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Guelph Tool Library's Sew On The Go is preserving clothes and memories

In this Following Up feature we follow Sew On The Go seamstress Beryl Holtam as she brings her mobile clothing repair service to local seniors’ centres.

We all have articles of clothing that are worn or out of style, but we keep them because they hold sentimental value and that is something Beryl Holtam sees a lot when she repairs clothes for seniors.

“My very first repair was a blouse from a woman who needed a button replaced,” said Holtam. “She said ‘I love this blouse and I would never throw it out even though my daughter said I should’.”

The items are often connections to their past with a value that something new or more fashionable can’t replace.

“I have to remind myself of that when I see something and wonder if is worth repairing,” she said. “I still repair it because they will wear it and it brings them comfort.”

Holtam operates a new Guelph Tool Library program called Sew On The Go that visits local retirement centres to repair clothing and other items for seniors.

She came up with the concept while volunteering with GTL’s Repair Café, a bi-monthly program where people can bring a wide variety of household items to be fixed or mended by local craftspeople.

“I think seniors need their clothes repaired as much as anyone,” she said. “They aren’t typically accessing the Repair Café or the Tool Library and I was sharing that thought out load with coordinator John Dennis. He said we could make that one of our programs and get you going. So that is how it started.”

They reached out to local retirement centres for feedback.

“Back in early summer we sent out about a dozen letters to the different retirement centres throughout Guelph and five of them replied and asked, ‘would you come to us?’,” she said.  “So, over the course of the summer I have established myself in five different retirement homes on a once-a-month rotation.”

It was a natural fit for Holtam who learned to sew out of interest and practicality.

“I was raised in a poor family but as kids we didn’t know it,” she said. “All our clothes had to be made and I started sewing as a young teenager making my own clothes.”

She earned a degree in family studies at the University of Guelph.

“At the University of Guelph in the 70s they were still teaching home economics courses so, I took a tailoring course and actually made a man’s suit once, just once,” she said. “That’s where the base of my skills and the principles of sewing come from.”

Sewing remained a passion and a thread of continuity in her life as she expanded her education and work experience.

“I love education, so I keep going back every 10 years for something,” said Holtam. “I never went into teaching, but I did go to teachers’ college. I worked in the Anglican Church with youth for a number of years. I worked with frontline social work at Family and Children’s Services and I worked with autistic children so, every five to seven years I change. I always say I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.”

Her last job was at a senior’s centre in Hamilton, but she grew tired of the workload and the daily commute.

“I retired but then I didn’t know what to do with myself so, I decided I had to put together my passions,” she said. “I love sewing and I really enjoy the Repair Café stuff and I am really good with seniors. Why not put that all together?”

She said Sew On The Go does more than simply repair people’s clothes.

“I have learned through my previous work, that for some seniors it is a about their social and emotional wellbeing to be able to sit and chat about something in their past,” she said. “Everywhere I go I get visited by women who did this as a career. They were sewing in department stores and all over the place and now they have to ask for the help because they have given up their machines.”

Some even want to do the sewing themselves.

“The other day a woman asked to borrow a needle and thread so she could do it herself,” said Holtam. “I said absolutely, come sit beside me and that is what we did. John wants to expand the program so I would bring in an extra sewing machine and let those who want to, use the machine themselves. Just to let them remember their love for it.”

She enjoys hearing their stories and mending their cherished items such as Abbey Densmore who asked her to replace the elastic in his favourite hat.

“He is such an extrovert and loves telling stories,” she said. “I think Abbey is such a character and at 99 he is just remarkable.”

Jean Cottrill is 89 and she asked Holtam to shorten the sleeves on her blouse.

“I used to be four-11, but I am getting shorter due to age,” she said.

Holtam relies on donations and has applied for grants to keep the service free to seniors.

“I am the only person I know doing this,” she said. “I hope to get up to eight homes. That would be two a week. That would keep me as busy as I want to be and I am always taking stuff home. I can never do all the work here. I don’t like to rush because that is when you make mistakes.”