How to revive local manufacturing? Stop talking.

16 June 2023

When one Melbourne fashion industry veteran saw a number of issues emerge – how to revive local manufacturing, and how to help newly-arrived refugees learn new skills – she set about trying to solve them.
Edwina Walsh, CEO Assembled Threads
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"I'm not one to sit around and talk and talk and talk...I have to act, you know?" says Edwina Walsh. "Let's go for it..."

The fashion industry veteran who has stints as resource manager and product developer for brands such as Adele Palmer, Myer and Target on her long and laudable CV, established the social enterprise factory hub, Assembled Threads just a couple of years ago and already it's ticking off a laundry list of urgent needs, from supporting migrant and refugee workers to developing local skills. Now Edwina is working toward a wider fashion industry pipe dream:  the revival of local textile and fashion manufacturing.

Assembled Threads is an employment focussed social enterprise committed to solving long term unemployment for women and reducing dependence on welfare while supporting local manufacturing and materials sourcing.

Establishing Assembled Threads was just the start for Edwina.  Acknowledging the ongoing fashion industry call for skills that would enable growth, local manufacturing and a reduced carbon footprint, Edwina took more action. The result - an apprenticeship program that fuses industry needs, positive social impact and local employment.

Peak among its achievements is fashion's first class of skilled industry apprentices to graduate since the 1970s. To get it done, Edwina partnered with another dynamo not fond of the "talk-talk-talk" approach to problem-solving.

"I just reached out to Julie Wright (fashion course manager) at Holmesglen," Edwina says. "I asked, 'could we train people?' I said I want them to be the people most in need, trained up to a commercial level in a very short period of time and Julie said, 'Yep' straight away; 'With you all the way'."

Holmesglen's inaugural Certificate III Clothing and Textile Production Apprenticeship neatly dovetailed into Assembled Threads' inaugural three-month pilot program of intense industry skills training for migrants and refugees.

"We hope (it's) a gamechanger for the longevity of a local industry," Julie says of the apprenticeship.

“After decades of offshore manufacturing, the local skill base is depleted and is now an ageing workforce; that’s why it’s so important to get people qualified through TAFE courses so we have that skill base to draw from."

For Edwina, the program's modus operandi was always even further reaching.

"I'd thought about all the refugees coming in, the issues they had with getting a job because of lack of English or lack of education - what were we doing with those skill sets? People were sitting at home frustrated, not being able to get their foot in the door."

She figured a project that matched industry needs with social needs was logical, practical, maybe even easy. "Yes, I thought, 'this is really simple - this is a definite goer.'"

It wasn't, but that's an arduous story for another time. Suffice to say, Edwina ploughed through obstacles, muscled her way into enough useful conversations to secure a council-subsidised building in Moonee Ponds, partnerships with Holmesglen and not-for-profit employment and training organisation MEGT Australia along with her own investment in Assembled Threads' plant and equipment, including six second hand commercial sewing machines.

Assembled Threads' flagship Moonee Ponds hub is now a bright, productive, ethically operated social enterprise factory with a mission to use sustainable Australian materials and resources and persuade more local procurers to engage its production capabilities and order its products.

The team recently filled an order of 500 scrubs, using 50 per cent local fabric woven by Bruck in Wangaratta, and half recycled materials.

Assembled Threads' newly skilled workers hail from at least 10 countries (a reality that encourages use of English as the common, bonding language, according to Edwina) and churn out a range of sustainable homewares, vis-vests, face-masks, dog beds and scrubs and Edwina says the product range won’t end there.

She also has ambitious plans for future hubs in Keilor, Geelong and Shepparton additional to the space in North Melbourne. “This is just too important not to do."

Assembled Threads:

Holmesglen Tafe:

Australian Apprenticeship Skills Network: