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May 2001 / communities :: email this story to a friend

If They Can Sew, I Can Dance
By Karen Heitzmann

When asked to contribute an article here, I felt somewhat at a loss. I'm not a writer, but thought if I were to tell you a story of me teaching what is my passion — sewing — maybe I would have a chance. By all of that I mean through my friendship with Zed Minale I am now teaching some African women how to sew.

Zed Minale, a refugee herself from Ethiopia, is the director of the African Refugee Services, a program she started here in St. Louis. After a couple of meetings with several of the women she has as clients, I suggested that maybe we should have sewing classes for them. I told Zed that several of the women had asked if I could "show them how" to make a skirt, blouse, etc. At different times they had all admired my skirts and T-shirt tops. When I told them I make all my clothes, they were interested in the possibilities of sewing for themselves.

sewing machine

This all started in the late summer and fall of 2000. Zed's main concern was where we would get sewing machines. I suggested she ask the question out loud and that they would come. She laughed and said, "I'm serious, Karen, we need sewing machines." I said, "I bet we get them now."

Days later, Zed called me with a very surprised tone in her voice, saying, "Karen, we now have three sewing machines that have been donated to us!" She hadn't even asked nor mentioned the sewing classes to anyone, and three different individuals offered their old machines to her for her clients. Within a couple of weeks a woman got my name from the International Institute when she offered them fabric she wanted to get rid of. It took three midsize cars to haul away all the fabric, patterns, and notions (thread, zippers, lace, etc.) she had. Zed and I decided we had no excuse not to get started on the project. We didn't have a place to hold these classes so until we did I offered my living/dining room area. And so we began.

We started last November. You might like to know that these women have been in the United States less than two years and are from all over Africa. They are from the Congo, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Rwanda, and Uganda. Did I mention that English isn't their first language? The Nigerians know English very well; they have been taught so since kindergarten. It is fun and sometimes amusing to hear what I am saying translated into French and Swahili. We encourage everyone to speak English while in class. They are all learning and we know it is good to practice as often as you can. Most of the women have some knowledge of sewing but had never used an electric machine.

In March, we were able to move out of my dining room and into a room in Southampton Presbyterian Church. Yet another woman who had even more fabric than the first one to donate to us contacted us. We have also been given approximately a dozen more sewing machines. All of the women have been practicing, getting used to the foot pedal (let's remember, for the most part, they don't drive cars). One woman in particular was sewing straight lines as though she were doing lap try outs for the Indy 500. I tried to explain that the whole process of sewing is done rather slowly and patiently. She continued to speed down the fabric and I had them translate to her that she had just run a red light and I was giving her a ticket. She looked at me and in English said, "I understand." The room broke into laughter.

The original thought was to teach a simple project — maybe a pillow or tote bag. The lofty thought was a fashion show/fund raiser with everyone wearing the garments they made and Zed performing an Ethiopian Coffee Ritual. Well, we think the fashion show may happen sooner than predicted; the enthusiasm alone seems to fuel the sewing classes. We meet for two hours on Saturday morning and have to send them home sometime during the third hour.

They tell me I'm a good teacher, but I know when you have willing students teaching isn't that hard. As I said earlier, sewing is my passion, so I'm really just playing and enjoying myself. I've always been told that if you share your passion, talent, skill, gift — whatever you call it — with others, the rewards are all yours. I am finding that to be true.

They also told me that when I teach them to sew they will teach me to dance. African dancing, of course!

Should I tell them I made my high school prom dress, but it never made it to the dance floor?

Karen Heitzmann works on New American issues for SLACO, the St. Louis Association of Community Organizations.

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