Nicole Baute – Living Reporter
Aziz Mohammad presses his foot tentatively on the sewing machine pedal. It begins to hum softly, like a purring kitten or an idling car. He pushes harder and it lurches to life.
Mohammad, 15, is learning to sew in the basement of a vintage store on Bloor St. W., which has been converted into a sewing den — specifically, The Make Den.
The soft-spoken teen who was born in Afghanistan and lives near Jane St. and Sheppard Ave. W., wants to be a fashion designer.
“I have a lot of hard times with my personality at school,” he says. “That’s why I’m interested in fashion. I want to make something to change people.”
“You were just born to be stylish,” jokes Irene Stickney, sewing teacher extraordinaire.
Mohammad is learning to sew for free through PACTfashion, the newest of the PACT Urban Peace Program’s life skills programs. The program connects high school students from at-risk neighbourhoods, or those who have wound up in the court system, with Stickney, who coaxes them to put their foot to the pedal, learn sewing basics, be creative and work together.
In January, 29-year-old Stickney opened The Make Den, combining her background in fashion and sewing with her innate gift for teaching (her firm-but-encouraging tone betrays the fact she was raised by two teachers). By February, she was running the first PACTfashion class, working with PACT co-founder David Lockett and teaching a small group of teens how to make prom dresses. The program is sponsored by Fabricland.
The second semester’s masterpiece is an original, flouncy, Caribbean-inspired dress, made with tie-dyed orange, green and purple Ghanaian fabric. The contemporary spin on African garb is much more than a throwaway how-to project: it’s an original design that will appear in an upcoming issue of Cream World magazine.
Many hands went into the making of this dress, and many people got a little closer to their dreams by being involved in it.
There are the students, of course, who at their graduation last week proudly described how their sewing skills had improved — and, for some, materialized from nothing.
“Before, all I knew was how to patch up a hole and how to sew something together that broke, like a strap,” said Nikisha Townsend, 20, who just graduated from high school after taking her last two courses and finishing her volunteer hours through PACT. Now, the gregarious, stylish Townsend can sew hems and make alterations and is ready to embark on creating a skirt.
But that’s just the half of it.
Jeanette Linton, a 32-year-old local stylist, designed the dress itself and, with help from Stickney and these unlikely seamstresses, watched it come to life. It is her first original piece.
Linton, whose family is from Barbados, fell in love with Jamaica in 2008, when she went there to work for Pulse, an agency that has launched the careers of many successful international models.
Originally, she had envisioned shooting the piece on the island, but when havoc broke out in Jamaica around the impending arrest of Christopher Coke, she was forced to turn to plan B.
The dress and a bustier also made by the PACT class — with fabric that, in a previous life, was a wall hanging on the set of the Canadian sitcom ’da Kink in my Hair — were shot by professional photographers in Toronto late last month.
Passionate about Caribbean fashion, Linton is eager to help broaden the scope of what constitutes up-and-coming design.
“We’re so caught up with what’s going on in New York, it’s also good to incorporate the new and the unknown,” she says.
Then there’s Danielle Facey, who gets the keep the dress and plans to wear it to Caribana. It has been altered to fit her perfectly.
Since late April, Facey, 20, has been living at Covenant House, a shelter for homeless youth downtown. She says “love . . . bulls–t and finding the need to break free” brought her to Covenant House, and that she has been slowly getting her self-confidence back.
Watching her posing dramatically in her new dress, it’s hard to believe she ever lost it. At five-foot-eight-plus-heels, with long, thin limbs and very short black hair, she easily looks like a model.
She might take up Stickney’s offer to find her a modelling agent, but Facey says she would actually rather be behind the camera. And once she gets back on her feet, she hopes to start a not-for-profit service to help homeless people with pets — her other passion.
She’s also enrolling in the next PACTfashion class. Things are looking up.
“I went through a lot, and now I’m here, feeling a lot better,” Facey says. “In this whole situation, really, I’m overwhelmed with happiness.”
In the garden behind her, the PACT students giggle over hamburgers, while blaring pop music like Brandy and Monica’s R&B hit, “The Boy is Mine.”
“They looked like they’d kind of found their crew,” Stickney said later. “They looked really happy.”