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Mending a gap? That's Sew Duluth

Alethea Montgomery, owner and instructor of Sew Duluth, sits in her studio. Located in the Duluth Folk School, the space has room for six students at a time. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com1 / 3
Alethea Montgomery has developed a five-level curriculum for her students, and examples of projects related to each level are displayed around her studio. This sloth is a level five project. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com2 / 3
The sign over the entrance to Alethea Montgomery’s studio is, naturally enough, made from fabric. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com3 / 3

Alethea Montgomery told the story last week of how the oldest of her three children ages 17 to 23 had recently bought a vintage jacket. The daughter loved it, except there was no place to put her smartphone.

For Montgomery, the situation called for an easy fix. She added a pair of slip pockets on either side of the jacket's liner.

"You don't have to settle," Montgomery said. "You can make it exactly the way you want it to be and that's really freeing."

A path to independence is what Montgomery offers her young customers at Sew Duluth, where she conducts three evenings of classes every week to students ages 8-18. The business is barely a year old and already it has graduated from the family's home in Hermantown to a small studio and now a large one inside the Duluth Folk School in Lincoln Park.

Examples of some level-3 projects on display at Sew Duluth. Photos by Steve Kuchera / News TribuneWhen asked if the growth was the sign of a healthy bottom line, Montgomery nodded yes, pointed to her half-dozen professional sewing machines and said she didn't owe money on any of them.

Running five hour-and-a-half long sessions each week, Montgomery is now reaching 27 students.

"As humans we have an inherent desire to create," Montgomery said, describing what she believes draws families into her business.

A fifth-grade teacher at South Ridge School by day, Montgomery launched Sew Duluth by taking over the clientele for a retiring neighborhood sewing instructor.

Surrounded by the bright new space Sew Duluth moved into earlier this month, Montgomery explained she might someday add classes for adults. But she enjoys teaching young people most of all, because she's able to infuse the life skills which train them to overcome the niggling doubts that can accompany adults who are trying to learn. Sewing teaches students to understand that life can require alterations, adjustments, problem-solving and making do, she explained.

"I get to not just teach," Montgomery said, "but coach life skills, too. I like being that coach."

Her customers notice.

Lynn Nephew, of Duluth, Sarah Steinbach and Sarah Winter, both of Hermantown, all have multiple children working their way through Sew Duluth's five levels of curriculum. It's everything from changing a needle in the machine to learning how to hand sew and read patterns, understanding fabrics, using an iron and more.

"It's a valuable skill she's teaching and a different kind of art — and old art," said Nephew, whose four children have grown up watching her sew, sparking their curiosity. "They're choosing it."

Winter has two children in Sew Duluth and a 7-year-old champing at the bit to join them. She confessed to being a rudimentary sewer, one who admittedly struggles when she meets a dead end.

"One of the things Alethea does is help kids develop that maker attitude — how to overcome obstacles — and I love that," Winter said.

Steinbach's two oldest of four children are in Sew Duluth. She appreciates the development of their fine motor skills through sewing and the confidence that comes from creating and expressing themselves. Montgomery brings a sense of fun and quirkiness to the studio that draws out the best in the students, Steinbach said.

Alethea Montgomery holds a pack similar to the ones her students make."She connects so well with the kids," Steinbach said. "I like the idea that as children if you can become good at general needs in life, it has implications for all things going forward."

Steinbach compared sewing to learning to swim, cooking and basic car repairs. In doing so, she struck on a point that Montgomery makes, too: what she's offering commercially is mending a gap for something that used to be more readily available through education systems.

"Home (economics) and family consumer science are gone — that component of learning and trade is gone," Montgomery said, talking about the diminishing influence of skills-based learning in public schools. Nationally as of 2012, home economics had experienced a nearly 40 percent decline among the total number of students enrolled in those classes — a widely accepted figure used to help illustrate how those classes have lost esteem in a public education system which values the reading and math of core curriculums but can struggle to prioritize skills-based training such as sewing, cooking or woodworking.

Sewing came easy, and purposefully, for Montgomery, who described herself as short and constantly needing to make alterations to the hems in articles of clothing that were too long.

Retired from the 148th Fighter Wing and now 16 years a teacher, the 45-year-old Montgomery called herself a hands-on person. She runs, hikes and makes things.

"I'm a knitter, too," she said, wearing a scarf of her own creation.

Montgomery supplies everything for her Sew Duluth classes, down to the fabric and materials. It prevents the families from being overwhelmed having to chase things outside of the studio, she reasoned, and the mothers agreed that it's a bonus.

"Alethea does a great job removing barriers," Winter said.

Advanced students can bring their own patterns and begin to learn how to make articles of clothing — the gym shorts and fleece pullovers that are on the curriculum or other items their hearts desire.

A banner hangs at Sew Duluth.The other day Montgomery was teaching an 8-year-old the function of a ruler and delving into fractions before she realized the student hadn't yet been exposed to some of the concepts in school.

The student wasn't complaining and the Sew Duluth owner wasn't trying to press any further than the person was able to go. She was simply doing what came naturally.

"A lot of maker work is soothing," Montgomery said, "plus it's really fun."