Sunday, October 16, 2016

Community Project: Social Justice Quilts

This past summer, we were contacted by a young woman who told us that she would like to bring a group of high school students in to choose fabric for a special program they were participating in. The students soon arrived at opening one morning, with their fearless leader, Sara Katherine Trail. Sara guided the awestruck teens through the store, allowing them to explore endless ideas and encouraging their eager enthusiasm. 

As the students piled fabric on the cutting tables, our staff assisted the excited group and soon grew curious. What were they working on? When asked, the students drew forth sketches of their quilts-to-be. These incredible illustrations depicted their experiences and frustrations with various social justice issues. Sara and the students left with their supplies in hand and we couldn't wait to see what they made. 

The quilts were completed in July, culminating in a final show of the pieces. We were thrilled to see what the students created and had to learn more from Sara about the program and how she got involved. Read on to learn about Sara's incredible sewing journey and see the social justice quilts made by East Bay high school students. 

Our high school visitors explored the whole store, choosing from fabrics, buttons and trims.

Sara (in coral) assisted her new-to-sewing students every step of the way.

How did this project get started?
I used to teach (along with my mom and mentor, Eleanor) a free after-school sewing class at my church for teens who wanted to learn how to sew. After seeing my sewing projects and watching my peers express their interest in sewing and fashion design, my pastor, Henry Kelly, went to Walmart and bought a dozen sewing machines to use for the classes. I brought fabric from my home and Eleanor also donated her time and fabrics; we taught kids how to make purses, quilts, pajamas, pillows, and even prom dresses for some of the high schoolers. The classes were fun and even at the age of 10, I knew that I had found my passion in teaching sewing classes!

I decided to start the Social Justice Sewing Academy (SJSA) when I realized others may want express themselves in the ways that I had, by combining sewing and social justice. Together a tremendous amount of positive energy can be directed towards creating change through combining sewing and social justice efforts. I knew that sewing was a valuable skill that young people should have the opportunity to learn. I received the Stronach Prize at UC Berkeley, which provided the resources needed to purchase machines, fabrics, and materials to start a sewing class. The SJSA in Berkeley this summer gave me the opportunity to expand standard classroom instruction to include sewing instruction. It was a powerful experience. The feedback from the high school students really let me know that the SJSA is a positive experience for students. They leave the class knowing how to sew and how to process their societal concerns into beautiful artwork that will be admired by many.

What is your role?
My role, as a reflective educator devoted to teaching young people how to engage in activist-art making, is to center my teaching around how art can impact the social injustices faced by individuals and communities. The academy creates a space for students to become activists, to be leaders, and to speak of what’s important to them. The academy gives students a forum to express themselves and a tool to find their voice. My role is to facilitate intellectual growth and provide new ways for students to become activists.

What is your connection to sewing and quilting?
My family comes from a line of quilters. During slavery, my great-great grandmother, Margaret Smart, was a quilter who used scraps from discarded clothing to make quilts for her family. At the time, women who could not sew quilts to keep their children warm risked their children dying in harsh winters, as most slaves’ quarters had no source of heat. Sewing was a matter of survival. I have a quilt that Margaret Smart made in the mid-1800s. My 86-year-old grandmother, Emma Cox, gave my mom this quilt from her grandmother and my mother passed it down to me. It is a priceless treasure to my family and I.

My mother Katrinka Trail and my Aunt Emory both love to quilt. I began using my first sewing machine at four years old which horrified my grandmother. My mom told my grandmother that if I ran my fingers under the machine (which she had locked to a slow speed), she would take me to the emergency room and that my injuries would not be life threatening. But I really wanted to sew. My mom reminds me that I often cried until she let me sit in her lap and guide the fabric underneath the needle. I learned to sew straight lines on the sewing machine at a young age. I did not prick my fingers until I was 12 years old, while trying to sew and talk on the cell phone at the same time. I hid this injury from my mom and never tried to sew and talk on the phone again.

Outside of my earliest mentors (mom and Aunt Emory), my biggest mentor is Mrs. Eleanor O’Donnell. I met Eleanor at a quilting class at the age of 11. She saw my passion for sewing and offered to teach me advanced quilting techniques in her home. My parents dropped me off at her home 4 or 5 evenings every week after school. Eleanor is an incredible quilter and responsible for my quilting talent and styles. From 6th grade until I graduated from high school, Eleanor was always there, behind the scenes helping me grow and develop in quilting. Her kindness and patience as a mentor is a gift I can never repay. Because of Eleanor, I was offered an opportunity to write the book, Sew With Sara and create the DVD, Cool Stuff to Sew With Sara.

Mrs. Laverne Edwards also mentored me in fashion design. Laverne is a retired college professor of design and color theory. She is the most talented dressmaker I know. For countless days and hours, Laverne taught me tailoring, pattern design and color theory. When we watched Project Runway together, I would sketch the design, and then we would make the garment later that afternoon. Teaching me how to visually see a garment, sketch it and create a 3D reality is invaluable. It is because of her years of mentoring that I was able to land a contract with Simplicity Patterns and design a pattern line, Designed with Love By Sara. Laverne’s color theory instruction helped me when I was offered the opportunity to design fabrics, Biology 101 Fabrics and Folkheart Fabrics by Fabriquilt.

Sara met her helper, Robin Gadient (top right), by chance at the cutting counter at Stonemountain.

How did the students choose their topics?
The SJSA's mission is to help young people develop a sense of agency and critical civic engagement through art activism. In addition to the sewing aspect, students are responsible for reading select texts that are rooted in sociology, history and political science. Readings used in SJSA were chosen because each author represents a unique viewpoint to a particular demographic. For example, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me addresses challenges African Americans endure, while Debbie Irving’s Waking up White discusses how white privilege can be overcome. SJSA only lays the foundation of topics; students have freedom to critically analyze these topics and contemplate other social justice issues that adversely affect themselves or their communities. Students typically mine through the news, are inspired from topics discussed within the curriculum, or focus on an issue that personally resonates with them or their loved ones for their social justice art quilt topics.

How did you meet the woman who helped you and what was her role in the project?
Upon taking the first SJSA class down to Stonemountain & Daughter Fabrics, I met Robin Gadient who was showing us her high quality hand-embroidery work! After a brief conversation, I asked if she would be willing to come in to give a hand embroidery lesson to the class the next week- to which she excitedly agreed. After learning about her multi-cultural, inclusive, and creative perspectives on social and racial justice, I invited her to join the SJSA team and she agreed upon the role of the Creative Director. She was extremely helpful in the success of the first sessions with SJSA through teaching sewing instruction and contributing countless hours after class prepping for the upcoming week and even came to Chicago with me after the first session ended and helped out even more!

How did the students react to quilting and working with fabric?
Students were at first very excited at the idea, but all of them told me they had never sewn before so they expressed a bit of nervousness. However, after the process began, everyone became immediately comfortable with the idea and very anxious to go to the fabric store and get started! Check out this video to see them work on their projects!

What was your favorite part of the process of creating the quilts?
The level of community that we created during the sewing process of the quilts was definitely my most favorite aspect. Seeing students helping each other, having students volunteer their lunch time, and seeing the high levels of passion and creativity radiating from every student was amazing to witness.

Will you be doing any more projects like this in the future?
I am currently working on establishing the Social Justice Sewing Academy as a permanent program in partnership with a local high school.

We're so excited to see what's next for Sara and the Social Justice Sewing Academy. To learn more about this and other amazing projects, visit the SJSA website:


  1. These are incredible. Thanks for sharing.

  2. We love this project and these kids!

  3. go Sara and kids!!

  4. Amazing Project! I read about this program on Teen Vogue's website as well!

  5. It will be good to use the reflective tape to make the clothing.