We interview Michelle Stockton, founder of Stitched Up Bellingen, seen here with fellow mentor Sandy Brennan.
‘Stitched Up’ is a group of (mainly) girls and women (I will get to this later) who meet weekly in Bellingen to share their love of creativity. These weekly sessions have now been a fixture in the town since 2008. Michelle Stockton, much loved member of the Bellingen community, who is deeply involved with Camp Creative and Bellingen Men’s Shed, was the face of the Bellingen Primary School office in 2008, and was being asked by many school girls if she could teach them to sew. Michelle approached the Bellingen Uniting Church with the idea of running a sewing class for High School aged students, where they could “learn the joy of creativity, sewing skills, cooking skills, wisdom and a relationship with our “grandmothers”. Our first few sessions we had six girls and six helpers and now, nine years on, we have twenty girls and seven helpers!” The original volunteer mentors included Fay Gibson, Maxine Keys, Nancy Taylor, Laurice Lavender, Michelle Stockton and Mary Moody, all from different backgrounds, but all sharing a passion for sewing. Four of the original six are still mentoring and have now been joined by Sandy Brennan, Gail Slater and Lyndal Edsall. The criteria for being a volunteer are “to be flexible, encouraging and obviously have an interest in sewing, beading, embroidery, up cycled clothing and fashion design.” And yes, more volunteers are always needed.
The volunteers have proven to be mentors to the girls in many more areas than just the needlework. As is the case with so many children in the Shire, the girls are often living vast distances away from their extended families and grandmothers, while the “grandmothers” have often had families move away from the region. So both “benefit greatly from the relationships formed at Stitched Up. Our girls learn that they can do anything – whether it is creating a quilt or a necklace. They also learn about what life was like a couple of decades ago and how women’s roles have changed over that time. They learn that if you make a mistake, just unpick it and start again – that goes for life in general, not just sewing.” The group also have a ‘high tea’ once each term, where the mentors teach the girls how to cook soup, scones, biscuits and quiches. “The girls really enjoy setting the table with the lace tablecloths and decorating them with a vase of flowers.” The girls’ families are invited which gives the girls the opportunity to serve them their food and cup of tea. “It is a chance for the girls and their families to thank the ladies who volunteer and the ladies to thank the girls for their enthusiastic inspiration!” As is always the case with cross-generational initiatives, the mentors also benefit from their relationships with the girls. ” It is also lovely to see our girls help our ladies master their new phones!”
The girls are encouraged to make absolutely anything! “We usually start with a plain or patch worked bag so those who haven’t used a sewing machine can learn the techniques. With the help of our generous volunteers we have made amazing quilts; incredible hand embroidered objects; up-cycled clothing; primary and high school uniforms; bags of all shapes and sizes; patchwork cushions; pencil cases; Ballet outfits – even tutus; Dr Who objects; adjusted op shops clothes for formals; greeting cards, jewellery; made fabric baby toys and so much more.” And of course, term four is spent making Christmas Stockings, decorations and presents. “The list of achievements is only limited by our imagination.” The girls have also worked on up-cycling outfits for the school musicals, clapper awards and other formal occasions. “It is wonderful to see how excited the girls are to show their “grandmothers” how they look in these outfits and to see the pride on our ladies faces.”
Year 12 students have also been encouraged and assisted in making very detailed pieces for their major works, including a very intricate corset that one student was creating for ‘textile and design’ by distance education. “We are currently working with a Year 12 student making an amazing dress for her ‘wearable art’ major project.” The group have also inspired some students to forge a career in needlework, including several students who have gone on to study Fashion Design in Coffs Harbour and Sydney and another student who is currently studying ‘Fashion’ through the ‘Pathways Program’. “We are very proud of all our girls!” The groups is advertised by girls to girls but Michelle assures me “boys are welcome.” Local student Oliver Harling saw the sewing group advertised and thought, “great I’d love to go to that”, but then read it was ‘girls only’ and felt pretty bummed, but frankly by now was not into being told what he should and shouldn’t do as a boy. Oliver wrote a loving letter to the group of older ladies that went something like this:
I was sorry to read that you do not allow boys into your group, as I would love to come along and have fun sewing. Please consider that I’m sure you’d all like your daughters, grand daughters and great grand daughters to be able to have true ‘gentle’men in their lives, but by excluding boys you are in effect telling boys they ought not grow up to be the ‘gentle’men you would like to know….
In view of this: Please let me know if you might be prepared to make an exception and let me join the group?”
And so, after reflecting on this, Oliver was warmly welcomed into the group as the first boy. Oliver made a bag, pencil case, quilt and clothes for his little sister. “He is the only boy we’ve had so far, but they are always welcome,” says Michelle.
The very generous Bellingen community ensures that groups like ‘Stitched Up’ have the resources necessary to flourish. The Bellingen Uniting Church provide the hall at no cost, covering the group with their insurance, funding machine maintenance and repairs and providing storage spaces for the group’s ever growing supply of fabric. The group began with a couple of second hand sewing machines and now have twelve new Brother machines. The Bellingen Neighbourhood Centre, CWA, Rotary and the Uniting Church have all donated money for sewing machines and overlockers. The Bellingen community has donated fabric, beads, magazines, wool, card making stock and heaps of miscellaneous sewing bits and pieces. “We live in an amazingly generous community,” says Michelle.
Stitched Up Bellingen is a valuable local group making a huge difference to the lives of all involved. The value of the group even caught the attention of psychologist and adult educator Steve Biddulph, who mentions the group in his book “Raising Girls” as a great example of the many benefits of intergenerational relationships.
For more information contact Michelle: firstname.lastname@example.org