[Longer Read] Sewing can’t just be a passion project for the privileged: The Social Justice Sewing Academy (Part 2)

Former editor Emilia recently sat down (virtually) with Sara Trail, Founder and Director of the Social Justice Sewing Academy (SJSA). Originally intended to be a Sewcialists interview, we decided to work the interview material and supplementary information from the SJSA website into an article format. This is a new format for us—hopefully you enjoy it!

In the first half of our article/interview with Sara from Social Justice Sewing Academy, we learned about why the SJSA was founded, how it works, and the ethos of youth voice driving their work. This second half covers how the quilts are shown and exhibited and how they are received by the quilting community. You should definitely go read the first half for context if you didn’t already!

What happens after the art is made? After the workshops with young people have occurred, their art is sent to volunteers for embellishment, quilting, and sewing together into display pieces. They are then shown in all sorts of settings, from museums and community centres to quilting shows and prestigious events.

A horizontal quilt with a blue background and an open book shown on it.  The book shows a school behind a wall with a student standing in front of it.  The text reads "we are all born equal but our education makes us who we are".
An SJSA quilt at Quiltcon 2020 – made by Mila B.

The art quilts are often displayed for a longer period, such as 2-3 months as a more permanent part of an exhibit, and are accompanied by the artist statements next to the quilts. This is a really important aspect of displaying the quilts, forming a guide book to the quilts and hearing the voice of the artist to complement their art.

You can see a virtual exhibition and click on each quilt image at the link below to hear the artist statement that accompanies and explains their work:

A quilt that resembles the American flag on its side but has people being hanged on it and streaks resembling blood.
Blood White and Blue by Bryan Robinson—one of the exhibits from the Virtual UCR Arts SJSA Exhibition

How do SJSA quilts make people feel? At this point in the interview, Emilia and Sara move to talking about how the (generally white) quilting community engages with this art. Sara outlined how, not surprisingly, it’s often about the location and the demographics in that place.

Sara told us that the organisers of quilt shows are often very supportive, not least because this is work by young people, and they are acutely aware that without young people learning to sew and engaging with fabric and quilting, their industry will struggle in years to come. It was interesting to hear that quilt show organisers are turning their thoughts towards this, given how little other evidence there is (in marketing approaches, for example) that their target market is changing.

However, it is in the reception from quilt show attendees that things become less open. Sara indicated that at a quilt show in Tampa, Florida, for example, she got a lot of negative comments from the conservative attendees. She says sometimes she will try engage on why, other times she doesn’t have patience for it. It’s striking to hear the weariness in her voice in the audio at this point—the never ending imposition of trying to change deeply held, ingrained biases.

How did we end up here? Emilia and Sara mused on when textile arts became disconnected from such a wide range of the community. Sara talked briefly about the history of quilting and references the quilt makers of Gee’s Bend. If you don’t know the history and work of these quilters, there is a great introduction here. Sara said she sees this disconnection as occurring when quilt making became a “hobby” for (mostly) white women, rather than accessible to all.

African American quilting has been so intrinsic to the community until it became more expensive to make a quilt than it is to buy a quilt…it’s always been a movement to express yourself, but since then it’s become this passion project for the privileged. 

Sara Trail, Interview

Sara pointed out how much cotton quilting fabric, rotary cutters, and sewing machines now cost — that the utilitarian premise of sewing, its roots in thriftiness, has diminished incredibly over the last two decades. As she noted, if you need a blanket to sleep under and you can buy 12 at Walmart for the same cost as making one yourself, you are priced out of the game immediately.

This discussion feeds into so many others about the way that fabric/garment making has changed in recent history—including those relating to sustainability, the impact of fabric production on the environment, and the exploitation of workers producing that fabric and clothing. The global changes in how we make and supply textiles have implications that reinforce privilege and slowly move us and our memory away from the history and connection that used to surround our making.

So what can we do? This is the uncomfortable part. Writing this as a white woman who can afford to sew my own clothes and makes quilts from time to time, I am the definition of what is being discussed here. Sara and Emilia also discussed Sewcialists in the interview, both expressing a strong sense that we need to do more, that we are “PG” and pretty “vanilla.” The question for us all then, as individuals but also as a group— how do we stop the sewing community from becoming solely a passion project for the privileged?

Sara had some input on that too. She said we need to see white people stand up to racism from other white quilters and sewists:

It’s not about censorship, it’s not about delete their comment cold but really take the time to publicly denounce that it’s not what we want in this space and we intrinsically have to change the culture of what’s allowed and for that I would say like, silence is violence, speak up and say something, be an ally.

Sara Trail, Interview

The above aligns well with our comment policy, but it bears repeating, and further exploration for us all. It’s too easy to look at issues like racism, cultural appropriation, and supply chain transparency and deem them too hard. It’s easy to acknowledge that an individual can’t solve them, and thereby excuse ourselves from being part of the solution. It’s easy to say that this is just our nice hobby space, and we aren’t hurting anyone if we don’t do anything. It’s too easy to say we don’t want this space to be spoiled by being political when even being able to make that choice is a sign of privilege. As Emilia says in the interview, not caring is also a statement.

Sara suggested that we look to engage with and support youth involvement in sewing. If we don’t actively pursue that, the sewing community will just age out. It’s also our opportunity for change:

 I think we can change the culture.  I think if we bring in a bunch of young people of colour we can shift the culture and no offence, but let the racists die out…people need to be intentionally anti-racist. Bring in young people, queer people and not keep…perpetuating privilege.

Sara Trail, Interview

Sara also encouraged us to repost youth art and to appropriately credit young artists with their names, including and especially unknown artists. The space only becomes more welcoming if you see all ages and types of artists validated, not just experts in the field.

Finally, to round out this interview, we wanted to include some information on initiatives ongoing at the SJSA that people reading can support or engage with further. Sara told us about the following:

  • The SJSA Remembrance Project — this is a quilt block community project that creates visual portraits/symbolic banners memorialising those who have been unjustly murdered by community violence, race-based violence, law enforcement, and gender or sexuality-based violence (shown in the images above). You can volunteer at the link above, or follow on Instagram here.
  • The SJSA Business Incubator — a virtual fellowship program to develop youth ideas from concept to reality. This involves incremental stipends and workshops to assist with activities such as website and brand development, as well as connection to the wider start-up community.
  • And then one that Sara didn’t mention, but I found on their site: buy some SJSA merch, such as t-shirts and pins.

These interviews with Sara (and others) always throw a lot of questions up for us at Sewcialists. How do we better support this type of work but also respond to the call for increased allyship from groups like ours? How do we engage in some risk taking for others for whom the risks are too great?

We have just sought out some new editors for Sewcialists and will be taking this challenge and these questions into our 2021 planning. We also recently tipped over 40,000 followers on Instagram. What if every one of us did something different from today? What if we heard what Sara (and so many others) were saying to us, and we changed it? We ask you all to consider how you might do that.

Thank you to Sara for giving us her time, for the challenge she brings, and to Emilia for the interview.

Chloe is a Sewcialists Editor who lives and sews in Australia, on the land of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation. She blogs at chlo-thing.com and can be found on Instagram here