Sustainability Side Hustle | Q+A with Top Stitch Mending
As a part of our Sustainability Side Hustle series, we are interviewing people passionate about our planet and who have explored their own skills and talents to share with their community. As our planet continues to suffer under human-caused climate change, pollution, and overall environmental degradation, we hope more people find pleasure and financial fortitude in a sustainability side hustle or small business.
Our first Q+A is with Lisa at Top Stitch Mending, a full-range clothing repair and mending service to keep clothes out of the landfill and keep family heirlooms in circulation, while also teaching others to do the same. Her dedication to sustainability and advocacy combined with her talent and education has led her to create a mending business around her passions and values! What an extraordinary combination!!
Why did you start a sustainable mending business?
I started a sustainable mending business to eliminate as much clothing and textile waste as possible, redirecting it from landfills. Mending keeps things in circulation longer and disrupts the speed of fast fashion. When we slow down the fashion consumption cycle, we get to explore its supply chain, where it is broken, and the people that are affected the most by it.
For example, the cotton farmers and marginalized communities who work in and live nearby the production factories endure health consequences from fertilizers and pesticides used on cotton crops, as well as polluted water filled with chemicals from textile manufacturing. This is just one example of the many harmful consequences we see on people and the planet through our current, linear fashion cycle.
Additionally, I studied fashion design, and no matter how much I used secondhand materials while making clothing, there was always excessive waste. This pushed me to go a step further and really reduce scrap materials, putting them into action in other ways. I saw the potential to use mending to create a fully circular fashion cycle and that was extremely important to me.
As my personal mending pile got bigger and bigger, I figured many other people probably had them too. Connecting with my community and being of service has always been the primary driver of sharing my skills with others.
How did you start the business?
Before starting Top Stitch Mending, I was working at a local vintage shop, Halcyon Vintage, for four years. My sewing experience began at age 11, but those years consisted of learning and constructing new garments. Halcyon is where I found a fresh focus; I took on the ever-growing responsibility to make small repairs on incoming garments. Teaching myself mending and how to fix garments felt familiar but was really another branch I had never climbed before.
As I stood on that branch, reflecting on all the unfinished mending projects I felt were piling up, I began offering mending services outside of the shop. I quickly saw that no one knew where to take their clothing for repairs. Few people even realized that was an option.
With enough interest, I sold my couch and used the money to buy an industrial sewing machine. I told everyone I saw about my mending services and made every mistake possible along the way.
Did you ever want it to become more than a side-hustle?
Yes, I always knew I wanted to have my own business. Since I was a kid, I have talked about this. I ALWAYS had a side hustle – everything from babysitting to sourcing vintage clothing and reselling or consigning it in vintage shops. I didn’t know what my business would be, but I tried lots of things along the way before finding fulfillment and success with Top Stitch Mending.
For nine years prior to Top Stitch and Halcyon, I moved all over the country and world chasing jobs in a crashed economy. Eventually, I arrived in Richmond, Virginia. I absolutely loved my new hometown but didn’t see much work in my field. I thought, if I am going to grow roots here, I need to create my own job.
I often looked at commercial rentals and dreamed up potential sustainable business ideas while working in retail. I even accidentally started a mini side hustle called “BOOM Bloomers” when I turned my grandmother’s high-waisted, baggy pants into bloomer shorts – a skirt and workout short alternative – that felt stylish and functional for biking to work.
People started asking where I bought them so I decided to make more, start an Etsy shop, and sell at markets around the city. Trying to scale that up, I still struggled with how much waste the process created, even when upcycling. Determined to reduce the waste, I racked my brain and dove into zero-waste practices at home.
Mending lingered in the background for a while… until it didn’t. It snuck up on me in a way. Because it was already a part of what I did at the vintage store and on my own time, I didn’t immediately see it as a business. As I offered my mending services, more and more people started hiring me.
Mending gradually became my full-time gig. As mending orders increased, I reduced my hours at the vintage shop, until finally, I couldn’t balance both. It was a big risk to leave my job, but it also felt like a “now or never” moment. That’s when Top Stitch Mending became full time and I retired BOOM! Bloomers.
Have you made different operational or business decisions as a result of moving from a side hustle to a full-time business?
Absolutely! When it was a side hustle, it felt less specific. From mending to alternations, I said yes to almost any sewing requests at first because I wanted to build up to working full-time hours. Early on, many people didn’t really know what mending was or that it was an option to extend the life of their clothes. It also took me a while to even realize I needed a business license to offer these services out of my house.
Working out of my living room and paying friends to help sew early on, everything was pretty casual compared to where Top Stitch is now. Today, Top Stitch has its own studio and operates with the help of amazingly talented local contract workers who each work a few hours per week. As the business grows, I would like to offer both part-time and full-time positions.
Top Stitch has grown beyond its roots to offer both mending services and sewing lessons. We also have pop-up mending events, and we teach classes at local non-profit art centers to further enhance the culture around caring for our clothes.
I added sewing classes into the mix after mending became a more consistent aspect of the business. I have long been passionate about teaching people to sew, but it stayed on the back burner until I had the availability and space to offer lessons. Transitioning Top Stitch into a full-time business allowed me to expand our offerings and bring people into our space to learn skills for themselves.
As time goes on and business grows, things need to be ironed out. Processes go from sloppy to less sloppy, unstructured to more structured, and you just do the best you can while taking each next step. As a full-time business, adjustments can happen more naturally and with time and energy to address bumps more immediately than when you first start.
What are some difficulties you have run into on this journey?
When I first started talking about pursuing mending as a full-time business, I encountered some skepticism. Some people told me a mending business could never provide a full-time income. They thought it would only be seasonal or it wouldn’t garner enough demand.
Hearing that held me back a bit in the beginning. For me, doubts and imposter syndrome arose often, especially because I was offering something that seemed out of the ordinary through the lens of our current cultural standards.
I also had a very difficult time pricing my services and had to keep checking that I was not putting myself out of business before it even got started. In the beginning, I chose a low hourly rate that I thought was fair and offered it to friends so I could experiment with quickly I finished projects. I kept diligent records so I could get a better understanding of a proper hourly rate and certain fixed fees for common mending projects.
Over time, I worked backward to calculate how much I needed to earn from Top Stitch Mending to replace my previous income from the vintage shop. I converted this into the number of projects and effectively hourly rates, while also tracking income and expenses closely, to determine fair and appropriate pricing. As I gained experience and completed projects more quickly, I had to often revisit my pricing in the early days of the business.
I didn’t have a cash cushion to back me up or even a little extra to put towards supplies. I just used what I had and really buckled down to work within a tight budget.
Not seeing friends and family as much was something I hadn’t anticipated. That element of running my own business was really hard. Over time, I found more of a balance.
With no prior experience running my own business, everything was new (and still is). Friends, family, and other people in the community gave me lots of different advice. I was super grateful for their ideas, yet I often felt stuck about which advice to follow.
Growing up, I often heard “you’ll learn from your mistakes.” In starting a side hustle or a business, that has been proven to be true over and over – you can’t always know what will work best until you try it. Despite all the well-meaning advice, you often won’t know all of the flaws until you implement a plan. I constantly need this reminder as I take each new step to grow Top Stitch Mending.
What has fulfilled you the most on this journey?
So many aspects of this adventure bring me joy. Connecting with the community in Richmond and online has been incredible! It has given me the chance to talk with people about mending and other sustainable practices, which really lights me up!
Experiencing other people’s joy when they learn to sew is infectious and absolutely magical. And the creativity and problem solving involved in mending and repairing for others are also very exciting! That is just the beginning of my list.
Who or what has been your greatest resource in the sustainability community to continue doing your advocacy work + running your business?
My local friends who are also passionate about reuse, low consumption, and zero-waste have been extremely supportive and helpful. Some of them are business owners, some are bloggers, and some are living low-waste lifestyles. It’s really important to me to have a group of people or individuals who are also interested in this so we can bounce ideas around, explore, and share.
When going against the grain when it comes to consumption vs mending, how do you communicate the value or worth of the work you do?
I often hear “That repair costs more than the original item.” This is often true, and the reasons for this disparity make perfect sense once you start to understand the fashion supply chain and the world of clothing production.
I use comments like these as an opportunity to share more details about the fast- industry. Once someone has a better understanding of it, they realize that not many people along the way are getting paid a living wage and they become aware of the abuses in the system. They start to look at what they’ve purchased in a whole new way.
These insights bring a different kind of value altogether to the clothes in their closet. When we buy less and repair what we have, there is a ripple effect that can have a beneficial impact on our environment. From behind my sewing machine, I see a lot of people moving toward investing in their clothes and valuing what they buy.
It’s a tough time for small businesses, and even tougher for businesses that aren’t seen as a necessity but as a luxury. How have you continued to keep your doors open?
Sewing is making a comeback. Some might say it never went anywhere, but people are really excited about being self-sufficient in different aspects of their lives, especially since the pandemic hit. As a result, a lot of people want to take sewing lessons, and that has been really great.
My regular mending customers have also been incredibly consistent and helped spread the word about Top Stitch. The community support, undoubtedly, has kept my doors open. I am grateful for every single day that I get to mend and teach!
Most sustainable businesses aren’t seen as the default solution to a problem; they are seen as an added expense to living a sustainable lifestyle. Have you experienced this in your business?
I haven’t seen this very much in the mending and sewing space. I think we all prioritize how we spend our money in different ways. If someone is prioritizing purchasing less clothing, they probably want to have their clothes mended or learn to sew at some point so I offer both services.
But I also don’t believe that someone needs to use my services in order to be sustainable. Choosing options that fit within your budget and your lifestyle is a practice of sustainability. I always say if someone tries to sell you sustainability, run the other way.
If someone wanted to replicate this business in their community, how would they go about it?
Mend for your friends, have them tell their friends, and sew on ;)!
Also, look towards reaching future generations at the local level: contact your area’s art schools and activity centers to see if they are looking for sewing teachers, host an after-school club, or offer to hold classes at your library. Connecting with youth through hands-on skills is a way we can help build a foundation for sustainability today and in the future.
Do you have any favorite sustainable suppliers for the tools and products you use in your business?
With the goal of being fully circular, I reuse almost all of my materials from past projects to repair future items and luckily still have all my tools from my time sewing before and during college. On the rare occasion that I need to purchase a product or tool, I start at my local creative reuse center ScrapRVA and rely on my local sewing community to borrow anything significant that I would only use once or twice. If I want to add a specialty tool to my permanent collection, I check if there is a local business creating it first and if not, I shop on Etsy.
How do you stay organized and manage the workflow of garments coming and leaving the studio?
People contact us beforehand to schedule a time to drop off their repair piles, either by email or through the website. We ask them to put all of their items in a tote or grocery bag labeled with their name and contact info. This helps us stay organized once they have dropped everything off. Then we reach out to schedule a pickup time when their items are repaired.
What have been one or two of the best ways to spread the word about your business?
From the beginning, word of mouth has been the more successful way to share what I’m doing, something for which I am ever grateful! This community has been ultra-supportive. My incredible friends who own secondhand clothing and vintage shops also pass out my business cards if any of their customers mention needing repairs.
Do you feel there is diversity in the sustainability community? (ethnicity, gender, age, etc.)
It seems like diversity is building in the sustainability-community, slowly but steadily and I hope it continues to pick up speed. Sustainability is such a broad term and I think certain pockets are more diverse than others. If you ask people in different areas of the country or world, I imagine you would get a different answer in each place and field of work. For me, living in a city and working with the general public, it feels diverse but I certainly don’t think everyone is equally represented- especially if you are looking at the bigger picture. Exposure is everything and if sustainable practices were taught in public schools and community centers, these ideas would reach a much broader audience, earlier on in people’s lives.
What do you think the future of mending could look like? How do we get there?
If standard elementary school education incorporated sewing with a focus on reuse and repair, it would be unstoppable! It could start as an after-school program or sewing circle at a community center. If you know how to sew, pass it on to a friend; start with a button, get a group together and start stitchin’!
Where else can we find more information about you?
Please check out my ever-evolving website: TopStitchMending.com For examples of my repair work head over to @TopStitchMending on Instagram and Facebook
Huge thanks to Lisa for being a part of this series and sharing her words of wisdom with us.
All photographs courtesy of Top Stitch Mending.
About The Author
Rupa Singh is an ex-social entrepreneur and mom of three kids connecting them to their South Asian (Indian) roots + sustainability. Organizational wife to an altruistic architect. Advocate for low waste + thoughtful consumption. Continually unlearning + learning. Her bullet journal + audiobooks + morning ritual feed her spirit.