Textile arts have long served as a way for women to empower and provide for themselves. This tradition is alive and strong on the South Side today, with a resurgence of interest in sewing providing an opportunity for many women to start design-related businesses. Some of these new organizations seek to inspire and teach practical skills to youth, and others serve as private enterprises whose owners want to share their craft with the world, but all of them point to sewing’s potential to expand beyond crafting circles into wider popularity.
Felicia Alston runs My Crafty Table, which was started in the last few years; she describes it as a “sewing craft café that teaches kids how to use math skills to sew.” Alston got her start in sewing at her church and continued studying it in high school. She spent the past twenty years teaching special education, but now, she said, “I am ready to get back into my passion: sewing and anything crafty. I can pretty much make or replicate anything I see, though I am not a very good designer.” Like many small business owners, Alston takes great joy and pride in her work. “I love to create. Period. Whether it’s clothing, accessories, home decor, recycling, or scrap projects. Recycling is my second passion—refashion, reuse, repurpose. I love to make stuff.”
As a teacher, Alston seeks to use sewing to provide struggling students with a way to generate interest in reading and math. “Sewing involves lots of reading comprehension, interpretation of images and directions, self-correction when it doesn’t turn out like you plan,” Alston explains. “It requires organization skills, planning skills, accepting mistakes and patience. It also involves lots of math…laying out patterns without waste, adjusting pattern shapes and lines when going from flat dimensions to 3D, and more. Science comes in when discussing textiles and materials that are compatible or appropriate for outdoor use, or bedding, or sleepwear…etc.” Sewing allows her students to apply the skills they learn and provides an answer to their eternal question of “When am I ever going to use this?”
To that end, Alston is working with community groups such as Bethany Union Church in Washington Heights to offer free sewing lessons, and as part of her business she hosts the Sew-cial Club, a free monthly “community class” designed to introduce people to her classes and create a meeting space where those working on craft projects can connect. “All ages are welcome, but I cater to students who struggle in school or who may never aspire to go beyond high school,” she says. “Sewing and crafting continue to be skills that will likely allow them to support themselves on a small local level or on a larger level should they pursue mastery-level skills.”
Further north, Khalilah Howard-willis is the head designer and instructor at Cayenne Couture Atelier, a Bridgeport business started in 2010 that sells her creations and offers sewing and design classes. Howard-willis is also driven by a love of creating and teaching, explaining that what she finds most satisfying about her work is “drawing and then creating a design, tailoring it, and finally seeing it in motion. My love of fashion prompted me to share my knowledge with others interested in learning my craft.” In addition to teaching classes through Cayenne Couture Atelier, Howard-willis has worked with various charter schools and online groups, as well as Urban Threads Studio (UTS), a nonprofit that educates through textile arts.
UTS, which has been located in the Bridgeport Art Center since 2013, emphasizes empowerment, proclaiming its mission is “to teach twenty-first century skills, through the design and production of functional textile arts, to youths from under-resourced communities in Chicago.” As Ilona Mestril, executive director of Urban Threads, explained, “Urban Threads Studio was founded on a set of beliefs: that fashion and textile art activities, which are simultaneous skills, design, and visual-arts based, can serve as a bridge between Chicago’s most underserved and under-resourced communities and the exciting opportunities that a visual arts and design background can offer youths for their future. These opportunities range from college acceptance, workforce acceptance, and creative entrepreneurship.”
The inspirational and creative outlet provided by design work is also important to UTS, though. Mestril describes this impact, saying that Urban Threads was founded on the belief “that the warmth and creative energy of a textile studio could be an escape from the harsh realities that many of our young students face on a daily basis. The calm that ensues amongst the teens during sewing or weaving sessions is a testament to the transformative nature of these textile activities.” The artistic work coming out of UTS is a testament to that belief; according to Mestril, “The patterns and designs imagined by these young designers are beyond amazing.”
Mestril says that this is a good time to be teaching textile art and design skills to young people, positing that “while manufacturing jobs in the textile industry are disappearing, there are exciting new developments on the smart wearables and renewable technologies front, which can and will [extend into] other industries. Creative and design entrepreneurships are therefore a perfect conduit for life‐enhancing opportunities for youths, their families, and their communities.”
Howard-willis says that she’s noticed the popularity of the field growing among young people. “What I see is a lot of interest in creating one’s own style. Many people want something other than what’s cookie cutter,” she says. Mestril agrees; she remarked, “In general, in recent years people are looking for experiences. All handcrafts appear to have benefitted from this desire to create something tangible by hand, whether it is a piece of fashion, art, woodwork, clay, etc.”
Interest in sewing is clearly alive, well, and growing on the South Side; whether as a hobby or a business, it seems to pull creative energy in its wake. Howard-willis, for one, is sure that “if young people had more access to sewing and fashion design classes on Chicago’s South Side, a fire would ignite.”