Retired seamstresses have T-shirt work sewn up

Madam Yong Yuet Thai (left) and Madam Tan Kim Soo snip off loose threads from T-shirts, and iron and pack them before they are delivered to customers, in a project aimed at helping seniors to stay productive.
Madam Yong Yuet Thai (left) and Madam Tan Kim Soo snip off loose threads from T-shirts, and iron and pack them before they are delivered to customers, in a project aimed at helping seniors to stay productive.ST PHOTO: JOYCE FANG
Seniors recruited by the Kembangan-Chai Chee Seniors Activity Centre snip off loose threads from T-shirts, and iron and pack them before they are delivered to customers.
Seniors recruited by the Kembangan-Chai Chee Seniors Activity Centre snip off loose threads from T-shirts, and iron and pack them before they are delivered to customers.ST PHOTO: JOYCE FANG

It has been 11 years since former seamstress Tan Kim Soo retired from her job at a tailor shop, but in March the 82-year-old dusted off her scissors.

She is one of 10 seniors recruited by the Kembangan-Chai Chee Seniors Activity Centre to snip off loose threads from T-shirts, and iron and pack them before they are delivered to customers.

The project, dubbed Silver-T, is the brainchild of social enterprise Silver Sparkles, which set it up last year to help the seniors stay productive in their twilight years.

Silver Sparkles director Francis How said: "It makes use of the sewing skills and experience that the seniors have."

The social enterprise has a full-time staff member who canvasses for T-shirt orders here. The orders are sent to a garment factory in Skudai, Johor, where the T-shirts are made in bulk.

 

Mr How then drives to Johor to pick them up and deliver them to the centre.

There, seniors like Madam Tan cut off the loose threads, iron the T-shirts, then fold and pack them into plastic bags for delivery.

The social enterprise approached the centre for a tie-up last year and a trial production run was held in November last year for a church that ordered T-shirts for a camp.

"The trial run showed that the seniors can handle the final part of the T-shirt production process," said Mr How. "In fact, their standards are quite high. They cut the loose threads consistently, and iron and fold the T-shirts very neatly."

Since March, Silver Sparkles has sent more than 900 T-shirts to the centre for final production work.

 

The T-shirts cost between $10 and $20 each, depending on the design.

The seniors are paid between 50 cents and a dollar for each T-shirt they handle.

"We could have finished the production work in Malaysia at a lower cost, but it is not just about the money," said Mr How. "We want to get seniors involved in the production process."

He added that his customers know that the T-shirts are locally packed by a group of seniors and they supported the project, even if it costs them a little bit more.

"At the end of the day, we still have to be competitive," he noted.

The T-shirt project brings variety to the regular activities that the centre holds, said centre manager Irene Poh. "It also allows the seniors to earn some pocket money," she said.

"They are very serious about their work. There was a large batch of T-shirts last month and two of them worked through lunch to finish the cutting and packing," she said.

When The Straits Times visited the centre last month, 10 seniors were busy checking, ironing and folding corporate T-shirts for a company in an air-conditioned room at the void deck of a block of Housing Board rental flats.

Madam Tan said that the project has given her an opportunity to use her sewing scissors again.

"My hands may not be that flexible now and I need spectacles to see the small threads, but I can still handle the thread-cutting," she said with a smile.

"I have been sewing all my life, so this is an easy task. And I get to do it with my friends here," added Madam Tan, who is single and lives alone.

Her friend, Madam Yong Yuet Thai, 88, also a retired seamstress, said that the occasional work from Silver Sparkles has rekindled her interest in sewing.

She said: "I am now trying to sew a blanket by hand."

The social enterprise is open to taking on the final part of the production process for corporate gifts that can involve seniors, but it is sticking to T-shirts for now.

Mr How said: "It is something that the retired seamstresses can relate to.

"Also, many of the seniors in that generation sew their own clothes, so this is one way we can tap their life experiences."

Madam Tan added that she looks forward to working on the T-shirts brought by Silver Sparkles.

"We don't get paid a lot but I feel good to be able to still earn some money using my skills at my age," she said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 07, 2015, with the headline 'Retired seamstresses have T-shirt work sewn up'. Print Edition | Subscribe