Mending lives with secondhand sewing machines

For 16 years, Margaret Jankowski has been lifting people out of poverty, repairing the lives of abused women, and offering hope through The Sewing Machine Project. Episode 1 of the “People Making a Difference” podcast. 

The Sewing Machine Project

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Courtesy Margaret Jankowski
Margaret Jankowski, founder of The Sewing Machine Project in Madison, Wisconsin, turned her passion into a vehicle for hope.

“We passionately believe in the possibility a sewing machine embodies.” That’s the mission statement of The Sewing Machine Project in Madison, Wisconsin. 

It’s a statement of hope. It also conveys the transformative power the project’s founder, Margaret Jankowski, has witnessed over the past 16 years. “I’ve seen this tool lift people out of poverty, and I’ve seen this tool lift people out of depression. I’ve seen people become more confident when they’re sewing,” she says.

She tells about what happened after a shipment of sewing machines was delivered to Tanzania in 2018. One woman, according to the local nongovernmental organization in Tanzania, didn’t have enough money for food, let alone to send her three children to school. But the donation of a secondhand machine made all the difference. “Mama Patrick,” the NGO reported, started sewing, and teaching sewing, and selling her own handmade clothes in her village. “With that extra income, they now can send all three kids to school. They have food in the fridge,” says Mrs. Jankowski, adding, “I believe that that is a whole set of lives mended.”

You might have seen the Monitor story we wrote about Margaret Jankowski’s work on June 3, 2021. We wanted to check in with her again, and take you a little deeper with an audio interview.

Episode transcript

[Music]

Margaret Jankowski: I think the most important thing is just to listen and listen to what your community needs, and to know that you don’t have to start some giant organization. Go out and help somebody that needs some help. I mean, man, we all need a lot of help right now. So help somebody that needs help. And if you find that you’re onto something, you know, help some more people.

Dave Scott: That’s Margaret Jankowski, founder of The Sewing Machine Project in Madison, Wisconsin. She’s given out more than 3,300 secondhand sewing machines. But her project is really about teaching empathy, generosity, and how to repair lives. And as you listen to excerpts from our conversation, you’ll see that Margaret seldom has all the answers, but she has learned to trust that a good idea has power and is often supported and shaped in ways she could never have imagined.

Welcome to “People Making a Difference,” a podcast about people who are, step-by-step, making a better world.

I’m Dave Scott.

Welcome, Margaret. 

Margaret Jankowski: Thank you!

Dave Scott: Let’s begin at the beginning. It’s 2004, the day after Christmas, a huge tsunami devastates coastal communities in 14 countries across Asia. It’s one of the worst natural disasters in recorded history in the days and weeks afterwards, many of us look for ways to help. Tell us, Margaret, what you did.

Margaret Jankowski: Well, I think like most of the world I was watching the news and reading the paper and just so stunned and I felt so small - like what could I possibly do that could make any kind of a difference?. I was here at home, a couple teenage kids and a husband in the next room. And I was sitting here reading sewing websites on a Saturday morning and just kind of scrolling through the internet.

I came across this article about a woman who had lost her sewing machine in that storm. It was not a long article. It was written by a BBC reporter who was traveling with these women back to their village. And [he was] interviewing them about what do you hope to find in the remains of whatever’s left where you used to be?

One woman replied: “Just my sewing machine.” She went on to talk about how she had used that machine to support her family. She planned to teach her daughter to sew when she became a little bit older. That tool had begun lifting their family out of poverty and she was hoping to find it.

And I just stopped in my tracks. So I have to admit my initial response was, “Oh, I don’t know what I’d do without my sewing machine.” But then the more I thought about it, I would survive without my sewing machine. And for this woman that was not necessarily true.

Dave Scott: Margaret was working at a sewing machine shop in Madison at the time, teaching sewing, selling machines, and taking customers through the features on new machines.

Margaret Jankowski: Quite often I would hear: “I wonder what I’ll do with my old sewing machine.” And I was just thinking this is crazy, the imbalance. In fact, I remember sitting here holding up my two hands and thinking that this is so out of balance: Here are people that just don’t don’t even know what they’re going to do with this old thing, and then there are people to whom it would make a world of difference.

Dave Scott: Margaret decided to try and do something about this imbalance between haves and have nots. She went to her boss but he wasn’t interested in her scheme. He and many others also kept pointing out the obstacles. How would you pay for shipping? Where would you actually send the secondhand sewing machines? And she didn’t have a lot of the answers.

Margaret Jankowski: I will tell you, I had never done anything like this before in my life. This was not like, “Oh yeah, I know what to do.” I didn’t know what to do. But I just kind of would hold the question and there would be an answer. For instance, another friend called and said, “Where are you going to send those sewing machines?” And I said, “I don’t know.” She said, “I work with a guy who’s in the American Hindu Association chapter here in town, and they’re sending relief supplies over. Why don’t you talk to him?”

So I talked to him and they were working with orphanages and sending a bunch of relief supplies. I said, “What about sewing machines?” He said, “Oh man, they could certainly use those to sew for the kids, to teach people how to sew. Yeah, we can send sewing machines.”

So I had my answer, but not from anywhere that I ever would have guessed.

Dave Scott: At one point, Margaret went to a local TV station and held up a sketch of a big wave, a tsunami, on an 8.5 by 11 piece of paper and asked for people to donate their old sewing machines.

Margaret Jankowski: I had set a collection date for a Saturday morning, and I remember kind of bustling around at the front of the store setting up tables and thinking, “Well, if people show up (this was before the store had opened in the morning) [I was] thinking that I want to be ready for this.”

I remember raising my eyes and looking out the front window and there were people lined up down the sidewalk. This was still winter in Wisconsin, so people are out there in the cold and just cradling sewing machines and bags of stuff. One by one, people kept bringing machines and bringing fabric, these beautiful pieces of fabric.

It was just one after another all morning long for three hours straight, people just showed up. When we closed and locked the door, I remember sitting there just looking at this sea of sewing machines and bags, and I felt overwhelmed, but in the best possible way, not like, “Oh, what am I going to do?” But look at how this resonates with people.

Dave Scott: Over the next few months, Margaret raised the money to ship the sewing machines by reaching out to the local Kiwanis Club and Rotary Club and Girl Scouts and the school district. She ended up sending five shipments of sewing machines to orphanages in India. And she really thought that would be the end of the project, but then hurricane Katrina devastated the city of New Orleans in August of 2005.

Margaret Jankowski: Surprisingly, I had actually been in New Orleans two weeks before Katrina hit. I was down there for a sewing machine conference. I remember watching the news right after the storm hit and seeing these familiar streets where I’d just been walking and seeing the city in darkness and water. I mean, it was terrifying. Again, just like after the tsunami, what could I possibly do?

Dave Scott: So she redirected her efforts, asked her donors if they’d be OK if the remaining sewing machines and money could be used to help folks in New Orleans.

Margaret Jankowski: We rented a van and my 14-year-old daughter and I drove to New Orleans and again I thought, “What am I going to do? Am I going to lean out the window with a megaphone when I’m in New Orleans?” I really didn’t have much of a plan. And again, a friend calls and says, “Do you need a contact in New Orleans?”

I said, “I do.” She said, “My brother-in-law is the rector at the Episcopal church on Canal Street.” He said, “I’ll put it out there and let people know when you’re coming.” So I remember the church had dried out, but it was empty. I remember setting up tables there and lining up all these machines and standing there with my daughter, thinking “I hope people come and take these. I hope I don’t just have to put them back  in the van and drive home.” But little by little people came. I remember one woman saying, “We keep thinking that people have forgotten about us down here and then somebody like you comes along and we know we’re not forgotten.” And I thought, “Yes, this is exactly what I’m supposed to be doing now.”

Dave Scott: Margaret began making regular trips to New Orleans, collecting contact information when she didn’t have enough machines. It was there that she hit upon the “pay it forward” concept, which then became a cornerstone of The Sewing Machine Project – something that would amplify her work and empower others.

Margaret Jankowski: People would say all the time, “how can I repay you for this? This is such a gift.” So I started saying, “Well, think of a way that you can pay it forward. Think of a way that you can use this machine to help someone else.” And it just totally clicked with people. I would say, “What do you think you’ll do?” Oh, I’m going to teach somebody else to sew, or I’m going to share my machine in the neighborhood, or I’m going to make little hats and take them over to the hospital for the NICU unit.” People had so many ideas. It was such a powerful thing and I feel like it gives us such a ripple effect.

I just feel that’s really important. Plus, after Katrina, so many people just felt like there was nothing they could do. They felt so powerless. I really feel that it’s an important message to say, “You do have the power to make a difference in your community. You do. So what are you going to do?”

Dave Scott: Your mission statement: “We passionately believe in the possibility a sewing machine embodies” is a statement that conveys a sense of hope.” Where did that come from?

Margaret Jankowski: It took years for that vision statement to emerge.  I’ve seen this tool lift people out of poverty, and I’ve seen this tool lift people out of depression. I’ve seen people become more confident when they’re sewing and I’ve seen people learn to connect with one another and problem solve together when they sewed together. And so I, with all my heart, believe that a sewing machine embodies all this possibility. With this piece of equipment, you can open so many doors. I believe it’s a vehicle for that. 

Dave Scott: I asked Margaret to share an example or two of how this tool has given hope and lifted people out of poverty.

Margaret Jankowski: We sent machines with a medical mission group over to Tanzania. There’s a woman, Mama Patrick, she knew how to sew a little bit, but she took a sewing course with these machines we’d sent. Then, she was given a machine and she took it back to her village. 

Mama Patrick is married. She has three kids. Her husband was supporting the family and they didn’t have a lot of money and they often didn’t have food – for a day or two. They had to pay for their kids to go to school. They had to choose which child would get to go to school. 

So Mama Patrick brought this machine back and started teaching sewing, and also developed her own line of clothing and started selling [clothes] in her village. She started her own little alterations business and started using this tool. With that extra income, they now can send all three kids to school. They have food in the fridge. They are able to more than get by. And I believe that that is a whole set of lives mended.

Dave Scott: Mending lives. That’s a powerful way of thinking about your work.

Margaret Jankowski: We gave a set of machines to a group called Project Respect, which is here in Madison. Project Respect is an organization that helps people who are survivors of sex trafficking, and helps them with counseling or resources, whatever they need to find their way in the world. They were offering therapy and the woman that is the therapist, thought, “Oh, maybe I’ll offer sewing too,” because they were having a hard time getting people to come to therapy.

I know from my own experience that when I sit down to sew, it frees up my mind to talk about things or problem solve. And she found that too. All of a sudden, people were starting to open up when their hands were busy, working with fabric. She was able to get through to her clients, much more. 

Furthermore, another piece of it that I just had never realized before, she said that people in that situation, her clients, had lost the ability to plan forward. They were living in such a fight-or-flight mode that they had trouble planning beyond the very next step. With a sewing project, you have to look at this picture of a finished thing, and you say, “I want to make that.” Then you say, “OK, what do I have to do to get there? What are the steps?” And she said, “It’s reteaching how to get from Point A to Point B.” And it’s been really impactful.

Dave Scott: I’ve never considered that the act of sewing could help teach people how to think and plan more effectively. So Margaret, you’ve been doing this for 16 years now and touched many lives. How has this project transformed you?

Margaret Jankowski: It has changed the way that I see the world. I would say most significantly it’s changed the way that I approach any sort of challenge. Prior to doing this work, I wasn’t really part of any faith community. Although The Sewing Machine Project isn’t a faith-based community, it has informed my faith.

It’s taught me that my imagination is limited by what I know, what I’ve experienced. But the imagination of the universe is boundless. So it’s changed the way that I wish for things, ask for things, or you could say, [the way] I pray for things. Instead of saying, “I wish I had whatever. I think, no, I don’t know how this needs to end. I don’t know how this needs to be answered. 

I sit back and say, “Help me see what I need to do now. My line that I use all the time is: Shine, a big, old light on what I’m supposed to do now. More often than not, I get the answers I need and they’re almost always beyond anything I would have dreamed.

That’s a huge game changer for me. It has changed the way I walk in the world.

Dave Scott: Can you share an example of that big, old light showing you the way?

Margaret Jankowski: Absolutely. My imagination is limited, but the universe has all sorts of ideas. So I mentioned that in my trips to New Orleans, we had this giant list of people that needed machines. I called one woman named Anna and I said, “Do you still need machines?” And she said, “Oh man, do I ever. My fiancé and I are going to open this community center. We are renovating this old house that’s really beat up. We have this vision of creating a kind of a community gathering place.” She said, “We would love a machine.”

She said, “We’d love to offer sewing classes.” And then she kind of paused and she said, “Do you think we could have three machines?” And I said, “Oh yeah, sure. We can, we can figure that out.” We finished up our conversation and then she called me back, and she said, “Do you think we could have five machines?”

I went back to the back room where I kept all the machines at the store and I looked through the machines that we had waiting to go to New Orleans. I was trying to kind of identify five that would be good to use together in a classroom, [five] that had enough similarities that they wouldn’t drive a teacher crazy.

In that batch of machines, they couldn’t have been more different. And so I was feeling a little defeated and it was one of those moments where I [thought] shine a big old light on this because I’m not seeing it. 

I had to leave the store for a few hours and when I returned, right inside the front door were five sewing machines and they were exactly alike. I thought that’s weird. Nobody leaves them there [at the front door] for service. So I checked with one of my coworkers and she said, “Oh, it’s too bad you missed this lady. She is a retired sewing teacher and she just dismantled her classroom. These are all classroom-grade machines and she’s had them all serviced. They were all threaded with brightly colored thread and they were exactly alike.” And I took them to New Orleans.

Dave Scott: With results like that. I can see why you said this project has changed the way I walk in the world. Would you tell us about some of the other lessons you’ve learned over the past 16 years? What would you pass along to somebody who’s doing work as a social entrepreneur?

Margaret Jankowski: I would say, No. 1, don’t decide that you know best what other people need.

If you feel like you have a good idea and you’re onto something, talk to the people that you intend to serve and find out what they really want or really need and let them shape the idea. The second thing would be, don’t decide what something’s going to look like when it’s done; allow it to grow in a way that’s natural.

Be OK talking about and defining – whether you’re talking with a board or your work group or whatever – what you are and what you aren’t. Sculpt boundaries. It doesn’t mean that those boundaries are carved in stone and you can’t ever waiver. Of course, your idea will evolve, but it helps so much to say this project falls within our boundaries at this time, or it does not. 

[Music]

And finally, if things don’t work – and inevitably they’re just not going to work – remember that you started by wanting to do something. And that this little spark of goodness is something that the universe really, really needs. So keep going.

Dave Scott: I hear a lot of openness to listening and continuous learning in Margaret’s approach to mending lives. And of course, [she has learned to] trust that a good idea comes with its inherent power and momentum. It doesn’t require that you know all the answers.

I’ve been talking to Margaret Jankowski, founder of The Sewing Machine Project. We barely scratched the surface of what her organization does. So if you’re interested in learning more, go to her website, thesewingmachineproject.org. 

Here’s this week’s challenge: If you have a secondhand sewing machine, well, you know what to do. But if you don’t, then, volunteer. Give some time to one of the social causes your company, your family or house of worship is supporting. Or, go to this website:VolunteerMatch.org and the site may give you some ways to help out in your city or town. Then, call me and tell me how it went. Call me at 617-450-2410 and leave me a voice message about it. That’s 617-450-2410. 

Thanks for listening to People Making a Difference, a podcast about people who are, step-by-step, making a better world.

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