On a recent Monday morning, a cheerful group of girls was snipping and stitching away inside the Little Miss Sew It All studio, placing the finishing touches on their homemade dresses.In just four three-hour classes at the East Moriches studio, the girls, most in elementary school, learned to sew the outfits that they would later model while walking down the red carpet for a fashion show, called Project Funway, held last Saturday, August 3, and run by their teacher, Melissa Stasi-Thomas.
Wearing a colorful dress she made for herself, Ms. Stasi-Thomas explained that she began teaching sewing about 10 years ago in the dining room of her East Moriches home with the young ladies who were part of her daughter Ciara’s Girl Scout troop. Interest slowly grew among the girls, prompting Ms. Stasi-Thomas to open the studio in a plaza near her home last year.
“I see myself in every single one of them,” she said, referring to the roughly 130 girls who participated in Project Funway this year.
Ms. Stasi-Thomas explained that she began sewing at the age of four when her aunt, Mary Price, gave her a piece of felt with holes in it. When she got a little older, Ms. Stasi-Thomas’s third grade teacher at the Park Avenue Elementary School in North Merrick, Fran Brill, taught her to make fabric “yo-yos” so that she would concentrate in class.
“It forces me to sit still,” Ms. Stasi-Thomas said, explaining one of the appeals of her lifelong hobby.
Perhaps the hardest aspect of sewing is mustering up enough concentration to work slowly and precisely, a good lesson for her young students. But Ms. Stasi-Thomas, who is known to her students as Miss Melissa, explained that she creates a fun environment so her pixies—the nickname she gives her students—are tricked into learning.
“We try to keep a simple dress and then they go crazy with it,” she said, explaining that the girls sew the silhouette of the dress, and then add their own unique embellishments. “I have my tomboys, and I have my girly-girls,” she said.
She has three children—Aidan, 18, Ciara, 15, and Declan, 12, and she also has three stepchildren, Brent, 20, Danielle, 17, and Julia, 13. She and her husband, Russell Thomas, a staff sergeant in the Army National Guard, live in East Moriches.
Seven-year-old student Olivia Paschetta of East Moriches said she brought a water bottle holder that she sewed at the studio to school one day, and she proudly corrected her classmates when they asked which store she bought it from. “I’ve learned that sewing takes a lot of patience,” Olivia said.
Aside from the Project Funway summer camp, which takes its name from the popular Project Runway reality TV show, Ms. Stasi-Thomas also hosts birthday parties at her studio, and offers classes year-round for children ages 6 to 16. The summer camp costs $275 and classes run $95 per month. For birthday parties, she charges $36.50 per guest, and that includes fabric, pizza and soda.
Her daughter Ciara, a student at the Eastport South Manor High School, said she enjoys teaching the younger students, perhaps more than she enjoys sewing itself. “I like coming to help the girls,” she said. “I’m here more than I’m at home.”
Ciara and her friends—Katie Sterbens, 17, of Manorville, Meredith Gill, 18, of Westhampton Beach, and Kelly Mead, 16, of East Moriches—are assistants at the studio, giving individual attention to the younger girls while they complete their projects. Katie, a member of the Class of 2013 at Eastport South Manor, will pursue a career in fashion merchandising at Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island in the fall, and Meredith, a 2013 Westhampton Beach High School graduate, said she also plans to study fashion design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. Both girls sewed their own prom gowns.
Katie explained that she enjoys watching the girls progress to the point where they can sew on their own items, without the help of instructors.
“They just can’t wait to show it off,” Meredith added of the finished projects. “They just can’t wait.”
The assistants explained that the studio has a warm, welcoming environment, offering girls an opportunity to meet new friends outside of their schools and be creative. “We’re all family here,” Katie said.
They all noted that Ms. Stasi-Thomas, who has a degree in marketing and once worked as an assistant buyer for Macy’s, has a knack for teaching and making each student feel good. “She has the most patience out of all of us,” Katie said.
“And she’s an even better mom,” Ciara chimed in.