Three people sit around different sewing materials and sewing machines.
Students at The Sewing Labs are taught the basics of sewing with both domestic and industrial machines. (Chase Castor/The Beacon)

Brooklin Dingley knew from the time she was a child that she wanted to work in the fashion industry. She just had to find the path to get there. As the oldest of seven siblings in a family with a limited income, college wasn’t a realistic option.

But Dingley, 19, found another route. She recently secured an apprenticeship at Sandlot Goods, a maker of baseball-related accessories, where she works in the hat production department and makes $15 an hour.

“I have had a dream of being a fashion designer since I was 9. So I was like, this is the most perfect thing ever for me,” she said. “And it’s been honestly really incredible seeing little 9-year-old me’s dream come true of having a career in sewing.”

With college out of reach, Dingley chose the apprenticeship route.  After finishing high school as a homeschooled student in May 2021, she applied for the “sewing salon training” program at The Sewing Labs, a Kansas City nonprofit that teaches sewing skills as a route to jobs, financial independence and dignity. She got in and graduated from the program in June of this year. 

Apprenticeships have long been recognized as a promising start for workers from disenfranchised backgrounds who may not be able to afford college or career programs. Federal and state governments sponsor “registered apprenticeship” programs, like The Sewing Labs, to provide apprentices with a paid work experience, on-the-job learning, classroom instruction, mentorship and the pathway to a career.

In September, The Sewing Labs was chosen as one of 207 businesses, nonprofits and community groups to participate in the U.S. Department of Labor’s Apprenticeship Ambassadors Initiative. As announced by the White House, the initiative’s purpose is to present an “earn and learn” model that will create equitable and debt-free pathways to good-paying jobs. 

“The program was a fraction of the cost of any other sewing or design classes colleges or universities had to offer, and The Sewing Labs even provides scholarships to students interested in the program,” Dingley said. “With my savings and high school graduation gifts I was able to pay the tuition costs myself and live completely debt free, which is another huge benefit of going through this program.”

The Sewing Labs, at 526 Campbell St. in Kansas City, was founded in 2016 by three women who were already running a soft furnishing manufacturing business, Weave Gotcha Covered, that employed women with economic challenges as well as people recovering from substance abuse, formerly incarcerated individuals, immigrants and veterans. 

Convinced of the life-changing possibilities of stitching, Lonnie Vanderslice, Kelly Wilson and Linnca Stevens launched The Sewing Labs as an offshoot. Its mission: to create “an inclusive and welcoming community teaching the legacy of sewing for employment, entrepreneurship, and enrichment.”

Apprenticeship program 

The sewing salon training program asks students to commit to up to 30 weeks of sewing instruction using both domestic and industrial machines, along with entrepreneurial business training. Once training is completed, students are paired with a local employer in the sewn products industry for paid sewing apprenticeships that cover 20 weeks.

“What we realized is there’s a tremendous need in Kansas City for people to hire trained stitchers,” said Eileen Bobowski, the executive director at The Sewing Labs. 

“So what we do is we partner with other nonprofits in Kansas City, who either have a workforce development arm or a jobs training arm, and we let those other nonprofits know that we have a viable path for their clients that can lead them into financial dignity,” she said. 

Eileen Bobowski, the executive director, sits among sewing machines at The Sewing Labs in Columbus Park. Chase Castor/The Beacon

Kansas City has a notable history in the fashion and textile industry. During World War II, it was the second-largest garment manufacturing hub in the United States, thanks to Nelly Don, a woman-owned company that made a name for itself by selling stylish dresses to customers with limited incomes and pivoted into manufacturing  women’s military and work clothing during the war. 

Today, the sewn products industry still holds strong in the region. Over 60 companies, such as Kansas City Tent & Awning Co., the Sealy mattress company, Missouri Star Quilt Co. and Sandlot partner with The Sewing Labs to provide students with sewing apprenticeships leading to full-time employment. 

“We’re really trying to create a pipeline of trained stitchers to meet the high demand here in Kansas City,” Bobowski said. 

Although the pandemic slowed the program down, 17 apprentices have entered the sewing salon so far, and 83% have gotten stitching jobs after their graduations. The nonprofit plans to enroll 30 apprentices a year going forward, Bobowski said.  

To make that happen, The Sewing Labs was awarded a $100,000 grant by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation in 2019, which allowed them to purchase 10 new pieces of industrial equipment, hire two part-time teachers and offer students stipends. 

The labs also moved to a larger space, with more room for classes and their machinery.

Importance of sewing apprenticeships

The federal Apprenticeship Ambassadors initiative has recruited apprenticeship programs in more than 40 industries. The ambassadors are expected to create 460 new registered apprenticeship programs and hire more than 10,000 new apprentices, according to the White House

They will also conduct 5,000 outreach and training events to help businesses, labor groups and schools launch similar programs.

About 93% of workers who complete registered apprenticeships gain employment, according to Apprenticeship USA

That’s important right now for women, younger workers, workers of color and other historically marginalized groups who were disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and its ensuing recession. Women took an especially hard hit in part because of their disproportionate representation in the service and healthcare industries.

Unlike any other economic downtown in U.S. history,  the unemployment rate rose higher for women, at 16,1%, than it did for men, at 13.5%, during the peak of the COVID-19 recession. (Source: Federal Reserve Economic Data)

The sewing industry is largely female, with women holding 84.3% of positions. At The Sewing Labs, 98% of program participants identify as female.

While the sewn products industry offers rewarding work and the possibility of advancement, it is not immune from the wage gap.  Women earn 90 cents for every dollar a man makes in the industry.

Additionally, sewing as a profession is often undervalued, according to Bobowski. The industry provides disenfranchised demographics with a pathway to financial stability, but many people don’t realize it. 

“Currently the biggest challenge is getting the public to become aware of the demand that exists for these skills and getting students into our programs,” Bobowski said. “We continue to reach out into our community to connect where the greatest needs are for individuals to gain a path toward financial security.”

The average overall median income for women in Missouri is $25,139 a year. Sewing machine operators average $30,810 annually in Kansas City, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

The Sewing Labs has been  advocating for fair wages in the marketplace for years, with many employers now starting at $15 an hour

“We believe trained stitchers should be granted the same value and deserve to be paid accordingly,” Bobowski said. 

To recruit more students, The Sewing Lab is seeking partnerships with businesses in need of people who can sew, along with financial support.

A student works on a project at a sewing machine at The Sewing Labs in Columbus Park. (Chase Castor/The Beacon)

Currently, The Sewing Labs is  working with local organizations to see more equitable wage and race demographics within the garment industry.

It has partnered with City Union Mission, a local shelter, to get unhoused individuals into the training program. And it has teamed up with Literacy KC to teach “sewing as a universal language” classes. 

The average age of apprentices at the sewing salon is 35 — younger than the industry’s average age of 40, and young enough to change the trajectory of careers and lives, Bobowski said.

“Sewing is a skill that you can take with you for life. It’s kind of like riding a bicycle. You don’t really ever forget that,” she said.

For Dingley, the 19-year-old recent Sewing Labs graduate, the sewing apprenticeship training was a chance to jump-start her dream career at a young age.

Growing up, everyone was like, ‘Oh, you want to be a fashion designer? Good luck. That’s a hard industry to get into. Oh, you want to do sewing? Good luck.’ But I’m doing it,” Dingley said. “And because of this apprenticeship program I’ve been able to do that quickly.”

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MILI MANSARAY is the housing and labor reporter at The Kansas City Beacon. Previously, she was a freelance reporter and Summer 2020 intern.