By Adrian Perron
Photographed by Molly Haley
Excerpt from our July 2022 issue

In 2015, a few years after Apphia Kamanda moved to Maine from the Democratic Republic of Congo, her English teacher suggested she discover a new nonprofit organization that trained refugees, asylum seekers and new citizens to become industrial embroiderers. It was a perfect choice for Kamanda, who graduated in fashion design in Congo, so she joined the very first class of what is now called Maine Common Sons. Around the same time, Jo Bell moved to Maine from Washington State. A former embroiderer turned nonprofit administrator, Bell became a Common Threads instructor in 2020. Four months later, Kamanda became her assistant instructor.

Jo Bell (left) and Apphia Kamanda (right), in the new Thrift & Gift Store

Last year, the two women took over as co-executive directors from founder Dory Waxman – a longtime presence in Portland’s business and political communities – who had led Common Threads since the organization’s launch. seven years ago (and still serves as chairman of its board). “When she asked us, I was scared,” Kamanda says. “I thought it would be overwhelming. But Dory made me trust myself. Every day is a learning process, and Jo and I complement each other.

They’ve proven to be a dynamic duo, taking an organization once focused primarily on job training — equipping participants to work in Maine’s textile industry — and dramatically expanding its goals. For starters, they branched out into retail. Inspired by a second-hand craft store in Washington, Bell came up with the idea for what is now the Thrift store and gift store, a short walk from the Common Threads classrooms at Westbrook’s Dana Warp Mill. It’s Maine’s only second-hand sewing store, selling surplus supplies—sewing machines, fabrics, haberdashery—at great prices, lowering barriers to entry not just for Common Threads students. (who receive a discount), but also for anyone interested in the arts of fabric. This summer, the shop also began selling consignment items handmade by Maine artists and former students.

Kamanda and Bell also began to think more about entrepreneurship, realizing that students were interested not only in working for existing textile companies, but also in learning design techniques and starting their own businesses. With a grant from the Maine Community Foundation, Common Threads offered its first annual business scholarship last November. Josiane Mutangana, a 2021 graduate of Common Threads’ 12-week textile labor training program, spent six months working in a free private studio in the factory, supported by a weekly stipend, to develop her fashion and line of drapes. The group has also opened two affordable studios, makerspaces for small textile entrepreneurs, with access to Common Threads industrial equipment.

The new directors also incorporated a pattern design program into the organization’s basic vocational training curriculum – previously focused almost entirely on sewing – teaching students to design skirts, dresses, pants and more. clothes. This summer, for the first time, Common Threads is inviting former students back for an additional 10-week course to learn more advanced sewing and design skills. They also offer four-week, tuition-based sewing courses for beginners who can’t commit to a months-long schedule – as part of an effort, with the thrift store, to welcome more people, not just recent immigrants, into the Common Threads fold. “Adding these community-facing programs has been great in helping people feel connected to our work,” says Bell. “We bring together everyone who sews and who is interested in our work.”

The Thrift & Gift Store is open Thursday through Saturday. 90 Bridge Street, Ste. 305 Westbrook. 207-854-6900.