Health have gone to Aspen, Carbondale and Durango, and an additional 500 will go to Eagle County. Shaw said the bright blue wrap, used for sterilized, surgical instrument boxes, is made from recycled plastic bottles, used once and thrown out. “One hundred sheets a week go to the landfill from Valley View alone,” said Shaw.
The wrap comes into contact only with sterile instrument boxes, so it an be reused for bags. “It’s strange to outlaw plastic bags [in the grocery stores] and then throw plastic in the landfill when it can be used,” she added.
Local graphic artist Pamela Fletcher has collaborated on some projects, including bags for the city of Aspen and the Carbondale Environmental Board, feed bags for the Eagle County Environmental Board, and gift bags for counselors at CMC campuses throughout the state.
GarCo Sewing Works bags made from unused, overstocked T-shirts were sold at Carbondale Mountain Fair last summer. “We’ve made bags from Alpine Bank banners and painted canvas donated by [Glenwood Springs artist] Mary Noone,” added Shaw.
The sewing works is not open to the public for sewing classes or clothing projects but will create simple items upon request, like feedbag aprons for Rally in the Valley’s Green Team or doggie bandannas for High Tails Dog and Cat Outfitters in Glenwood Springs. Once the item and price are agreed upon, the business owner pays in the form of a donation to CMC, earmarked for the GCSW fund. “It all goes right back into GCSW for thread or to pay the phone bill or supplies,” said Shaw.
Once the women put in 60 hours on a machine, they get a certificate. “They can parlay that into a job,” said Shaw, who has been sewing since she was a girl. “It’s a skill set that’s waning in this country,” she added. “There is satisfaction and a sense of power, creativity and accomplishment in making something from a flat piece of fabric.”
Rifle resident Jessica Lowry agrees. She works 28 hours per week as floor manager at GarCo Sewing Works. Easy-going, thoughtful and articulate, Lowry has come a long way in the past few years. “I married into an abusive relationship,” she recalled. “But, when I was eight and a half months pregnant with my son, we divorced, and I moved in with my dad.”
With the help of CMC’s Link Program, Jessica began working at GarCo Sewing Works in April 2012. She also earned her GED and obtained a welding certificate on the advice of her father. “He taught me that it’s important to have a trade and a career,” she explained. “A trade is something lucrative that you can take anywhere.”
When it came time for GarCo Sewing Works to hire a floor manager last August, Jessica applied for the job and got it.
She said the programs have changed her. “I was a lot more timid and antisocial after my marriage,” she explained. “Now, I’m becoming successful because I’ve had so much support.” She is proud to give back to the community. “I get to train and help women just like me,” she said. “And at the same time, I have the support system I came in with.”
Shaw looks forward to Phase II of the sewing works, which will be a factory in Rifle. Right now, GarCo Sewing Works is a training center. Shaw said that a for-profit, “cut-and-sew” factory would give the women at the sewing works continuity and jobs, and boost the local economy with American-made products. Shaw hopes to see Phase II up and running within the next year.