Alethea Montgomery has had fairly steady interest in her classes since she started teaching pre-teens and teens how to sew at her kitchen table in Hermantown in 2018. But this summer she's slightly more determined to reach more students and teach them the basics of sewing.
"I'm hoping to host more workshops this summer in case we have to go back into lockdown, I want them to have the basic skills," Montgomery said. "That gives them something creative and constructive that they can do on their own."
Normally, Montgomery's small sewing studio in the Duluth Folk School is filled with six students per class. But with COVID-19 reopening restrictions, she's had to cut classes down to half and ask students to buy their own tool kits to avoid sharing germs. The pandemic required her to shut down the studio for three months. But thanks to a rent assistance grant, she has been able to keep the studio going and teach more students the basics of sewing.
A long history with sewing
Montgomery doesn't have a definite memory of her first time sewing. But she remembers learning from both her mother and grandmother over the years as a child. She entered home economics class in junior high with a basic understanding already.
"I was, like, 'I know how to make a pillow, I know how to put in a zipper,'" Montgomery said. "So I ended up putting on a ruffled border and adding applique. I took it up three notches since I already knew how to do the basic things."
Although she had a good knowledge of sewing, she left it behind throughout high school and didn't pick it up again until she entered the U.S. Air Force in the early ’90s. When her grandmother died and left her a sewing machine, she took it with her to the barracks and ended up running her own side business there. In addition to hemming her own uniform, she would sew on patches, take off buttons and sew up pockets for her fellow soldiers.
"We would sew the pockets closed so that way, you could iron them more easily," she said. "You could get them nice and crisp with starch. You couldn't have any pockets bowing out, so I sewed them all down."
Later, she returned to sewing again when she had her daughter, making baby blankets and dresses. She also went to school and became an elementary teacher at South Ridge schools and focused on teaching reading in the classroom. When she was asked if she'd be interested in taking over the Sew Duluth business in 2017, she jumped at the chance.
"It was kind of like a baton was being passed along," Montgomery said. "It fit perfectly with my interests; kids, education and creativity. And it's the pieces of being an elementary teacher that we just don't have time for during our day. We just don't get to do these kinds of fun, open-ended, hands-on projects during our teaching days."
Focusing on the basics
Montgomery started teaching at her kitchen table in Hermantown, but soon connected with the Duluth Folk School and moved the classes into a small studio space on the second floor. The studio offers sewing lessons and classes for children 8 and older. Since she took over on 2018, Montgomery estimates that she has taught approximately 150 students, ranging in age from 8 to 72, though she mostly focuses on 8- to 11-year-olds.
Students start out learning the basics of how the machine works, how to sew in a straight line, how to construct a piece and more. Montgomery has found that most of her young students are interested in learning to make stuffed animals, but she also tries to guide them to more practical projects.
"The consensus of the parents is that they have enough of those," she said. "I love to help them make practical things like bags and pouches, pillows, mittens, hats, aprons, pants and shirts. It's fun to teach them how these items are constructed."
Once students start getting the hang of things, Montgomery will often receive photos from proud parents and students of the various projects they tackle on their own. She has had students go on to make American Girl doll clothing to sell, create dog bandannas that were donated to Animal Allies and lately, she's had a lot of students making face masks.
"It's been wonderful. They keep sending pictures of the masks they were making to send to family or giving away. It just makes my heart happy," Montgomery said.
Students sew through crisis
One such student busily making masks is Duluthian Jerome Miller. At 72, Miller isn't exactly within Montgomery's usual target audience, but he took lessons after he encountered the classroom at the folk school.
"I just love learning new things," Miller said. "I had a whole bunch of jeans that needed to be hemmed, and I've always wanted to learn to sew. Alethea put together a program just for me and my daughter to help us learn the basics and our goals."
All the jeans in that stack have since been hemmed. He has also made eight masks from old t-shirts and other material around the house. Miller took classes in January and ended up getting his own sewing machine to continue sewing at home. He said the trickiest part was learning how to thread the machine.
"Everyone kind of loses it with the bobbin, including me," he said. "But once she put me at ease with the machine, it was easier."
Montgomery said threading the machine and sewing a straight line were the two biggest reasons she heard from adults about why they don't sew. The latter was a problem for Sew Duluth student Meghan Caine.
"Sewing in a straight line was hard, but Alethea gave us some good tips to help us out," Meghan Caine said. "I didn't realize how challenging one straight line could be. But placing some tape on the machine can help you line things up and makes a big difference."
For Meghan Caine's daughter Stella Caine, 10, threading the machine was the most difficult thing to learn. But with enough practice, she has been able to create several projects through her classes at the studio.
"I've made a quilt and a pouf (a large circle-shaped pillow)," Stella said. "I also made a stuffed animal octopus in one of the classes, and I just made her a mask."
Meghan is glad Stella took an interest in sewing as it prompted the family to buy a sewing machine prior to the pandemic.
“I wanted Stella to be able to sew whenever she wanted to,” Meghan said. “Now we’re very happy we have one in our house so we can make masks whenever we want.”
As for Montgomery, she has continued to make masks for donations and to sell in the folk school storefront, made with the scraps from her students' projects. She stopped keeping track of the number of masks she made after 150.
In the meantime, she has found ways to continue holding classes and workshops in the studio while keeping her students distanced and safe.
“After all, it’s a good chance for students to practice their math skills in a practical setting and develop their reading comprehension by following directions,” Montgomery said. “Which is something they could use right now.”