Just before the business she sewed for closed its doors almost 10 years ago, Janine Bertram’s boss asked her if she could use the store’s leftover fabric.
She had no idea how much there was but knew she could put it to good use and accepted the offer. Five pickup truck loads later, she filled an entire room with hundreds — maybe thousands — of yards of fabric in every color imaginable.
Bertram pulled together a group of women at her parish, St. Martin in St. Martin, and started making children’s clothing from the bolts of material, which they donated to the St. Cloud Mission Office to distribute as needed.
Their efforts evolved from there. The group has sewn between 500 and 1,000 clothing items each year, from infant to size 14. Clothing items have been sent to children in Guatemala; Jamaica; Venezuela; Homa Bay, Kenya; and Sharing and Caring Hands in Minneapolis. The women also sewed 96 pairs of curtains for a ministry that builds new houses.
“I love to sew and I love to help people so this was a good way to do both,” Bertram said.
When she learned of Butch Mueller’s ministry in Guatemala (see story on page 1A), she contacted him to see if there was a need for children’s clothing there.
“There are a number of schools in the area,” Mueller said, “and they don’t have clothes for playing outside. There is definitely a need for the uniforms.”
Mueller takes several hundred clothing items with him each year — last year, stuffing more than 400 shorts and tank tops into an old suitcase.
Fabric, faith and fun
The group, who call themselves “Sewing for Kids,” starts the cutting process for the uniforms each February.
“We have kind of an assembly line,” Bertram said. “It takes about three or four consecutive days to complete. One woman has a tool that can cut 25 layers at a time.”
When the women get together, they lay out fabric on the tables in stacks of 25. Then they lay the patterns on top of the material. After that, a woman comes along with the cutter and cuts them out. Then they are sorted into sizes and put into bags.
“We have a lot of fun, too,” Bertram said. “There are a lot of laughs and stories being told.”
Once everything is sorted, Bertram and another woman from the group — both of whom have industrial sergers — take the bulk of the cut fabric home and serge the seams into shorts and tank tops. Then they are distributed with a spool of thread back to the women in the group to put on the finishing touches with their sewing machines at home.
The clothing items are then given to “inspectors,” who turn the pieces inside out and snip off any loose threads. Once they are completed and inspected, all the items go back to Bertram who organizes them and readies them to be sent to Guatemala.
Bertram, 73, is one of the youngest in the group, and because the group is aging the ministry is in need of new blood.
“When I ask people to help, I say that you don’t have to know how to sew. You can either help lay it out, cut, inspect or measure and sort the elastic for the waist,” she said.
And the uniforms aren’t the only products the women make from the donated cloth. Bertram recently started a new endeavor — stitching laundry bags and wheelchair bags for veterans, which she brings to the VA Medical Center in St. Cloud.
Other women from the group make receiving blankets — some of which go with Mueller and the rest to the Mission Office.
While she sews, Bertram said she often thinks about the children who will wear the clothes she’s making for them. She has pictures and letters from some of the recipients that stick in her mind while she’s working.
One of the memories that really took hold was a story her son, Bill, shared with her after he went on a trip to Jamaica, bringing along some of his mother’s handiwork to share with the locals. He told her about a child that put on his new threads and danced around Bill saying, “Look what your mama made for me!”
“It just makes you feel so good,” Bertram said. “It’s really rewarding.”