It used to be a required course for girls. Then, somehow, during gender equalization in education, sewing got dropped.
In the mid 20th century it was less costly to make your own clothing than purchase it in a store, but that hasn’t been the case in decades. Most of the clothing we wear is sewn overseas, where fabric and labor is, for reasons beyond the scope of this article, cheap. Even hemming and button sewing is outsourced to the tailor as sewing becomes a lost skill. And while fabric and machines for the DIY market come at boutique prices, a generation of sewers has been giving away old Singers, Kenmores, Brothers, and Berninas.
This represents an opportunity for HomeFront, the nonprofit organization based in Lawrence Township that provide shelter, job training, and life skills to help homeless people get back on their feet.
Ruthann Traylor runs ArtSpace, a HomeFront program that helps women living in shelters build self-esteem through art making. ArtJam, the fundraising art exhibit for ArtSpace, is held annually in a pop-up store in Palmer Square. Several ArtSpace volunteers had been suggesting adding a sewing component to the program for years.
ArtSpace’s headquarters in HomeFront’s Family Preservation Center at the Marie Katzenbach School for the Deaf had barely enough room for its two donated sewing machines. When a portion of HomeFront’s facility near the Brunswick circle became available this year — it had previously been rented by a post office sorting facility — Traylor jumped at the opportunity.
SewingSpace is in the same building as HomeFront’s “free store.” Trucks deliver donated goods that staff and volunteers sort into bins. HomeFront clients “shop” at the free store to furnish their new homes.
“We take the furniture no one wants and use it for ArtSpace and SewingSpace,” says Traylor, who grew up in Detroit where, she says, she studied poverty on the streets. (She attended Calvin College in Grand Rapids and New Jersey City University in Jersey City.) “Stuff that may look ugly at first, we’ll paint it and make it fun. We’re teaching (participants) to be creative and recycle.”
Among the many donations have been sewing machines, some in finely wrought mahogany cabinets, and sewing notions — thousands of zippers and snaps, for example. These are sorted into shelves for SewingSpace’s needs.
Traylor, whose parents owned a real estate company in Detroit, is so fascinated by some of these sewing notions, she is putting together a display on the history of sewing.
On Saturday, November 15, SewingSpace will host an open house. Visitors are invited to tour the facility, where many handmade items will be for sale. Some of the clients will model clothing they have made, and artists will talk about their work. There will be light refreshments and jazz. Because of the energy that has gone into establishing SewingSpace, the open house will replace ArtJam this year, unless a storefront becomes available during the winter holiday season.
SewingSpace’s warehouse-sized room has been artfully decorated, thanks to Traylor and her clients and volunteers. One wall is draped with a fabric printed with Matisse’s paintings of women in robes. On another hangs a row of donated jeans and examples of what the jeans can be upcycled into — handbags, for example, or a skirt. There are bins and cabinets filled with neatly folded fabrics and organized sewing accoutrements, artfully painted and upholstered furniture, and displays of handcrafts. The goal is to create a homey feel.
“It’s empowering for our clients to have nice things they’ve created,” says Traylor. “We’re trying to teach life skills, focus, problem solving, math, and money management skills. It’s nice to see them build self-esteem as they build amazing products. They are making money and learning the business aspect, and they can take away a skill, be it to make a hem or children’s clothes. Volunteers help to set up their apartment and work with colors and paint and measure their windows for curtains. We teach them that you don’t need a studio; your creative space can be at the kitchen table.”
What HomeFront clients want more than anything is to have a job and to be self-sufficient. Eighty percent arrive without a high school degree, and HomeFront first helps them earn a GED and find housing. But four walls and furniture are not necessarily all the components of a home — they learn through ArtSpace and SewingSpace to personalize their homes and build pride of place.
JoAnn, a woman with a blond pageboy, lost her home when arsonists set it on fire. She and her 15-year-old daughter moved to a garden apartment with her parents, helping her father care for her elderly mother. But when JoAnn’s mother had to be put in a nursing home, the family could not afford the rent and the nursing home, and JoAnn and her daughter moved to HomeFront’s residential facility. “I didn’t know how to paint,” she says, before taking a class at ArtSpace. “I painted a woman’s face with crazy hair and called it ‘Elena the Romanian Gypsy Swan’ whose home was where she tossed her hat and dusted off her dancing shoes.”
It was exhibited in an ArtSpace show at the Silva Gallery at Pennington School and sold on opening night. “I felt like a movie star,” says JoAnn, who kept 60 percent of the sale price. She is about to start a temp job at ETS, doing data entry and phones, but is looking for a permanent position. She and her daughter have moved into a one-bedroom apartment. JoAnn is learning to sew, practicing on the machine, and starting to make bags. “Just do it,” she says is the best advice she was given.
The women — and at least thus far, they are all women — who come here to make purses, pouches, and curtains for their kitchens. They make pillows, tablecloths, runners, and re-upholster stools. Some clients are learning to make diaper bags and changing table pads. “We make lemonade out of lemons,” says Traylor.
Ruth DeFalco of Ewing started to volunteer weekly with ArtSpace about five or six years ago, after she donated items. “I do anything I can do,” she says, sorting through the donated pins, needles, and thread that come in abundance. “The bonus is getting to hold the babies. I like meeting the clients and encouraging them, and seeing the girls get on their feet, finding homes and jobs.” DeFalco also enjoys the community of volunteers.
Inkyung Yi of Princeton volunteers two to three times a week. Having majored in home economics with a concentration in textiles at Ewha Women’s University in Seoul, South Korea, Yi is creating practice sheets on graph paper that can be sewn onto muslin. The clients’ personalities are interesting to watch as they interact with the machine, says Yi. “Some prefer working on crochet so they don’t have to deal with a machine. I try not to pressure them — whatever they feel good about.”
Carine Fram, a native of South Africa, ran a similar sewing program in her home country. A computer scientist by training, she is a long-time HomeFront volunteer. “I have always made my own clothes because our parents were so poor,” says Fram, who does glass fusing in her Lawrenceville studio. She has donated the patterns she brought with her to this country so clients can learn to sew from them. Fram helped start SewingSpace, and is making aprons from donated fabric.
When the post office vacated the space, it was filthy, Fram recounts, and she helped to redesign it in Photoshop and paint the walls bright colors, as well as frame artwork for the gallery walls.
A file box includes instructions on how to make a belt, machine stitches, metric conversions, and fittings. “We have a big need for people to service the machines that are donated,” Fram says. “To fix the tension or replace belts. User manuals that don’t come with the donation can be found online.”
“We’re still developing all that we do here,” says Traylor, responding to a question about who is welcome to sew at SewingSpace. Senior citizens from Trenton come to hone their skills. Anyone is welcome to join the volunteer community, and there are no borders between teachers and students, volunteers and clients — all are welcome.
Kim, for example, started as a client but has learned to sew so well, she no longer needs to use a pattern. She is able to design what she wants and measure it on a dressmaker’s form. Each fabric tells her what it wants to be, and she helps other clients learn to choose the right fabric for the right project. For example, wool would not be suitable for a summer skirt.
Ada, a retired state worker on a pension, used to run a vintage clothing and jewelry shop with her sister in their Mount Holly home and now comes to volunteer at SewingSpace. She taught herself to sew a year ago and takes out an iPad to show photos of glamorous evening attire she has made for herself and family members. “I love fashion,” she says. “I just set the fabric on the floor and make a suit.” There are photos of a two-piece linen suit, a silk kimono with a tie at the neck, and a silver brocade skirt set. “I can make an outfit in a day,” she says.
An ordained minister, Ada learned about SewingSpace from her daughter, who had been a client. “It’s like a sewing paradise here,” she says. “My problem is zippers. I want to learn to make zippers.” Both her grandmother and great grandmother sewed. She flips to a photo of a white lacy outfit she made for a pastor’s wife.
“If a mother learns to sew here, and if she sticks with it, we will give her a sewing machine to take home and continue her success,” says Traylor.
SewingSpace Open House, 1880 Princeton Avenue, Lawrence. Saturday, November 15, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
HomeFront needs volunteers to help repair donated sewing machines; pop-up retail space for ArtJam, an art exhibition that raises funds for HomeFront. www.homefrontnj.org.