Twelve years ago, Wendy Skinner wanted to take her seemingly disparate set of skills and meld them with her new passion, sustainability. Over a decade later, she still comes into SewGreen each day, trying to “put on a show,” as she calls it, and preserve the family atmosphere that Ithacans with an interest in knitting, sewing or materials have grown to know.
Skinner said she caught the “sustainability bug” about 15 years ago and was trying to determine a way to contribute to that via a business. Through a re-use business like SewGreen, Skinner found what she was looking for: a mission-driven business that she could use to promote what she believed in. Skinner didn’t even know how to sew when she first started the business, though she has since learned and can teach it to others now.
“I was saying, ‘How am I going to be part of the sustainability movement with my background, it doesn’t fit this,’” Skinner said. “A very wise person said ‘Take what you have and apply it to sustainability.’ I have a background in journalism, marketing, design, event management, and I just put it all together and applied it to this mission.”
The success so far has been obvious. The store’s inital location was in DeWitt Mall, before moving to a storefront on Cayuga Street. Since then, SewGreen has expanded three separate times, and now occupies four joined storefronts. Part of that space is so that the store’s inventory can meet demand, but part is also so that the staff can handle the sizable amount of donations that the store receives regularly. Skinner estimated that the store saves about 30 tons of usable materials from landfills each year.
“It’s a daily exercise of going through things, finding out what is sale-able, what to sell it for, it’s pretty tricky,” Skinner said. “It’s something somebody bought and thought they were going to make a project with it, and then years or even decades later, they realized they were not going to make a project.”
That type of work is actually what created SewGreen. Skinner said they organized a one-time sale of donated materials before the store even opened, with the goal of gauging local interest in buying material that had been pre-owned (not necessarily pre-used), and sold out in one day, with a line outside. Since that day, the demand for a store like SewGreen, and the community that it fosters, has been clear.
The company has also started Knit Nights, a weekly event that allows customers to come to the store to learn with and from each other. Skinner said that kind of offering allows the store to dip into the experiential shopper market, or those customers who want more than just a retail experience if they’re going to a brick-and-mortar establishment. It also helps serve as an attraction to people who might want to learn about knitting before they start getting deeper into purchasing materials and the like. For instance, Skinner said that while the store’s customer base is mostly made up of women, quite a few men attend the Knit Nights.
Additionally, Skinner set out early on to include and employ younger people in the venture, something she’s been able to do with some success. Through that, she’s been able to create “tiered mentoring,” a system in which people who grew up learning at the store will, once they reach a certain age, be able to effectively hand down their lessons to younger kids to help them learn as well, hopefully even as employees of SewGreen.
“Providing these jobs, and meaningful, enriching jobs, is also part of our mission,” Skinner said, smiling. “We’ve always got teenagers around. Definitely keeps it lively.”