"T.K.” Oluwafemi drew inspiration during her dark days of homelessness from the many volunteers who work at HomeFront and SewingSpace, including Susan Ashmore, right, who taught Oluwafemi how to knit. “Susan was very patient and supportive, and the knitting helped to soothe my anxiety,” Oluwafemi says.
Ashmore, who has lived in Princeton for 30 years, has been volunteering at Homefront for the past two years. “I felt there was something missing in my life,” says Ashmore, explaining her decision to get involved. When a friend told her about ArtSpace, she felt this was good timing. “There is nothing like finding a good student who can take what you have to offer and grow and blossom on their own,” Ashmore says. “I love watching how people’s minds work and seeing how they express things in what they make.”
Ashmore also teaches at SewingSpace. “With knitting, you need to build skills and the students who come to SewingSpace are interested in having something that they produce. They are very focused and hard working.”
Ashmore grew up in northern New Jersey and came to Princeton to raise her two daughters, who are now grown. She works at Educational Testing Service creating English Language Skill tests for non-native speakers. Ashmore was raised in a family in which helping others was a natural way of life. She remembers going door to door as a volunteer house hunter for the American Civil Liberties Union with her father, to see if people were being discriminatory in neighborhoods. Although her grandmother was a committed knitter, she credits her second grade teacher with providing the inspiration to take up the craft, which she found more stimulating at the time than her class work.
Ashmore derives great pleasure observing her students approach the creation of an item. “Watching them select their own fibers from the choices they have and seeing what happens is magical and transformative,” she says. “I particularly enjoy being a part of a creative process that is nonverbal and involves growing and transforming yarn through people’s perceptions of them themselves and how they impact the world. The relationships become very important.”
Knitting can be different things for different people she says. “For some,” Ashmore says, “it can be a way of offering skills about homemaking and home supporting. Many have fond memories of grandma knitting.” She also points out the tangible accomplishment that her students gain from having something they have made.
When Ashmore first came to HomeFront she was surprised at the high level of confidence her students have. “It is not what I expected.” Ashmore credits Ruthann Traylor, the director, with creating an atmosphere that sets the stage so that, “when you walk in here, you want to start playing with everything. There is a common sense of support and there are people sitting at tables working on projects and everyone is invited to join in,” she says.
Traylor’s passion for the creative spaces is obvious when you see her there. “I think you have to give someone a chance,” Traylor says. “We set the expectations very clearly, but they have to be able to get there. We invest in them, train them, and then they are part of a team.”
SewingSpace has many other volunteers who teach sewing and alteration skills. They assist students in making table runners, placemats, bags, wall hangings, and other items from materials donated by individuals and businesses in the community. Many of the artists have been able to sell their items at crafts fairs and on websites such as Etsy to generate income. Others are working on developing their own businesses.
Ashmore believes that the lessons learned from knitting can be applied to many other aspects of life. “Sometimes we will focus on dealing with mistakes and it often becomes a very productive conversation,” she says. “It becomes bigger than the piece in front of you.”