Social enterprise Assembled Threads harnesses manufacturing skills of undiscovered migrants

Edwina Walsh was on a plane leaving Nepal when the idea first came up.

She had gone to the countryside to have beanies made in a fair trade factory that hired women who had escaped the sex trade.

And Australia, she wondered.

There must be hundreds, thousands of women, she thought, who come from countries with strong manufacturing industries.

Where are they?

Some women work at the cutting table while others sew. (ABC News: Rachel Clayton)

Back in Melbourne, Edwina spent a year researching how to find and employ these women.

And the women were also trying to find her.

Women like K’Yo Paw Mya, 55, who spent 30 years in a refugee camp before coming to Australia in search of work and money to support her two sons.

K'Yo cuts the fabric on a cutting table.
K’Yo says she lived in a bamboo hut for decades in the camp and gave birth to her two children there. (ABC News: Rachel Clayton )

Women like Amina Sadiqi, who has been in Australia for nine years and applied for hundreds of jobs, but has been told a version of: You are too old every time. Your English is not good enough. You have no experience in Australia.

Women like Farishta Safi, who needs to send money to Afghanistan so her family can find a way to take one flight a day out of the country.

All three are now employed by Assembled Threads – a social business that Edwina started a year ago to tap into a skill set she says Australia hardly values ​​anymore: local manufacturing.

Amina wears a light blue top and threads the fabric through a sewing machine
Amina and her husband have been denied work for years. (ABC News: Rachel Clayton)

“In the rag business you are trained to meet deadlines, negotiate prices, make things happen no matter what bothers you, so I felt there was a real opportunity to harness this skill. and link it to local manufacturing, ”she said. .

Assembled Threads started at a converted gas station at Moonee Ponds in Melbourne and recently opened a sewing center in Norlane in north Geelong as a state government funded pilot program, hiring and training nine local women .

Farishta leans over the back of her chair to talk to someone.
Farishta is still smiling in the hub despite her daily struggle to get her family out of Afghanistan. (ABC News: Rachel Clayton )

“We have to find a place to go”

The makeshift factory is housed in a portable building overlooking a foot oval that in 2006 housed the Ugandan Commonwealth Games team.

It’s small and contains only the essentials: sewing machines, a cutting table, two ironing boards and rolls of fabric.

The aprons they made for a local wool designer last month sold out on Instagram within days.

Parima wears a hijab and works on a white sewing machine near a window.
Parima and her husband were separated for years until a month ago, when he was allowed to enter Australia. (ABC News: Rachel Clayton)

They sewed high-visibility vests for construction companies and gowns for local hospitals.

Today they are completing an exclusive line of wool blend shirts for a Melbourne designer.

The women arrived at 9:30 am, as they do every day, right after leaving school, and immediately went to work.

The hum of sewing machines quickly stifles chatter about children and husbands and rising rents. The play becomes a scene of bowed heads and focused eyes.

Monireh Mashhadi Babakandi sits in front of a sewing machine and looks at her work.
Monireh says she fell into a depression after being turned down from jobs she applied for in Australia. (ABC News: Rachel Clayton)

Soon Bollywood tunes are blaring from someone’s iPhone on a window sill.

Monireh Mashhadi Babakandi, the production line manager who worked for 30 years in a garment factory in Iran before coming to Australia to escape persecution, makes sure the quality is up to par.

K’Yo and Rajani Nelson, 51, who have both lived in refugee camps for decades, are in charge of the cutting table, moving the patterns around the fabric to make sure there are no excessive waste. It’s the first job they’ve been able to get since moving to Australia years ago.

Farishta says this is his second job; she casually works in a kitchen near Torquay the rest of the week, but prefers it here.

Later that day, while ironing the finished shirts, Farishta asks another woman to work for Uber; what car do you need? What does it pay for? Can your car get old if you only work for Uber Eats?

Rajani Nelson wears an orange top sits next to a sewing machine and looks at the camera.
Rajani says all she wants is a stable, permanent job so that she can focus on building her life in Geelong.(ABC News: Rachel Clayton)

After eight weeks, the pilot program at Norlane ends as funding runs out. And the women are looking for work again while Edwina and hub director Kate Radke look for a partner to continue.

“We want this to continue,” says Kate, “But we have to find a place to go and we need more local orders.”

Lately, Kate responded to calls from Centrelink recruiters asking if women could stay.

“It was still just a contract,” she told them.

The women discuss among themselves how they can tinker with their lives and pray. Assembled Threads will continue – not only for work and the chance to practice their English, but also for friendships, and a place where they can be themselves outside of the roles they play at home.

Local businesses could be the hub’s lifeline

Kate talks to two women at a low table.
Kate Radke is quickly trying to consolidate more business so the hub can continue. (ABC News: Rachel Clayton )

After the women’s lunch break, Kate pulls out a chair and makes a date with two women who have traveled from Torquay to talk shop.

The combination of the slowdown in international supply chains after the pandemic and a renewed consumer desire for sustainable, locally made clothing could be the hub’s saving grace.

According to the Commonwealth Bank’s Consumer Insights Report earlier this year, more than 50 percent of Australian shoppers want to buy original and locally made products. And fashion is leading the way.

Both visitors have a business idea that they want to launch but need a local manufacturer. Their product would be a boutique, they say, with a small run and seasonal changes in fabrics and design – something that would be too difficult to outsource to factory centers in Asia, they say.

“We can do it,” Kate says, looking at the prototypes and calling Monireh to show the two businesswomen her sewing prowess.

“How much do you need? They can make 100 units a day.”

One responds that he may have to increase his order, surprised at what the small production line can handle.

“Okay,” one woman said, nodding to the other.

“We speak.”

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