Sew and Tell

Michael Swaine

Michael Swaine, Oakland, California; founder of the Free Mending Library; professor at UC Berkeley, Mills College, and the California College of the Arts; member of the art collective Futurefarmers. | Photo by Lori Eanes

"Around 12 years ago, a friend and I were walking by an abandoned alley in San Francisco, and she asked, 'If you could do anything with this space, what would you do?' I had just found this old treadle sewing machine, so I said, kind of impulsively, 'I would set up my sewing machine and just sew for the neighbors.' 

"Somehow the stars aligned for this strange idea. The Luggage Store, a nonprofit art gallery in San Francisco's Tenderloin neighborhood, offered to let me use the alley next to them. I sew from noon to sundown on the 15th of each month. 

"Eighty percent of the people who show up live in nearby low-income housing. I hem a lot of pants and patch a lot of holes. But I don't say no to anything. Once I sewed a little pink dog collar. Often people sew with me--grandmothers who are losing their vision and can't thread the needle anymore, people who live in cramped apartments and don't have a sewing machine. Neighbors help neighbors. The conversations start with sewing and end up someplace else. Sometimes people just want to talk about the hard day they've had.

"The thing I love most about the Free Mending Library is that it's out on the streets. Businessmen sit next to recovering drug addicts or the minister who runs the domestic violence shelter down the street. Having this kind of shared experience has made me see how the conveniences of modern society, like Netflix and air-conditioning, make us stay home and in some inherent way start to fear our neighbor. 

"There are a lot of things we need to do for our environment, like buying less and sharing more. But sharing requires that first step of trust. The fear that's between people gets in the way of good solutions." 


ON THE MEND The Luggage Store turned the adjacent Cohen Alley into the Tenderloin National Forest, a foot-traffic-only haven with murals, trees, and community events. 

ON THE WEB For more on Michael Swaine, go to

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