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Reaping what they sew

On her way to work teaching textile arts at Buffalo State College, Dawne Hoeg often passed groups of women wearing flowing swaths of brightly patterned fabrics, some adorned with intricate stitching and beadwork. She reverently referred to them as the "Beautiful Women," and spent months pondering their pasts and their presence.

"I kept thinking that we must have something in common with each other – handcrafts, an appreciation for creating beautiful things," said Hoeg. "I thought they must have knowledge about some kind of ‘making’ with fabrics, and I really wanted to create a connection with them."

She talked to her friend Shelby Deck, a lifelong advocate for women and girls. The pair networked to secure a gathering space, sewing supplies, and introductions to the Beautiful Women. Two years ago, Stitch Buffalo started with five or six strangers sewing together. Then sisters told sisters, who told aunts, who told friends, and in a short time the non-profit organization has blossomed into nearly 60 women, mostly refugees on Buffalo’s West Side, gathering every week to sit together and sew.

Together the women make a collection of small, mostly wearable goods that are sold at local stores, like embroidered bracelets they call "Wonder Woman Cuffs," stitched and beaded red felt heart pins with a small screen-printed "Buffalove" panel in the center, prayer pouches on a long cord to keep good thoughts close to the heart, and more. Seventy percent of the sale price of each item goes directly to the woman who created it and lent her heart, time, skill, and creative expression to every stitch, color choice, pattern and adornment.

Recently resettled refugees gather together to sew and sell their creations through Stitch Buffalo. (Bruce Fox)

For many of these craftswomen, mostly from Burma, Bhutan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Iraq, the wages represent the first they’ve ever earned for themselves, as traditional home-based cultural roles kept them from the workplace. Deck tells of an elderly mother-in-law who accompanied her son’s wife to the sewing sessions for weeks and never touched a needle. When the other women finally coaxed her to sew, she made a bracelet that sold instantly. It was her first paycheck, at 74 years old.

"This is an example of women supporting women supporting women, all sitting at a table and getting stuff done, as they have through history," said Deck. "It’s a powerful thing."

But there’s more than just crafts and money being made at Stitch Buffalo; it’s a safe space where women can learn from each other, find resources, talk about their husbands, laugh about mistakes, and be in complete control of the task in their hands.

"They’re practicing textile arts," said Hoeg, "but they’re also building community. The work is almost secondary to the human level of things – this is a place to be comfortable, and a place where craft transcends language."

Some women come to Stitch Buffalo as novices who have never held a needle. Others, said Deck, produce work at the level of master craftspeople.

The quality of the supplies, mostly donated, is important for two reasons central to Stitch Buffalo’s mission. First, the program relies heavily on women using and sharing the textile techniques they were taught by their mothers – who most likely didn’t weave with polyester or sew on fleece, which behave differently than the materials they’re familiar with. Secondly, the income potential of the program depends on consumers wanting to buy handmade treasures of high quality – which isn’t best supported by plastic beads and acrylic yarn.

Recently a woman brought in eight boxes of cotton embroidery floss from the craft closet of an aunt who had passed. In that rainbow box, which may have garnered a few dollars at an estate sale, lay hundreds of dollars of income potential. Women helping women helping women — it’s a beautiful thing. For local vendors selling Stitch Buffalo wares and a list of helpful supplies, visit Stitchbuffalo.com.

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