Social justice a common thread at sew shop


Public Thread often uses upcycled materials to create its products and pays workers a “living wage” so they are not spending an inordinate amount of their income on housing. Photo by Johnny Quirin

After years in government and nonprofit roles, Janay Brower felt she was no longer cut out for “safety net” approaches. She wanted to address social problems, such as homelessness and poverty, on the front end.

In June 2016, Brower opened Public Thread, a for-profit social enterprise that co-leases space with the nonprofit Treetops Collective at 906 S. Division Ave. in Grand Rapids.

Public Thread pays a living wage to six employees who design and machine sew clothing and accessories for clients. The company also makes its own line of Public Thread branded goods to sell from occasional pop-up shops in its space.

As defined by the state of Michigan, a living wage is one that allows an employee to make enough money so only 30 percent of his/her income goes to housing. Also called “the housing wage,” the rate is calculated differently depending on the size of household.

“That’s where I start with my employees, is at an individual level,” Brower said.

She operates the business under a simple philosophy summarized on Public Thread’s website: “Support your people, don’t use more than you need, re-use what you can and leave the world better than you found it.”

From 2001-07, Brower worked for the city of Grand Rapids’ Our Community’s Children partnership, creating public policy around helping vulnerable youths and families. She then served at the Grand Rapids Area Coalition to End Homelessness, addressing systemic problems in the region’s housing pipeline.

Over time, she felt a sense of urgency to take a different approach.

“Really what became evident to me is that we have a safety net of social services in the community, but in reality, those are secondary systems,” Brower said. “They’re trying to fix what didn’t work. They’re trying to catch issues, particularly in the homeless world.

“What I wanted to do was create something or be part of something that actually gets it right the first time. The idea was, how do we create living-wage jobs that actually support people to be able to take care of themselves and their families, meet their basic needs, thrive and do creative things?”

Brower left the coalition in 2012 and started Janay J. Brower Consulting. While advising nonprofit, government and community clients on strategies for systems change, Brower developed her business idea.

A self-described creative type with an interest in fashion, she said she always wanted to open a clothing boutique. But she also wanted to continue her work in the social justice sphere.

“I started saying, I don’t want to just sell the clothes in the end, although that’s great — but I want to actually make the clothes,” Brower said. “I want to know that (those) who made the clothes that I buy are being treated well, that they’re honored for their craftsmanship and their skills.”

Brower started making connections with Kendall College of Art and Design, Grand Rapids Community College, and makers and nonprofits all over the country to find out who was doing what, how they were doing it, where they were getting the talent and what it would take to make her business happen.

“What I heard over and over again (from entrepreneurs and designers) was they wanted a place where they could actually make their things right here in this community,” Brower said. “I went to try to figure out, who knows how to do this? Because I’m not the technician. I can sew a skirt — barely — and some basic stuff, but I don’t have training and expertise.”

After finding people with the right skills, Brower launched Public Thread.

The company concentrates on small-batch production and preproduction, including product design, prototyping, sample making, assistance with fabric and textile sourcing, pattern making and grading.

The employees mostly use upcycled textiles, or donated or reduced-price fabrics to construct the products.

A recent creation used donated leather from Steelcase for a handbag and seatbelts salvaged from a junkyard for the handbag straps.

Public Thread made tote bags for Calvin College’s 2018 Festival of Faith and Writing held earlier this month.

The shop also produced tote bags made out of grain sacks from West Michigan breweries for the fourth annual Grand Rapids Neighborhood Summit in March. One of its Public Thread tote bags, called The Weekender, also uses grain sacks in the lining for easy cleanup of snack spills.

“It’s really amazing because we have so many materials,” Brower said. “Textiles are the third-biggest material in our landfill. The reality is we throw everything away. We don’t think about the impact it has, not only on our Earth, but the opportunity to take a material and make something totally different than what it was for, like carrying grain to the brewery to make beer.”

Brower said she hopes one day most materials will be sustainably created so they are compostable, which some of her creations currently are not except by complicated deconstruction processes.

“What I would really love is that we don’t create waste that we have to upcycle on the front end. What I would love is for the bags that bring the (grain) to the breweries, for it to be compostable,” she said. “There would have to be some innovation around packaging.”

In the meantime, she said her ambition for Public Thread in the next five years is to grow to 50 employees and become a worker-owned operation with an apprenticeship program for returning citizens who want to go from basic to advanced sewing skills.

“I have said many times, ‘This is my art.’ Building this system, and saying you can do it in a sustainable way and you can pay people living wages, is art,” Brower said. “It’s really showcasing that economic development can be inclusive, it can be equitable and it needs to be.”

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