For the past five years Stitch Buffalo has been empowering refugee women in Buffalo by providing them with an opportunity to financially contribute to their family and community while learning skills to take with them for a lifetime. The organization’s success has enabled them to secure a 501(c)(3) status and has allowed for an expanded mission, “To advance social justice for refugee women in Buffalo, NY by creating opportunities for cross-cultural exchange and economic empowerment through textile arts.”
In 2017, something incredible and perhaps unlikely happened for Stitch Buffalo. Rich Products generously gifted to Stitch their building at 1215 Niagara Street, and the 2,000 square feet of space was a dream realized for founder Dawn Hoeg. “The space makes day-to-day operations more manageable and we have been able to expand on what products are made and we are able to forecast a bit,” says Hoeg.
The storefront now allows for a dedicated retail area that is open to the public during business hours, three work rooms, a machine room, and several supply rooms. It is in these spaces where refugee women from countries including Burma, Chin State, Karen State, Iran, Angola, and Bhutan gather to work, get free sewing supplies, learn stitchery, and share skills with each other while creating projects to sell from the retail space.
Hoeg created Stitch Buffalo for the refugee community with the idea that bead-work and embroidery are very inexpensive and portable skills that could be easily learned. What she did not expect was that many of the women who came to Stitch brought with them embroidery ability that they had gained while living in refugee camps in Thailand as part of their journey to find a better life. It is those skills that the women share with each other, and use to create beautiful and colorful garments and accessories from donated materials at Stitch. Cotton handbags, colorful scarves, beaded wrist bands and belts, and embroidered jean jackets are just some of the items for sale. Each retail item is tagged with the name of the woman who created the piece, along with her country of origin, so you know whose work you are supporting with your purchase.
But the true worth of Stitch is in the difference that it makes in the lives of the women it serves. Each day refugee women trickle in to Stitch to work amongst themselves under the guidance of Hoeg and volunteers to create their one of a kind works. Many of the women are young with young children in school. They are able to spend a couple hours at Stitch, then take home a project to continue working on at home or at say, the playground. It is empowering to these young women, as well as the older women, to be able to contribute to their household and it gives them a sense of worth. Furthermore, many of the younger women have successfully transitioned from Stitch into the workforce.
There are many ways for the public to get involved with this great organization too:
- Volunteers are always needed to help out during business hours, sewing experience not necessary.
- The “Ambasketors Program” is another easy way to spread the work of Stitch while supporting it as well. You can become an “Ambasketor” by bringing a basket of Stitch Buffalo hand-crafted pins to a corporate function or community event to sell while raising awareness. Another option is to purchase a basket of pins for giveaways at a party or social gathering. These one-of-a-kind, hand-made pins are $20 each and come the shape of hearts, Buffalove insignias, and peace signs; an easy and perfect accessory to wear to all of Buffalo’s great summer festivals and concerts.
- “SecondStitch” events are pop-up sales that are open to the public. Donated materials that cannot be used at Stitch are available to the public at great prices for repurposing for home and personal creations. Everything from thread and fabric to well-maintained sewing machines are available at the pop-up sales. Not only can you help by attending a “SecondStitch” event, but volunteers are needed for set-up prior to the sale, PLUS volunteers get first dibs on the great deals. The next “SecondStitch” sale will take place on Saturday, July 13th from 9:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., with another one happening in November.
- Donations, donations, donations. Fabric, thread, beads, bobbins, buttons, machines; anything related to sewing, stitching, and beading. Donations are gratefully and happily accepted during business hours.
Next on the horizon for Stitch Buffalo is an Ambassador Program. This program will allow for a selection of products to be sold locally as well as across the country through ambassadors who will wear and speak for the product, the program, and the women. To Hoeg, this is much more intimate than say an Etsy Shop. While she recognizes the value in online retail, she maintains that that is not what Stitch is about. She explains, “Stitch is about passing it on, to us word of mouth is much more personal and much more valuable for what we do here.”
Word of mouth is exactly what brought a young woman to Stitch Buffalo recently. Hoeg recalls, “A new woman walked in one day with broken English, having been referred there by her son’s teacher. She pointed to the embroidery work around her saying, ‘I can do, I can do.’ The woman went on to explain that her young son was handicapped and that she couldn’t work on a set schedule but said ‘This would be good for me.’” Hoeg said that this story, and so many like it, is what Stitch is all about.
Check out a “SecondStitch” event or visit their retail store and wear a Stitch Buffalo item with Buffalo pride knowing you are supporting not only a great organization, but supporting the refugee community at a moment in our history when it could not be more important.
Stay tuned for profile stories on the “Women of Stitch” coming soon on Buffalo Rising.
Visit www.stitchbuffalo.org for business hours.