The Maui Sewing Hui Gives Back One Stitch at a Time
Through a wide breadth of sewing projects, this close-knit bunch touches lives across Maui.
On a Thursday afternoon in the heart of old Makawao town, volunteers sew with great care and beneficence. The day’s project is stitching bags for kūpuna (elders) to attach to their wheelchairs.
In the spring of 2020, a group of Maui residents began sewing together to address the severe shortage of face masks on the island. The volunteers established the Maui Face Mask Project and over three years, they produced more than 10,000 face masks for healthcare workers and residents.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The Maui Sewing Hui has also recently received requests from local shelters housing Maui wildfire victims for pillowcase covers, especially for keiki (kids), as well as additional wheelchair bags for kupuna (elderly).
While the sheer number of masks produced is impressive, the project’s true impact on the community is harder to quantify. During a time when many were isolated from their kin and close friends, the group provided a meaningful purpose and gratifying connections. While volunteers were sewing masks for first responders and neighbors, they were also stitching together a close-knit tribe. “It was a saving grace that developed into a functional family,” one seamstress says.
When its pandemic-related work concluded, volunteers found other ways to help the community, and the Maui Face Mask Project evolved into the Sewing Hui. “Volunteers wanted to continue meeting, so we figured we’d segue into other projects,” says Jennifer Oberg, the founder and director of the Sewing Hui. Today, the nonprofit consists of about 25 volunteers who meet every Thursday to sew a colorful assortment of items, which are donated to local organizations.
All are welcome to spend a peaceful morning or afternoon working with the volunteers at the Sewing Hui. Every week there’s usually at least one volunteer from out of town, Oberg says, and the group is always eager to welcome fresh faces. “It’s so sweet to have people come and make this a part of their trip,” she says. “It’s not something they always expect to do on vacation, but they get to be a part of the community.” And they don’t even have to know how to thread a needle: Oberg says that volunteers who don’t know how to sew can assist with other tasks, such as organizing fabric donations.
From stitching vibrant quilted bags that can be attached to wheelchairs for Hale Makua Health Services (an assisted living facility) to creating utilitarian curtains for Imua Family Services (a childhood development center), the Sewing Hui’s work touches individuals across the island. “We’re always open to hearing from the community about what it needs,” Oberg says. “If it involves sewing, we want to hear about it.”
Neighboring nonprofits and other mission-driven organizations often approach the Sewing Hui to partner on budding initiatives. When Maui Rapid Response, a group that supports unsheltered individuals and families, received a generous donation of pants from Tommy Hilfiger, it turned to the Sewing Hui. The pants, it turned out, were more suited to cooler climates. The Sewing Hui stepped in and refashioned them into shorts, which were distributed at shelters around Maui. The extra material didn’t go to waste, either. The volunteers cleverly repurposed the fabrics into bags, which were distributed along with the shorts.
Oberg says she’s excited about an ongoing collaboration with the Alexander Academy of Performing Arts. Through the partnership, volunteers sew and tailor children’s costumes for performances such as “The Nutcracker” and “Sleeping Beauty.” Oberg recalls how volunteers were delighted to dress the army of rats in “The Nutcracker” this past winter.
Even in the academy’s off season the bright studio is filled with chatter and enthusiasm.
The Maui Face Mask Project worked out of an Upcountry high school, but Oberg opened her business studio as a workspace for volunteers. The professional dressmaker has more than 30 years of experience designing costumes for theater and opera productions and Oberg even worked on sets in Hollywood. In 2001, she moved to Maui and opened Jennifer Oberg Atelier in the rustic, charming town of Makawao, where she specializes in wedding gowns and attire for special occasions.
Volunteers meet here at the studio nestled along Baldwin Avenue. Today, several volunteers sit at sewing machines while others organize baskets filled with colorful fabrics—all of which were donated. The day is split between a morning session, which finishes with a group lunch, and an afternoon session, which includes a break for tea.
It’s a treat to watch this team at work. And it opens the eyes to the many different ways that visitors can engage with small circles of people in the local communities and mālama ‘āina.
For more information about volunteering with the Sewing Hui or donating fabric, visit thesewinghui.com.
This story was originally published in our 2023 Spring issue. Buy a copy here.