By Devin Rose
Oak Parker Michelle Santoro learned how to sew from her grandfather when she was 12 years old. She had no idea that working in clothes would eventually become her career.
"I thought I'd be a doctor, actually," she said in an interview last week.
Now, Santoro and Ilona Mestril, a fellow Oak Park resident and friend she's known for over 20 years, are trying to revitalize the ancient art of sewing. After years of pilot workshops, the two women are now offering more formal programming in textile arts for underserved children and young adults from the ages of 12 to 26. The non-profit Urban Threads Studio is meant to teach skills that are non-existent in Chicago schools. Santoro said home economics classes are disappearing from suburban schools as well because they are not considered worthwhile anymore.
"Everything is teaching to the test now," said Mestril, who was an organizer of a German language emersion program for kids. "[Textile arts] no longer fits into their matrix of performance." She added that her studio provides a nurturing environment that serves as an additional space for kids besides home and school. The kids console and feed off of each other and do not feel the need to compete, like they might in front of a classroom teacher.
Santoro said she thinks Urban Threads Studio is a model for the future of fashion. The "fast fashion" culture that exists now, with the United States buying clothes that are designed and manufactured overseas, is not sustainable. Mestril added that many people don't know how to repair clothes if buttons fall off, and will likely just get rid of them. Santoro said it's typical of teenagers in France to become apprentices on weekends or during the summer to learn skills in the fashion world. But during her five years as a fashion design faculty member at Dominican University, Santoro saw that the students didn't have the skills they really needed to be competitive in the industry. She said targeting teenagers will allow them to teach those skills early.
Another reason they wanted to start the organization, Mestril said, is because both women are parents who are now realizing what their own children have benefitted from. Santoro said she started doing textile projects with her daughters, who both know how to sew.
The kids like having something tangible that they created, she said, which is an aspect that is missing from our culture. Santoro and Mestril are also encouraging technology to be part of their projects. They use templates to make patterns on a computer and want the kids to showcase their projects on websites like Etsy and Pinterest as well. Mestril said they are just "jumping on the bandwagon" of an already popular do-it-yourself culture among youth.
Urban Threads Studio has been using space at Dominican for their workshops, but they are in the process of searching for their own space in Austin or another location on the West Side. They're self-funding now, using Santoro's own sewing machines, but will be searching on Craigslist for supplies and volunteers to lead workshops. As they grow, they'd like to also offer workshops for adults.
"I actually think it's going to explode," Santoro said about textile arts. "My gut tells me this is something that is needed."
For more information, visit urbanthreadsstudio.org.