Common Threads of Maine Sews a New Future

New leadership is expanding the Westbrook nonprofit's mission and offerings.

Common Threads of Maine student Pistis Yombe
By Adrienne Perron
Photographed by Molly Haley
From our July 2022 issue

In 2015, a few years after Apphia Kamanda moved to Maine from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, her English teacher suggested she check out a new nonprofit that was training refugees, asylum seekers, and new citizens to become industrial stitchers. It was a perfect fit for Kamanda, who earned her degree in fashion design in Congo, so she joined the first-ever class at what’s now called Common Threads of Maine. Around the same time, Jo Bell moved to Maine from Washington State. A former stitcher turned nonprofit administrator, Bell came on as a Common Threads instructor in 2020. Four months later, Kamanda became her assistant instructor.

Common Threads of Maine co executive directors Jo Bell (left) and Apphia Kamanda (right), in the new Thrift & Gift Store
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 business and political circles — who’d led Common Threads since getting the organization off the ground seven years ago (and who still serves as chair of its board). “When she asked us, I was scared,” Kamanda says. “I thought it would be overwhelming. But Dory got me to trust myself. Every day is a learning process, and Jo and I are complementary to one another.”

They’ve proven to be a dynamic duo, taking an organization once focused primarily on job training — equipping participants for work in Maine’s textile sector — and expanding its aims considerably. For starters, they’ve branched out into retail. Inspired by a second-hand craft store back in Washington, Bell hatched the idea for what’s now the Thrift & Gift Store, a few doors down from the Common Threads classrooms in Westbrook’s Dana Warp Mill. It’s Maine’s only secondhand sewing shop, selling surplus supplies — sewing machines, fabrics, notions — at steep markdowns, lowering the barriers to entry not only for Common Threads students (who receive a discount), but also for anyone with an interest in fabric arts. This summer, the shop also started selling handmade consignment items from Maine artists and former students.

Kamanda and Bell began thinking more about entrepreneurship as well, realizing 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 fellowship last November. Josiane Mutangana, a 2021 graduate of Common Threads’ 12-week textile work-training program, spent six months working in a rent-free private studio in the mill, supported by a weekly stipend, to grow her fashion and curtain line. The group also opened two affordably priced studios, makerspaces for small-scale textile entrepreneurs, with access to Common Threads’ industrial equipment.

The new directors have also integrated a pattern-design curriculum into the org’s core work-training program — formerly focused almost entirely on stitching — teaching students to design skirts, dresses, pants, and other clothing. 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’re also offering four-week-long, tuition-based sewing classes for beginners who can’t commit to multi-month programming — part of an effort, along with the second-hand shop, to welcome more people, not only recent immigrants, into the Common Threads fold. “Adding these community-facing programs has been great in helping people feel connected to our work,” Bell says. “We are bringing everyone who sews and who is interested in our work together.”

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