The idea for Make Welcome Refugee Sewing School started in 2012 when director Beth Pinckney met a young refugee woman from Burma (now Myanmar) and started visiting her in her home. At one of her visits, Pinckney brought with her a quilt that she was making for her mother. The refugee woman asked if she could learn how to make one, so Pinckney started bringing her sewing machine with her to the woman’s apartment.
Pinckney began talking to another woman in her church, Julia Camenisch, about ways that they could connect with some of the refugee moms they were getting to know. They wanted to create something where the women could come together and learn a skill, develop friendships and share the love of Christ while hopefully being provided with some income opportunities from their newfound sewing skills.
The sewing classes started in the summer of 2013 with a total of five students and multiple volunteers. The refugees have come from all over, including places like Myanmar, the Congo, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Syria.
“We started in a little apartment down the street,” Pinckney said. “Refugee Support Services is another organization here that works with refugees and they were doing a help center in an apartment and they let us use it on Friday mornings for class. So we carried everything back and forth all the time, like I had to lug all of the sewing machines and fabric and everything every week.”
Soon after, Make Welcome moved to St. John’s Methodist Church on Monroe Road. The increase in space allowed them to add a class and take in five more students.
Last February, Make Welcome moved their classes to their current space at the Project 658 center, a Christ-centered, community development nonprofit. Last spring, the organization finished up with four classes and about 30 students with 30 more students still on the waiting list.
“Every week I have someone come ask me if they can be in the sewing class and it’s a great problem to have,” Pinckney said.
Simply word of mouth in the refugee community has made Make Welcome known.
In 2016, Camenisch began selling the products that women created in class on her Etsy shop, Persona Grata. Several of the women who have attended Make Welcome classes sew for the online shop.
“Julia has certain things now she wants them to sew, so there have been women in the class that know how to make certain things, will sew it at home and then Julia will buy those things from them and sell it on the Etsy shop. She’s really working to encourage refugee artisans,” Pinckney said.
The students are able to work from home because of the Sewing Machine Sponsorship Program, which allows every woman who wants to have her own sewing machine have the ability to earn it. Every time a student attends class, there is a certain amount taken off the cost of the machine. Once the price decreases $30, a student is able to buy the machine. Donations are what allow the subsidization of the cost of the machines.
Today, a total of 20 women have gotten their own sewing machine. They can now work at home part-time while raising their children and still earning a supplemental income to support their families.
Typically, Make Welcome offers a beginner class, an intermediate class, a garment sewing class and a Sit and Sew class.
“We’ve had so many people walk in and say, ‘Do you have anybody that can hem my pants?’ So we want to train some women that would like to start their own alterations businesses,” Pinckney said.
Make Welcome will begin to offer an alterations class this fall.
They are also looking to add either a business class or workshop in the fall. This addition was inspired by Holley and Sage owner Jennifer Shields, who contacted the Make Welcome team for help finding seamstresses.
For two weeks, Shields taught the classes using her patterns to see which women had the skills she was looking for. She identified three women that she was interested in hiring, who she now employs to sew for her business. This arrangement has allowed Shields to expand her business so positively that she’s looking to hire more women from Make Welcome in the coming year.
The additional business class or workshop at Make Welcome will focus on training women to sew for businesses like Holley and Sage, allowing the refugees to better understand how to work with a business owner. The students will also learn about saving money so they have some set aside when it comes time to pay taxes, as well as a little business accounting.
“The business part is really huge, but the other part, to me, which is equally important, is that these refugee women have come from places where their lives were ripped apart,” Pinckney said. “They‘ve had to leave their home country or family. People are coming out of war and other terrible situations. Coming to sewing class is a safe place.”
Photos: Beth Pinckney