Q&A: Janae Smith, the Apparel Architect in Ames

Threadit Threadit founder Janae Smith next to her soon-to-be shop in Ames. Photo by Diana Wright

Janae Smith can literally see her future.

From her current second-story location in the corner of a building off Ames Main Street, she looks ahead to moving her business, Threadit, to a new street-level space this April. Exposure is everything for a tailoring, custom design and clothing repair business built on style and happy customers.  

Shortly after graduating from the Iowa State University Apparel, Merchandising and Design program in 2016, Smith founded Threadit. She uses her business as a way to help hire marginalized Iowans while providing a service and filling a need for the Ames community.

“I’m passionate about design, art and serving my local community,”  Smith, 24, says.

Before she moves to her new studio space next month, we met with Smith to discuss her first year in business, her passion for social justice, the role it plays in her business and what will make her happy in the future. 

The interview has been edited for conciseness:

Talk about how Threadit got started.

JS: So first, I started in biology at Iowa State University.  I thought I was going to be a doctor. Soon I realized I didn’t want to go to school for ten years and it wasn’t something I necessarily loved.

Growing up, I was always doing something creative. During college, I would go home (to Albert City, Iowa) on weekends and bring sewing projects with me. My mom would ask me, ‘Why are you sewing all the time?’ It was a question that stuck with me.

I’ve always had a heart for social justice and helping people. A few years ago I met a woman who owns a fair-trade business in Bangladesh. This was when the seeds of this business started. I thought I was going to work in fair-trade overseas, which morphed into realizing the need I saw in the community here in Ames for tailoring. I also work part-time at ACCESS, an organization serving domestic and sexually abused survivors. Through my involvement in these organizations, I’ve seen the need for jobs and meaningful work that helps rebuild people’s lives. I love people. And this is the tool I use to engage with people.

What prompted your interest in social justice?

JS:  I found my interest in social justice was from my own desire to make an impact, globally, for anti-human trafficking purposes. In high school, I remember feeling really passionate about it.

Where that translates in our local community is often in shelters and as well as in prisons. There’s another piece of it. The Mitchellville women’s prison has a production facility where they sew and make clothes. When any of the women are released out of the facility or have served their time, they don’t have jobs and it’s hard to find a job.  There is a shelter in Ames that is a transitional house for women called the Butterfly House.

Partnering with organizations like the Butterfly House and the Mitchellville facility is a dream of mine.

What types of clothing to you typically design or fix?

JS: Any mend it, fix it kind of thing, we do. From casual and formal dresses, gowns (excluding wedding gowns), to men’s suits and custom bow-ties. We can replace and repair linings of coats, zippers, hem pants, and even add pockets. For design, we have made custom suits, dresses, tops, and skirts.  

Right now, I’m working on a three-piece women’s suit (skirt, vest, jacket) made from Scottish wool from Hebrides, an island around Northern Scotland.  The customer owns and raises sheep. Each piece we create always has a story behind it – special to each customer.

Talk about your first year in business…

JS: Sometimes it’s slower than you expect and then there’s learning, a lot of learning including learning to ask for help and to adapt to change.  

The biggest challenge? Juggling everything. In a small business, you do everything. You figure out your calendar and schedule of production, fix machines, remodeling the new space. I have an employee so being a boss. Going out and marketing myself in the community.

And I’m also sewing.

What do you find rewarding?

JS: The most rewarding thing is a happy customer, someone who feels good about what they look like after something is adjusted or made for them.

I would add: teaching and seeing the growth in my associate; and connecting with people—that’s really rewarding.  

What would make you the happiest three years from now?

JS:  I see Threadit running with systems and processes strong enough to bring in someone who has a different background, complimentary to my own. I see a strong partnership with Iowa State University with interns and growing the custom design side.  I see our space is going to grow. I’m a visionary, so I already see phase three that isn’t even there yet! I see a well-oiled machine–

My role would be managerial and I would be delegating probably more things…I wouldn’t run to the bank every week or Joann’s Fabric.  I would be the face of the business bringing business in. Networking, teaching and training employees to do quality work would be my focus.

Talking about community, why participate in groups like Startup Ames?

JS:  I think that business is all about relationships. It’s all about connection and people. I really do believe that people want to help other people. The connections made at Startup Ames are really resourceful for me. Not just in a business aspect, but in a personal growth aspect. It’s taught me that when in doubt, just ask for help.

How should others find and connect with you?

JS:  Follow me on Instagram, like my page on Facebook and come see the new space. The new studio is located on 330 Main Street, Suite 100 (next to Random Goods).   

Connect with me. I want to meet you and if someone has the same passion similar to my heartstrings, come and talk to me. I would love to grow the vision and team.

Diana Wright is the Director of Marketing and Programs at the Iowa State University Pappajohn Center for Entrepreneurship and a contributor to Clay & Milk