starting a new life through sewing
“Sewing is show and tell,” says Anna Gray Slagle, co-director of the Sewing Together in the Caring Highlands (STITCH) program. In a room full of women from Nepal, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Afghanistan, and other countries — all clients of Kentucky Refugee Ministries who speak many languages — “You get to see a lot of the a-ha moments,” Anna Gray says. Twice each week, participants gather at KRM to learn from co-directors Janet Raderer and Anna Gray Slagle, as well as volunteer instructors.
STITCH began in 2011 as a volunteer outreach of Highland Presbyterian Church after a member of their church donated a sewing machine to KRM clients, hoping to aid in their ability to provide for themselves and their families. The challenge was, “some of the women have never seen a sewing machine,” Anna Gray says. Others knew treadle machines, yet the sewing machines prevalent in the U.S. were electric, Anna Gray adds. “Many of the women had never driven a car, so they don’t have the experience of pressing down with their foot and making it go.”
“We knew we wanted to teach sewing,” Janet explains, first focusing on sewing for the home so women could make items for their families and children, such as baby blankets, school uniforms, and other clothes. “People in the community were so generous in donating fabric and sewing machines,” Janet says. In the program’s five years, STITCH has served about 200 refugee students and received 98 sewing machines, almost all of which they have distributed to women in the program. Now, they have 11 actively-used sewing machines in a work room at KRM for the twice-weekly sessions.
Despite their different languages, Anna Gray explains, the women created bonds. “The atmosphere here is conversational, non-threatening,” Anna Gray says. Most of the women participate until they secure employment. “We didn’t start out thinking about sales,” Janet says, although the community support led to sales events around Louisville. STITCH averaged $1,000 in income at each event, with all the proceeds from a product going directly to the woman who made it. A friendly competition among the women was born to see who could make the most income from their goods. In the three years STITCH has been selling goods, students have earned over $10,199 from the sales of their items.
Purni Rai is one of the top earners and long-term participants. “She is very smart!” says Anna Gray, “She caught on so quickly.” Purni’s family members are Bhutanese refugees who were living in a refugee camp in Nepal when she was born. She arrived in the United States at age 20 with her family, including her mother, father, brothers, sister, and grandmother. Some of her extended family members already lived in Louisville and helped them adjust in their new home. In her home country, Purni had some experience spinning thread or yarn in a charkha, a type of spinning wheel used in Nepal.
“I have been coming every week since December 2012,” Purni says. She began making dresses for her mom and sister and, now, she uses income from the goods she makes at STITCH to supplement her full-time income from a custom packaging job. Her husband, Ran Rai, works two jobs. “We lived in the same camp,” Purni says, but they did not meet until they both were resettled in Louisville. They traveled back to Nepal this year to meet her mother-in-law for the first time.
“She arrived so shy!” Anna Gray says, as she and Purni laugh and tease each other. Purni beams, explaining how she calls Anna Gray and the other volunteers ‘ma’ams’. Now, Purni teaches some of the new students in STITCH. She shares pictures of the STITCH group at the Kentucky State Fair. It was their second time attending, and they demonstrated how to make microwave bowl holders. When they weren’t selling aprons, hats, pants, and other items, the women explored the grounds to see the horses, mules, and other animals. Anna Gray recalls their group’s first time at the fair a couple years ago. “Afterwards,” she explains, “One woman said, ‘This is the best day of my life!'”
In looking back at their five years, Janet recalls one long-term participant who struggled to adapt. “She has blossomed. Now, she hugs everybody,” Janet says.
Anna Gray explains, “The women, they see this as a club to belong to. Our door is open to them.”
STITCH was featured on the PBS program Sewing with Nancy in early 2016. The press gained them attention from around the country, and they have been receiving donations from supporters near and far.
Contact STITCH through Highland Presbyterian Church to inquire about donations or additional upcoming sales events.
upcoming sales events:
All of the items for sale have been made by the students in the STITCH program and 100% of each sale goes directly to each person who has made the item.
Sunday, December 11, 2016
9:00 a.m. -12:30 p.m.
St. Paul United Methodist Church
2000 Douglass Boulevard
Louisville, KY 40205
(Corner of Douglass and Bardstown Roads)
Tuesday, December 13, 2016
4:00 p.m. – 5:30 p.m.
Kentucky Refugee Ministries – Dining Room
969-B Cherokee Rd
Louisville, KY 40204