Welcome back to our series interviewing leaders in the sewing community! You can read all of our previous interviews here.
Today we are talking to Rumana, who posts about sewing and craft on The Little Pomegranate blog and instagram. Rumana appeared on ‘The Great British Sewing Bee’ in 2016, and started the #SewInColour hashtag.
Charlotte: Tell us about yourself, and how you became interested in sewing.
Rumana: I’ve always had an interest in sewing of some sort. My mum used to sew a lot, she made all my special day outfits, from birthdays to Eid dresses as well as making her own clothes. So it’s something that I grew up with. I knew how to use a sewing machine from a pretty young age but didn’t learn how to properly sew until I was around 23− 24 years old. I definitely hadn’t used a pattern before that! I really started sewing out of frustration of not finding the coverage I needed as a Muslim woman who wears a hijab. Back then you would only get long sleeve dresses on sale in the winter. I got bored of layering and tired of not finding clothes that I really loved, so I started making my own instead!
Charlotte: In addition to sewing, you engage in a variety of other crafts (including blogging at your beautifully revamped blog). Do those different hobbies fulfil different creative needs? How do you decide where to spend your creative time?
Rumana: Oh absolutely! I find my level of exhaustion from life/work etc varies from day to day, week to week, so I need different crafts depending on how much energy I have. After the pandemic, like most people − we were stretched to our limits and I knew I would have no energy to sit down at my machine so I found a new love for ‘couch crafts’ and picked up knitting again. I’ve realised I’m one of those people who can’t switch off. I find it very difficult to just watch TV so it’s been nice to have something to do with my hands whilst still having a rare moment of rest with my husband on the sofa. I’ve actually just finished knitting my first adult size garment which I now call my ‘lockdown jumper’. It’s amazing to think about that as a part of my own history. I guess that’s the amazing thing about craft − it all tells a story. Maybe one day my daughter will find it in the loft and remember ‘oh yeah, my mum made that when there was a global pandemic’! Who knows, by then it might have come back around in fashion too!
Charlotte: It’s been four years since your open letter to the sewing community on the lack of diversity in sewing magazines (and launch of the #SewInColour hashtag). Do you think there has been change since then − from the magazines, but also the wider sewing community?
Rumana: It’s crazy to think that that was four years ago. Looking back, the issue with magazine covers was so obvious to me, I’m surprised it hadn’t come up earlier! I think the first time I did it there was a small ripple effect − magazines definitely started to take notice and make changes. But because the focus was on the magazine covers it was taken a bit literally, when really that was a symptom of a much bigger problem in the wider community. When I revisited it in 2018 I was overwhelmed by the support, and personally I have seen my own social media timelines explode with sewers from different backgrounds, which is great. Following that there were a few high profile discussions in other areas of craft, including knitting, which kept the conversation going. The recent events with the BLM movement definitely seemed to catalyse some actions (and highlight inactions by others) but I find that − just the same as the #SewInColour hashtag − it all dies down after a while. If I’m honest, I’m a bit fatigued by it all. Not the speaking out − because I know my personality and I can’t keep my mouth shut − but I am tired of trying to explain to people why these issues matter. There is an underlying problem of people not wanting to ‘bring politics’ into their safe spaces and craft. Until people are ready to get uncomfortable and appreciate how all of these things are intertwined, sadly I don’t think we will make as much progress as we’d like. As many others have said, we can’t switch off from our skin colour.
Charlotte: You made a clear statement in June that you will only collaborate with companies who share your values and raise the voice of the black community. Did you feel supported by the wider sewing community − and white counterparts − following your post?
Rumana: Oooh, you’re bringing out all the big questions! Yes … and no. For me the statement I made was utterly uncontroversial. How can you not agree with the sentiments behind BLM? How is it possible that black people − black women, men and children − can’t walk down the street, drive their cars, go to the shops, sleep in their beds without the threat of dying over their heads? But I think people find it difficult to see how this relates to the craft/sewing industries − they don’t see it as their problem, not something they need to address. Which is why I really like the term ‘anti-racist’ ; how just being nice people in our own spheres isn’t good enough.
So on one hand I was really encouraged by the positive response from people (including offers to send me their unused sewing machines!) but on the other − if we’re being 100% honest − I was hoping for more from my white counterparts. Look, as a brown (and hijab-wearing) woman, I already have to work a lot harder to get the same opportunities as others. Even my being on the Sewing Bee was met with derision because I was an ‘obvious tick-box’ − and that’s people’s opinions based on just *seeing* me and my skin tone. So even though I have no regrets about my decision to part ways with a brand (and would do it a million times over) it was upsetting for me to be in that position of giving it up, but it’s one I am uncompromising on. I just wish it didn’t have to get to that point.
Having said all of that I also disagree with just doing things ‘for the Gram’ and I know people were having conversations behind the scenes. It’s easy to put out a dramatic statement but harder to follow through. Only time will tell if companies really are making changes.
Charlotte: What change would you like to see from the sewing community going forward?
Rumana: I think the community itself has been undergoing a lot of internal conversations and hopefully we will see change come from it. But a lot of it will come from self-reflection and acceptance of all our roles in all of this, and sometimes that’s not a fun conversation to have with yourself! But really I’m looking to the brands and companies to take a stand and put money where their mouth is : to make actual changes to the way they work, who they hire, how they recruit influencers/ambassadors, panellists for expos. It’s not a matter of going back to ‘normal’. The way we have lived is abnormal, let’s not slip back to the old ways of doing things.
Thanks Rumana! We hope Sewcialists readers have enjoyed this conversation. If you aren’t already following, Rumana’s blog (check out the beautiful redesign) and Instagram account are highly recommended.
Charlotte is a Sewcialists Guest Editor. She is based in the UK and blogs at English Girl at Home.