Westbrook program weaves new Mainers into workforce

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WESTBROOK — A city business is partnering with Portland Adult Education and Southern Maine Community College to not only create American-made products, but to train immigrants to be part of the American workforce.

A class of eight stitchers graduated Dec. 15 from a program facilitated by Dory Richards Waxman, owner of Old Port Wool & Textile Co. The class, comprised mostly of new-Mainer women, has been trained to stitch and all students will be placed in jobs at southern Maine textile companies.

“It’s empowering women who wouldn’t otherwise have a shot,” Waxman said.

This was the fourth class to graduate from the 10-week program since Waxman started it in July 2015. The program takes place at Old Port Wool & Textile Co., which moved from Danforth Street in Portland to Westbrook’s Dana Warp Mill in September 2016.

Besides Portland Adult Ed and SMCC in South Portland, the program is conducted in partnership with Coastal Enterprises of Brunswick. Participants, who also take classes in English and math, are classified as students in an unaccredited program at SMCC. Waxman said she hopes the program becomes accredited by the Department of Labor next year.

“They work incredibly hard,” she said of the students. “They come in ready to work, joyful.”

The students in the most recent class are originally from Ethiopia, Angola, Congo, Iraq and Belarus. They now live in Portland, Westbrook, Biddeford and Bridgton. In addition to the women, the class included the program’s first male participant, who was also the first American-born student.

Waxman, a former Portland city councilor and School Board member, said it’s important to her to give opportunities to immigrants and help them transition into American life.

“That’s what this is about, is empowering new Americans,” she said. “They’re our workforce. They’re who we need to count on for the future of Maine.”

Waxman began working in the textile business in 1992, when she purchased a clothing manufacturing business on a whim. With no stitching experience, she and her family built up Casco Bay Wool Works, where they made and sold wool capes, shawls and blankets. It closed in 2003, and in 2013 she founded Old Port Wool & Textile Co.

Twenty-eight graduates, not including the most recent class, have been through Waxman’s program. All of them have been placed in well-paying jobs in Maine, as will the eight newest graduates. Waxman said there are 25 textile businesses in southern Maine that she partners with to place workers, including American Roots Wear, owned by her son Ben Waxman.

“There’s a big need for sewing and a big need for professional stitchers in Maine,” she said. “This helps economically and helps bring back the backbone of Maine.”

It’s not lost on Waxman that her students are being trained in a refurbished textile mill. Dana Warp Mill, located on the Presumpscot River in Westbrook’s downtown, has been converted into office and business space since ceasing mill operations a few decades ago.

Textile manufacturing was once a thriving industry in Maine. According to the Portland Press Herald, textile mills employed 28,000 people in 1948. In 2013, though, there were only 1,900 textile jobs in the state.

Waxman is hoping to bring the business back to Maine. All of her materials are American-sourced and all products are made in her Westbrook shop, which she’s starting to outgrow. Between her classes and her business, she said she’ll soon need to move to a larger space in the mill. She also has a goal of turning the program into a training school.

“We’re bringing it home,” Waxman said. “Textile manufacturing in America can be brought home.”

Kate Gardner can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or kgardner@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @katevgardner.

In a program facilitated by Old Port Wool & Textile Co., Southern Maine Community College adjunct professor Giselle Larios, left, teaches stitching in Westbrook to new Mainers, including Debora Calume and Zita Madzou.

New Mainers Debora Calume, left, Monica Silva, and Hanya Al Taher completed a stitching course last week at the Dana Warp Mill in Westbrook, and will now be placed in jobs in Southern Maine.

I'm a reporter for The Forecaster covering Freeport, Yarmouth, Chebeague Island, and Cape Elizabeth. I'm from a small town in NH no one's ever heard of. When not reporting, I can be found eating pasta and reading books, often at the same time.