By Ashley Lin, AKOM Spotlight Interviewer
Once a month for the past fifteen years, Michael Swaine has, stitch by stitch, mended the fabric of his community on the streets of the Tenderloin District in downtown San Francisco. On the fifteenth of every month, Michael, an active member of Futurefarmers (a group of artists and designers) and a sculpture/ceramics teacher, can be found pushing an old-fashioned, ice-cream-style cart on wheels with a treadle-operated sewing machine on it. The rest of the day is then dedicated to the neighbors, sewing what needs to be repaired, which often goes past material items. Michael’s program, the Free Mending Library, has fixed more than just holes in socks and coats but holes in people’s lives.
Mr. Swaine allowed Amazing Kids! to speak with him about his experiences in making a difference.
Amazing Kids (AK): What is the Free Mending Library, and what inspired you to create it?
Michael Swaine (MS): While walking down an alley in San Francisco with a friend one day, she asked, “Michael, what would you do if you lived in this alley?” There was this serendipity that a week earlier, as another friend and I were driving home late at night, we saw a sewing machine someone was throwing away. It was in a pile with all these garbage bags, ready for the garbage man in the morning. We stopped and put the old treadle sewing machine in the back of his truck.
It was the serendipity between one friend asking me, “What would you do if you lived in this alley?” and another friend helping me pick up this sewing machine that spurred the moment. Because of that, I told my friend, “I’d put my old sewing machine in the middle of this empty alley and sew for the neighbors.” She encouraged me and said, “Well, that sounds like a great idea; you should do it.” Then it became a whole sequence of steps toward that idea, and the purpose of the project has continuously evolved, changed, and morphed over the years.
AK: What other activities are you involved in?
MS: I work with a collective of artists called Futurefarmers, and I’ve also been teaching part-time for years. I teach ceramics, sculpture classes, art classes in general. Recently, I took a job in Seattle, so I moved away from San Francisco. The Free Mending Program there is still going, but a friend has taken over. Right now, I’m teaching a lot of sculpture classes and working with Futurefarmers on a recent project at Carpenter’s Center, a small museum at Harvard.
AK: How has the Free Mending Project changed over time, and what goals do you have for the future?
MS: The project has been going on for 15 years. When it started, I put the cart out on the sidewalk, and said “I’ll do this once a month for six months” to the community center lending me space. I made posters and put them up around the city, so the neighbors knew what was happening. When six months was up, I realized it was a powerful project; I was learning things—there was a lot of need, holes to be mended—and people appreciated it. At the end of six months, I said to myself, “Well, I’m just going to keep coming.”
That was also the time when the neighborhood started to look at it differently. The first month that I came, people were skeptical, with questions like Who are you? Why are you here? Why are you doing this? Are you going to come in, do this, then leave a bit later? At the end of six months, the neighborhood thought about the project differently: There was a bit more trust. People realized I was coming back six months in a row, and to me, it felt like I was giving something back to my city.
It also wasn’t a huge commitment; it was something powerful but just once a month. When you do something once a day . . . phew! That’s a big commitment; you really need the time and resources to do it. Once a month is still a commitment, but it’s more feasible in the long run. The accidental choice of once a month made it so I could do other projects, get other things done, and keep teaching. Once a month allowed me to be rejuvenated between the months and have a refreshed perspective every month.
After five years, the neighborhood saw the consistency: They appreciated me and how trust was built. At year 7 or 10, I was interested as to how I could make the Free Mending Project continue and engage other people. At times, the Free Mending Library became like a class; I would teach people how to sew or use a machine they brought. Halfway through the 15 years, other neighbors started coming and helping. There was a gentleman, Eric, who would make coffee for people. They would bring food, sewing supplies; between the 15 years, something kind of changed with what the Mending Program provided. It wasn’t just mending anymore.
There was another big change when I moved to Seattle. A friend, Lauri, has taken over in San Francisco, and she’s made some changes to how it works. There’s a different efficiency; they have four electrical sewing machines with four different people. At times, it can be a tough neighborhood, so the hours have also shifted. I used to do it from noon to when the sun went down. Sometimes when I started to clean up, it would be pitch dark. Lauri starts at 10:00 a.m. and leaves a bit earlier. Some of that is feeling safe; when it gets dark, the neighborhood feels a bit different.
AK: What has been the most challenging part of your journey with the Free Mending Program so far, and how have you overcome it?
MS: The most challenging part was multitasking. There would be moments when I had a complicated sewing project, and at the same time, I was paying attention to the neighbors. That’s a complicated balancing act. When people are talking to you, you want to pay attention to them, look them in the eye, and understand what they’re getting at. At the same time, I want to focus on completing the sewing project. It isn’t something to overcome, but it’s something I practice: being productive and finishing projects but not being too productive that I’m not able to meet someone and listen.
There were times when I would have to say, “Can I hold you there on your thought; I need to finish this one stich, and then I’ll be right back and finish that conversation with you.” There are often a few conversations going at once, a few sewing projects going at once. Now, with four people at the Free Mending Library, one person could be more focused while the other could be the communicator. When I was doing it by myself, I would have to choose how to press pause—the project or the conversation.
AK: Other volunteers have joined in your mission. How did the volunteers get involved?
MS: Usually the volunteers would see one of the videos, visit, and then ask, “Oh, well, do you need any help?” I was pretty quick to ask those who stayed longer than just their mending project to help. Often I would say, “Can you help me cut that?” or “Can you tie a knot while I finish sewing this?” I would invite anyone to jump in, and I feel like some of those people who helped were not coming specifically for the mending.
Some people came because “I want to get the patch put on, and that’s my main purpose for this day.” Other people came because they were inspired by the gesture of mending other people’s things for free. Maybe they didn’t even bring anything to be mended; they just wanted to experience this kind of moment. On those days, it would kind of change how the chemistry felt at the Mending Library and how people moved around that moment.
When there are a lot of people sewing, a lot of people waiting for things to be sewn or mended, people would hang out a little bit when they got to the cart. They would watch for a while or ask questions. With this activity of mending, some people might’ve accidentally just walked by it. For other people, they might’ve heard about it. Eric, who brought coffee for about two years, heard about it through a friend. He came, and I saw how long he stayed. He said he wanted to come back the next month. I just told him, “Well, help however you want.” At that time, he was really interested in coffee, so he started making coffee for everyone.
AK: What has been your most memorable moment in the time that you have been doing the Free Mending Program?
MS: Most of the most memorable moments have Veronica there with me—Veronica comes a lot. She’s had a hard life; a really tough thing happened to her, and at one point, I realized something about the projects Veronica would bring. Often she would bring a suitcase with her, with maybe 12 projects inside it. Usually, I do about two projects for a person; it’s hard for me to get to more than two because there are other people in the line. So when Veronica would bring 12, I would tell her, “Well, we probably can’t get to all your projects today, Veronica.” She would reply, “Oh, that’s okay.”
But then she kept on bringing 12 projects, 20 projects, and at some point, she said this comment to me: “Michael, you’re one of the only people who will listen to me. It’s so nice to have someone to talk to.” I realized at that moment that while she might’ve had a lot of things to fix, that suitcase full of projects was a way that I could never say to her, “Okay, you’re done, Veronica.” Not that I would ever tell her to leave, or kick anyone out, but it was almost like her suitcase was her insurance policy that she could stay for the whole day and have someone to talk to.
I think that is one of the really powerful parts of the project. It’s not just about the mending, but it’s really about having the ability to have a conversation with someone who needs the conversation or the ability to talk to a stranger in an open way. I think all of those parts of the project show themselves with Veronica.
AK: What advice would you give to youth today who want to make a difference in their communities?
MS: The simplest advice is probably that the people we think are strangers to us—perhaps I don’t know this person, I don’t know this neighborhood, or I don’t know these people—often, those strangers have more in common with us than we think. That’s something that I learn every month. I would be sitting down, and someone would bring a project; now maybe this person was from a different country, was a recent immigrant, or had a really hard time.
There was a gentleman who came out, and he was in the Vietnam War. He was sitting down, and I was working on one of his projects. I realized that when you talk to someone, you first think that you would have nothing in common. After you sit down for a while, you realize how much you have in common. With everyone who walks by me, there’s always some way I can connect with a stranger; the sewing machine itself kind of became a bridge and a way that I could connect to anyone.
Almost all people have some connection to something sewn, whether their grandmother or grandfather had a sewing machine like this or whether they know how to sew. There’s always some way we can connect with a stranger. I hope that young people jump in and try something out: “Maybe this would work,” or “Maybe I could do this; maybe it would be a nice gesture for the city that I live in.” Not being afraid of trying something, not being afraid if it doesn’t work perfectly—that’s okay. Sometimes you only learn what the project needs or wants—what your neighbors need or want, how you can help someone—only by trying it. The Free Mending Library changed along the way. I had an assumption of what it would be like, but then on its own, it was doing something else. Don’t be afraid, and remember that our neighbors are more like us than we think.
AK: Who has been a mentor to you in your career or volunteer activities?
MS: There are many artists whom I look to; there’s an artist in Chicago who’s an inspiring artist making beautiful attempts to change the city he lived in. Like me, there’s another artist with a project called Project RowHouses. Most of the time, these artists inspire me. I also feel like I’ve had some wonderful teachers when I was growing up, wonderful art teachers. I had a teacher when I was in college, and he really inspired me to think differently.
A special thank you to Michael Swaine for taking the time to speak with us about his Mending Library. We hope his story inspires everyone to give of our special talents to help out in our own communities.