The social enterprise Assembled Threads unlocks undiscovered manufacturing skills of migrants


Edwina Walsh was on a plane leaving Nepal when the idea first came up.

She had been in the country to have hats made in a fair trade factory for women who had escaped the sex trade.

What about Australia? She wondered.

There must be hundreds, thousands of women, she thought, from countries with strong manufacturing industries.

Where are they?

Some women work at the cutting table, others sew. (ABC News: Rachel Clayton)

Back in Melbourne, Edwina spent a year researching how to find and hire these women.

And women tried to find them too.

Women like K’Yo Paw Mya, 55, who spent 30 years in a refugee camp before coming to Australia in search of work and money to support their two sons.

K'Yo cuts fabric on a cutting table.
K’Yo says she lived in a bamboo hut in the camp for decades and gave birth to her two children there. (ABC News: Rachel Clayton )

Women like Amina Sadiqi, who has been in Australia for nine years and applied for hundreds of jobs, but each time a version of: You’re too old. Your english is not good enough. You have no experience in Australia.

Women like Farishta Safi, who has to send money back to Afghanistan so that her family can find a way abroad that has a daily flight.

All three are now employed by Assembled Threads – a social enterprise that Edwina started a year ago to develop a skill she thinks Australia doesn’t value: local manufacturing.

Amina wears a light blue top and is running fabric through a sewing machine
Amina and her husband have been unemployed for years. (ABC News: Rachel Clayton)

“In the rag trade, you are trained to meet deadlines, negotiate prices and make things happen, no matter what gets in the way.

Assembled Threads began in a converted gas station in Moonee Ponds, Melbourne, and recently opened a sewing center in Norlane, north Geelong, as a government-funded pilot program that recruited and trained nine local women.

Farishta leans over the back of the chair to speak to someone.
Farishta is always a smiling face in the center, despite her daily struggle to get her family out of Afghanistan. (ABC News: Rachel Clayton )

“We have to find a place to go”

The makeshift factory is located in a portable building overlooking a foot oval that housed the Ugandan team for the 2006 Commonwealth Games.

It’s small and has only the bare essentials: sewing machines, a cutting table, two ironing tables and rolls of fabric.

Last month, the aprons they made for a local wool designer sold out on Instagram in days

Parima wears a hijab and works on a white sewing machine near a window.
Parima and her husband were separated for years until he was allowed to enter Australia a month ago. (ABC News: Rachel Clayton)

They sewed safety vests for construction companies and gowns for local hospitals.

Today they are completing an exclusive collection of wool-blend shirts for a designer from Melbourne.

The women arrived at 9:30 a.m., as they did every day, right after school and got to work straight away.

The hum of the sewing machines quickly drowns out the talk about children and husbands and rising rents. The room becomes a scene with bowed heads and focused eyes.

Monireh Mashhadi Babakandi sits at a sewing machine and looks down at her work.
Monireh says she fell into depression after being turned away from jobs she applied for in Australia. (ABC News: Rachel Clayton)

Soon Bollywood songs from someone’s iPhone will be playing on a windowsill.

Monireh Mashhadi Babakandi, the production manager who worked in a clothing factory in Iran for 30 years before fleeing persecution to Australia, makes sure the quality is up to date.

K’Yo and Rajani Nelson, 51, who both lived in refugee camps for decades, are in charge of the cutting table and move patterns around the fabric to ensure there is no excess waste. This is the first job they have gotten since arriving in Australia years ago.

Farishta says this is her second job; The rest of the week she works on the side in a kitchen near Torquay, but preferably here.

Later that day, while ironing the finished shirts, Farishta asks another woman if she would like to work for Uber; which car do you need What does it pay? Can your car be older just working for Uber Eats?

Rajani Nelson, wearing an orange top, sits next to a sewing machine and looks at the camera.
Rajani says she just wants a secure and permanent job so she can focus on building her life in Geelong.(ABC News: Rachel Clayton)

After eight weeks, the pilot program in Norlane will end as funding expires. And again the women are looking for work, while Edwina and the head of the hub, Kate Radke, are looking for a partner to keep the business going.

“We want it to go on,” says Kate, “but we have to find a place to go and we need more local orders.”

Recently, Kate has been taking calls from Centrelink recruiters asking if the women can stay.

“It was always just a contract,” she tells them.

The women chat among themselves about how they can otherwise cobble together a living and pray that Assembled Threads will continue – not just for the work and the opportunity to practice their English, but for the friendships and a place to be outside of the roles you can be yourself you can play at home.

Local businesses could be the hub’s lifeline

Kate is talking to two women at a low table.
Kate Radke is quick to try to do more business so the hub can continue. (ABC News: Rachel Clayton )

After the women’s lunch break, Kate pulls up a chair and meets with two women who have traveled from Torquay to talk shop.

The combination of a post-pandemic slowdown in international supply chains and a renewed consumer desire for sustainable, locally-made clothing could save the hub.

According to the Commonwealth Bank’s Consumer Insights Report earlier this year, more than 50 percent of Australian shoppers want to buy locally made and manufactured products. And fashion is leading the change.

The two visitors have a business idea that they want to launch, but need a local manufacturer. Their product would be boutique, they say, with a small run and seasonal fabric and design changes – something that would be too difficult to outsource to factory centers in Asia, they say.

“We can do it,” says Kate, looking at the prototypes and calling Monireh over to show the two business women their sewing skills.

“How many do you need? You can do 100 units a day.”

One of them replies that they may need to replenish their order, surprised at what the small production line can handle.

“Okay,” says one woman and nods to the other.

“We’ll talk.”


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