Beth Pinckney is the Co-Director and Lead Sewing Instructor for Make Welcome: A Refugee Art Collective. Beth works with co-founder Julia Camenisch (also the Director of Journey Home, the sister business of Make Welcome), sewing instructor and product designer Lisa Roszler and a committed group of volunteers.

Beth learned to sew from her mother long ago, but put sewing mostly aside while raising and homeschooling her six children. When her first son got married in 2010 she decided to sew a quilt as a wedding gift. More weddings meant more quilts, and eventually the empty homeschool room became a sewing studio. The year before her youngest left for college Beth become more aware of the growing refugee community in her city of Charlotte, NC. Combining her desire to volunteer in the refugee community and her love of sewing, she co-founded Make Welcome: A Refugee Art Collective.

Beth with San Aye

The women of Make Welcome are mostly young mothers, and all are refugees from Burma (Myanmar). Most of the women have been in the United States less than five years. Formerly isolated in their apartments with minimal English language ability and few opportunities for community, they are now learning to sew, building friendships and developing entrepreneurial skills through the Make Welcome classes.

Young Moms Learning to Sew

We asked Beth to tell us more about the Make Welcome organization and to discuss how we can share our own love of sewing with refugees. We all see the startling images of Syrian families, and we know refugees near and far can benefit from our loving stitches and time. Make a difference for someone! Perhaps you can use our Teach a Friend to Sew series to kickstart your own sewing partnership or group.

It started with a friendship. I sat next to a young Burmese refugee woman at the ESL class and as we talked, she began to cry. Her English skills were insufficient to explain her unhappiness, so I simply asked if I could visit her at her apartment the next week.

Over the next weeks I visited my new friend, Ciin Niang. She worked on her English. We read together. We talked about her family. One week she said, “You look like my mother.” I am a graying blond and her mother has jet black hair. I’m sure we don’t look alike physically at all! But my friendship with Ciin Niang was beginning to bear the fruit of love and familial feeling that made her think of me like her mother. I was in tears when she said those words.

A couple of months after our visits began, I took a quilt I was working on for my own mother’s 80th birthday to show Ciin Niang. Upon seeing it, she asked if I would teach her to sew. Why not!? The next week I brought my sewing machine and some fabric scraps, and each week I taught her basic skills as we sewed together.

About the same time, my friend Julia had begun working to help a refugee family in our city that had suffered a terrible loss. The husband had been killed in a tragic car accident, leaving a wife and five small children in a new and very foreign home with no means of support. Julia’s experience working with this family and mine, teaching my new friend to sew, were the sparks that launched our sewing group, Make Welcome: A Refugee Art Collective.

Our experiences getting to know refugee women in our city showed us the need for a safe and loving environment for learning new skills, expressing creativity, fostering community and, eventually, offering entrepreneurial opportunity. I sew. Julia is an entrepreneur. Neither of us are professional social workers. We are two women with some skills to share, becoming more and more aware of a need in our city.

The advice we were given from one of the refugee service non-profits in our city was, “Start small, do what you can and go from there.” Friends donated money so we could purchase sewing machines. Others donated fabric and supplies. On a hot July day in 2013, we held our first class with five Burmese women. They learned to thread the machines and fill bobbins and sew straight and zig-zag stitches. At the end of class each student had sewn a simple stitch sampler. Over the weeks they learned to make lined and unlined tote bags, headbands, embellished hand towels, simple skirts and more.

First Stitches Sampler

Now in our third year, Make Welcome has served a total of 20 refugee women to date. Most of our students had never sewn before. A few had used foot-powered treadle machines in their home countries or in refugee camps. None had ever used an electric sewing machine. We have joyfully witnessed the development of skills, the growth of sweet friendships and community among both students and volunteers, and the beginnings of entrepreneurial opportunities for our students, primarily through a sister business, Journey Home, that we launched in the summer of 2014.

Choosing Fabrics for Rice Bag Totes

Upcycled Rice Bag Totes

Journey Home sells items that the women make in class and, increasingly, in their own homes. Through our Sewing Machine Sponsorship Program many students have been able to acquire their own machines and set up home sewing studios. The price of a new machine is reduced each time a woman attends class. Finally, when enough classes have been attended to reduce the cost to $20, the students pays the remaining amount. It is hard to adequately convey the joy we all feel each time a student reaches that milestone and receives her brand new sewing machine.

Lily Receives her New Sewing Machine

Our group, Make Welcome, continues to grow. For the first time this fall, we are teaching a new Beginners Class concurrently with our Advanced Class. With our Journey Home sister business we are working to develop a model of “stay at home manufacturing” to offer more entrepreneurial opportunities to our students. We have also begun financial training for these students who are earning more from their sewing.

Julia Teaching about Finances

Friday class days are a great, sometimes crazy time of sewing, learning, laughing, ripping out mistakes and starting over again. English, Burmese, and other mother tongues fill the sewing room. We all feel what was expressed by one of our students last fall. While learning to make a zipper pouch, Mya looked up with a big smile and said, “On Fridays, I am happy!” Indeed, on Fridays– plus any time we have the chance to spend time and sew with our refugee friends– we are very, very happy!

“On Fridays, We Are Happy!”

To learn more about Make Welcome and Journey Home, you can visit our websites and Facebook pages:

Do You Want to Support Refugees?:
Stories of refugees have filled the news in recent weeks. Many sewists and crafters wonder how to help. Here are a few ideas…

1. Get involved with an existing organization. There are a number of groups in cities across the country that are doing work with sewing and crafts very similar to the work of Make Welcome. Among these groups are: We Made This in Denver, CO, Intertwined in Knoxville, TN, Re: New Project in Glen Ellyn, IL and Open Arms in Austin, TX. Search online for refugee artisan/sewing/craft groups in your area and volunteer! (If you know of other sewing and craft related refugee groups, please post the name and link in the comment section.)

2. Befriend a refugee family. The best place to start is most often your local refugee resettlement agency, or a church or community organization in your area that works with refugees. These organizations frequently need more volunteers and some match American volunteers with refugee families. If you are not sure how to find a group in your state, this map from the Office of Refugee Resettlement can help.

3. Want to start a sewing group? As you develop friendships, share your time and skills. Find a room large enough to set up a few sewing machines and invite others to help. Use Shea Henderson’s helpful book, School of Sewing, for ideas, projects and instructions. At Make Welcome, we do provide transportation and childcare for our refugee students because most of them would be unable to participate unless these were provided. This is certainly a challenge, but it enables our new friends to attend and enjoy a time of creativity and community. Start where you are. If it’s at your kitchen table with one woman– one new refugee friend– that’s the place to start!

    “Want to do something about the refugee crisis? …Do more than look at this tiny little boy washed up on a beach… Befriend a refugee. Advocate for one. Find a family, fall in love and feel your heart grow three sizes. Help a refugee child register in school. Donate dollars, but do more than throw money at the problem. Buy extra school supplies while shopping for your own children and share them with a family who needs them. Welcome the refugees and immigrants in your own community, knowing that just because it isn’t happening here doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. These refugees could be us, and for many of us it’s not that long ago that they were us.” Kandyce Pinckney (my daughter-in-law!)

I would only add, when you make a new refugee friend, teach her to sew!