By Gary Baribeault
As you drive over the Cocheco River Bridge onto Rochester’s North Main Street, you’ve entered an unofficial gateway to the city’s downtown. If you were asked to help choose a symbolic welcome sign for that gateway, an ambassador of sorts for what Rochester was, is and can be, I can think of no better representative of that sentiment than Joanne Piazzi and “Stitches Alterations & Needleworks”.
The first business location on this side of the bridge, Stitches starts the vibe Rochester residents and the surrounding community will find truly inviting and reminiscent of old-time personal service with a big heart.
Joanne launched Stitches out of her home last March during Prom season, with the goal of being in a storefront location within one year.
First goal accomplished, opening on October 9, 2019.
“It was important for me to find a downtown location”, said Joanne. After talking with her for just a few minutes, I could understand why she saw that as such a huge factor.
As a service offering to alter garments or save pieces of the past – a prom dress, mending a favorite jacket or just repurposing an old sweater – Joanne is in the business of preservation. Both of the items she alters and a way of life that threatens to slip away if not for her and a few others.
Rochester’s rich textile factory roots are nothing more than a ghost now, the jobs are gone, a couple of the old factories themselves renovated into housing. But with the opening of Joanne’s shop, that turn of the century spirit is being whispered to again and people are responding. Like a cobbler was to shoes back-in-the-day, Joanne is to garments.
That little white two-story house with the tree out front all but begs you to enter. Upon stepping through the door and over the threshold, customers can immediately see that this is a place of “work”. As you scan the room, several different sewing tables are obvious. A vintage black & gold Singer sewing machine has taken up residence in front of the bow-window. Different pieces of fabric are visible, ornamental clothes hangers decorate one of the walls. And spools upon spools of colored thread ensure that Stitches proprietor can mend or alter just about anything you need attending to.
Her shop maybe new to North Main St, but Joanne herself is a longtime resident, although not a NH native. She grew up on the south shore in Abington, Mass. Graduated from college with a teaching degree in the early 80’s, she first sought employment on Cape Cod. Her parents having moved to Sandwich while she was in school, it seemed like a logical place to start. But when she couldn’t find a teaching gig there her eyes turned north, which eventually landed her in Rochester.
She spent her first 5yrs teaching in the town she now calls home and the next 30 after that in the Barrington school system, the last 15yrs of which at the middle school. But from childhood to the present day, thread, fabric and sewing have been like breathing for her – just natural.
“My mother and grandmother sewed as a hobby,” she shared. That exposure fueled a love that eventually turned a hobby into something professional by 1982. Although that teaching job didn’t materialize immediately after college, Joanne did secure work on the Cape at an alterations shop much like the one she runs now, learning many useful techniques during that period and perfecting those skills over the next 40yrs. Which in turn has translated into a pretty consistent supplemental income. She picked up part-time work at a local bridal shop back in 1984 when she first arrived in Rochester. For 3yrs in the mid-90’s she was the costume creator at Maine’s Hackmatack Playhouse in Berwick.
Grandmother’s first lessons in hand stitching proved to be the fundamental beginning steps for Joanne, skills that have served her well. “Grandma didn’t have a machine”, said Joanne. Everything she did from fine needlework and embroidery to making custom doll clothes for Joanne, all by hand.
Mom, on the other hand, was more of a pattern seamstress, using McCall and Simplicity designs to make clothes and drapes. “I’m more of a rule breaker”, said Joanne with a smile. By Jr High, Joanne had been creating and designing on her own for quite some time. Being that rule breaker has given her a fearless approach to her own ideas on clothing. That passion is something she wears on sleeve if you’ll pardon the obvious pun.
“I make things from other things” she said. Joanne calls it “up-cycling”. Turning old sweater sleeves into boot socks or leggings, adding lace and her own special touch to create something new from something old. She hates the idea of things ending up in a landfill that can be repurposed instead.
“Sixty percent of the items in a landfill are textile products”, she told me. So altering clothes makes her happy, along with keeping those garments useful and vital.
I asked her, “What’s the most unique thing you ever altered or repaired”?
Without hesitation, “I re-stitched the inside lining of a harp case once”, she smiled.
That, we both agreed was definitely rare and unusual territory in the world of alterations and repair.
Part way through our discussion, Joanne pointed out an extra room toward the back of the shop. It had a sign above the door casing labeled, “Classroom”. “I plan on creating a makers-space/classroom back there”, said Joanne. Various people have donated machines to the cause, and so the future classroom is under construction. She explained that the genesis of this idea came from those individuals whose sewing time at home can get interrupted by the daily grind of kids, work and other obligations. “I’d like to provide a space where they can come and work on their projects away from those distraction”. And with her background in teaching, you had to know some instructional classes were in the future plans as well.
“I’m looking to line up instructors for beginner sewing classes, knitting and other crafts” she said. Along with her own series of lessons on “up-cycling” different garments. “I come from a mindset of knowing how to organize these things”, Joanne shared confidently. Couple that with her heart felt desire to help people get back to working with their hands – it should be an unbeatable combination. There’s also been a renewed interest from the public, she told me, in learning these vanishing skills, something of a natural occurrence once Stitches setup shop. It’s also Joanne’s hope that perhaps from those who take advantage of these classes, she might find an apprentice to train and pass on all that she knows. The next caretaker of the spirit her shop whispers to, a teacher for the next generation.
There’s also an obvious feeling of outreach to what happens at Stitches. Something beyond the services being offered. Nothing illustrates that more profoundly than the one lone tree in the shops front lawn.
When I arrived at Stitches late afternoon, I couldn’t help but notice the winter clothing, scarves, mittens and hats wrapped around the tree’s trunk and hanging from the branches. “What’s the story behind that?”, I asked. Joanne said she had seen something similar online and decided to give it a try. It’s a way of providing free warm clothing for those less fortunate during the colder months. So, she set-up a designated day – not long after opening this Fall – to have people gather at Stitches and make items to hang on the tree. People were in and out all day long working on different items, knitting and crocheting the normal essentials most of us take for granted. Others just stopped by and donated finished hats, scarves and mittens, all of it culminating with the hanging of each item on the tree. “I like the idea of bringing people together to work on things and be creative” she said. You could see that joy in her eyes as she shared the story. She hinted that perhaps this could become an annual event.
And as if that wasn’t not enough to show you where Joanne’s heart is, there’s always, “Remnants”.
Remnants is a 100% donation supplied thrift shop in the back corner of Joanne’s shop. All of the proceeds collected from that area, all the unfinished project leftovers, all the fabric, thread, yarn and lace sold, every dime of it is donated to help fund local causes for woman. From Oct to Dec of this year, all the proceeds went to “Hope on Haven Hill”. For the next three month, Jan through March, that money will be donated to the “Homeless Center”.
All of this from a teacher that just couldn’t stay retired. Taking-it-easy, that only lasted about 9 days before she purchased her present shop’s property and then set out on her next journey. One she’s been cultivating since childhood.
And just when I thought perhaps we had covered all there was to cover, Joanne threw me a curve that made the conversation even more interesting.
“Right Between the Ears Storytelling” is another confessed love of Joanne’s. Started in 2009 by – you guessed it – the afore mentioned former teacher/alterations specialist/civic minded local – to help preserve and foster the art of live storytelling. She holds monthly events at “RiverStones Custom Framing” in Rochester on the second Friday of each month.
Captivated by this pastime, she became involved with Northeast Storytelling. She wanted to create a regular storytelling series similar to those in Portland and the Boston area. She began with a house concert in her home. Then with a commitment level that can only be described as “all-in”, she sold that house to purchase one more suited to hosting her newfound passion. After 4 years, the series moved to the former Portable Pantry on Hanson St. When the Pantry moved out of town, she moved the series to the newly opened RiverStones, where it has been for the past 5 years. Joanne used to take part and tell her own stories, but the time involved in that has been taken up with other things. Now she’s relegated to just organizing. There are only so many hours in a day, but Joanne manages to fill them all. I have the feeling if she could create a few more hours to fit it all in, she would. That’s just who she is.
I mentioned at the outset understanding why Joanne felt so strongly about a downtown location. My take on her motive goes beyond good business sense. Like I said, she’s all about preserving things. A way of life wrapped up in altering, repairing and preserving people’s favorite clothes and memories. Sitting around in a circle while a storyteller passes on a piece of themselves. All of it reinforcing a rich American heritage, carried to these shores from the old country. Very precious things when you think about it. Things that help foster strong community roots when America was just starting out. She believes in the idea that society is made better when people interact with one another, when they gather together in person to share experiences. I would argue that something so personal in a lot of ways needs to be showcased. It begs you, just like that little two story white house to enter and participate. Another part of Rochester’s reemerging and revitalized heart-n-soul.
Stitches is 100% a labor of love in every way. Joanne’s whole life – part of it in the past – dragging all of us back to our fundamental roots, and still teaching all along the way. Stitches without a doubt represents the thing Joanne was meant to do.
The unofficial welcome sign for Rochester….. as natural as breathing.