The Sewcialists Interview: Stitch Buffalo

Welcome back to our Sewcialists Interview series, today we bring you an interview with Stitch Buffalo, a social justice organization for refugee women in Buffalo, New York. You can read all of our previous interviews here.

Monserratt: Can you tell us how Stitch Buffalo was started?

Stitch Buffalo (SB): Stitch Buffalo was founded in 2014, with a simple vision to gather and create. Textile art unites many women across cultures and our goal was to learn from each other while building a community of mutual support. We began with small weekly gatherings in a community room, and graduated to our own store/studio a few years later.

Two women stand beside each other looking at the camera with big smiles on their faces. One is holding a bag of items, and the other a piece of paper. They are standing in the Stitch Buffalo store and are surrounded by handmade goods.
All photos courtesy of Stitch Buffalo

Monserratt: Why is it important for you to help refugees?

SB: We believe that all people have the right to a safe and happy life, including the abilities to support our families, to express ourselves personally, to celebrate and preserve our traditions, and to feel secure in a friendly and welcoming community. For refugee women these things can be particularly difficult to access due to language barriers, transportation issues, family responsibilities, and other factors. Because we value refugee women as part of our community, we try to provide pathways of support. But it’s also important to note that this is a reciprocal relationship—the artists of the Refugee Women’s Workshop bring their own ideas, skills, traditions, opinions, energy, and excitement to the endeavor!

Monserratt: Can you tell us more about the women’s workshop program?

SB: The Refugee Women’s Workshop is a fluid program that is open to all refugee and immigrant women fiber artists in our community. Women who participate regularly refer their friends, and other community organizations (resettlement services, healthcare providers, etc.) often point artists in our direction. We’re happy to meet with any new artist, evaluate any sample projects they have completed, and/or offer fiber arts training if they need to refine their skills.

Our program operates on a drop-in basis, to accommodate the busy schedules of our artists (most of whom are moms) and to ease transportation issues. Artists can stop by anytime we are open to drop off their completed work to be sold and pick up free supplies for new projects. There is no time commitment required—each woman is free to work at her own pace, in her own home, and on whatever projects appeal to her. Completed projects are offered for sale on a consignment basis in our storefront and on our Etsy site. Each artist is then paid monthly for any of her items that have sold. Each item is one-of-a-kind, as unique as the artist who stitched it.

Because the program is so flexible, many artists have been creating with us for years. Some have even become instructors in our community workshops (open to sewists of all backgrounds). Others participate for a shorter time, or join us periodically as their schedule allows. We’re happy to have them use the opportunity in whatever way best meets their needs.

Monserratt:  Several of the women seem to have families. How does their participation in the workshop enable them to support their families?

SB: Most of our artists are moms, so they appreciate that we offer a completely flexible way to earn extra money for their families—particularly during the years when their kids are young and not in school. Often, women come to the studio with friends, sisters, or even whole family with little ones in tow! It’s a welcoming space for everyone and we love meeting them all.

Many refugee families live in multigenerational homes, so we also have senior artists who enjoy using their time creatively and being able to contribute meaningfully to their family’s finances when a traditional “job” might not be a good fit. One of our most prolific artists, Hkawng Lung (originally from Burma), received her first ever paycheck from Stitch Buffalo—at the age of 70!

Monserratt:  How do you help new refugees to integrate in the society? Can you tell us about some stories of success?

SB: Simply being a warm, inviting space is critical to helping people—all people!—feel at home. We are a tiny microcosm of society and provide a good first step toward navigating in the larger world. There are always smiling faces here, and the opportunity to collaborate openly with staff members, volunteers, and other artists. We all help each other in our creativity, take our language barriers in stride (and with humor), and love to celebrate each other’s successes.

While our objective is not job training, some of our artists have gone on to work at local commercial sewing operations or to start sewing businesses of their own. For example, Palwasha Basir (originally from Afghanistan) came to our program with excellent tailoring skills. She helped develop our mask-making program at the start of the pandemic and recently opened a small tailoring and design business of her own.

Seamstress Palwasha Basir leans over a table to cut out a pattern from a dark blue fabric.
Seamstress Palwasha Basir works in the Stitch Buffalo studio

We don’t try to be “everything to everyone” but are happy to help our artists connect with resources for literacy and language training, as well as health services and job training. Recently, we also had on-site help to assist families to complete the 2020 Census and get voting information. Basically, we try to be good friends and use our personal/professional connections to help refugee women just as we would help anyone new to the community begin the process of settling in.

Monserratt:  How do you educate and empower these women to respond to racism and oppression in your organization and in their community?

SB: We invite artists to talk with us about their lived experiences, how those experiences impact their lives, and how we can support them within our program and in the world at large. Recently, we’ve had abundant opportunities to open the lines of dialogue about race and gender in the United States through conversations about issues in the news—such as the immigration ban, the Black Lives Matter movement, the death of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, the presidential election, and more.

However, it is also important to us to acknowledge and respect that most of our artists have traumatic personal experiences of systemic oppression. Before arriving in the United States, most spent many years in refugee camps, fleeing countries ravaged by racial/cultural violence. Many are currently separated from close family members whose safety is still threatened. Accordingly, these issues can be difficult for them to discuss, so we let them lead the conversation and then offer support, tools, or solutions as needed.

Monserratt: What are the different ways in which Stitch Buffalo is supported by individuals and other organizations?

SB: We are grateful to receive amazing support from our grassroots community. Most of the products we create are designed using supplies donated for re-use. We also have an amazing roster of volunteers who work with us on a huge variety of tasks and have continued to donate their time and energy from home during the pandemic. Additionally, we are grateful to financial donations from individuals, local businesses, and several foundations that have supported us through grants. We are also happy to partner with a few boutiques and retailers to help sell products from the Refugee Women’s Workshop.

Monserratt: What is your vision for the future of Stitch Buffalo?

SB: As we grow, our plan is for Stitch Buffalo is to become a fully functional textiles arts center, with expanded space and creative capabilities that will benefit all of our programs. Here’s our mission statement:

Stitch Buffalo is an inclusive space for refugee and immigrant women to create handcrafted goods and find economic empowerment; a textile art center for community members to gain and share skills in the textile arts; and an organization committed to stewarding the environment through the re-use of textile supplies.

In order to reach our goals, we’re working on outreach to individuals and organizations in our community and beyond. We’re excited about the opportunity to work with new artists, to partner with like-minded groups, to teach more people, and to share the incredible beauty of our diverse and exciting community.

The interior of the Stitch Buffalo boutique that has light green painted walls lined with colourful handmade crafts including hanging ornaments, small household items, and pillows. At the front of the photo, to the left hand side is a table that includes scarves, brooches and more colourful ornaments.
The Stitch Buffalo store interior full of beautiful handmade goods by Stitch Buffalo makers/artists

Thank you for talking to us, Stitch BuffaloSewcialists, I hope you enjoyed learning about Stitch Buffalo, a space for refugee and immigrant women to create handcrafted goods and find economic empowerment.

Monserratt is a temporary editor at the Sewcialists. You can look her up on instagram @monserratt_l.