Sara Trail is an author, sewing teacher, pattern and fabric designer. A graduate of the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, she founded the Social Justice Sewing Academy (SJSA) to be a platform where youth create art that engages and educates communities.
She’s a wealth of compassion and social betterment using quilting as a platform of personal expression. I had a chance to discuss her own journey and how her dedication carries into helping others.
You were taught to sew by your mother and a teacher at a young age. You were also informed that your grandmother was a slave, who made quilts herself. In what way did that early skill set and knowledge impact your work?
It kept me really rooted into the background of quilt making. My parents are really big readers and growing up we had a big history background on everything. Quilts were possibly used to translate messages back in the Civil War days. For instance if you had this quilt on display, outside the front door, it meant that this house was a safe house or don’t go to the house next door. In general I was taught the history of sewing and how embedded it was to the African American culture. That sewing could be more than just a hobby but that sewing was a black skill and that black people have been sewing for centuries really gave me more respect for the art form behind sewing. I really don’t think that sewing was my all. They put me into beading and horse back riding and anything I wanted to explore. My parents had such an appreciation for the arts in general. It wasn’t until I got older that I really developed and took sewing more seriously.
Have you gone back and sewn with your mom since since you’ve embraced sewing and quilting so fully?
I haven’t with my mom but I did with my great aunt, my grandma’s sister, Aunt Lynn. She hand quilted one of the quilts I made, a king size quilt. She put it on her frame and hand quilted it all. It’s now hanging in my parents house. It took her about five months to hand quilt the whole thing while it took me about two months. But she really did: detail, detail quilting.
I think that’s the best part about sewing. You can have as many or as little hands on as possible.
Can you share what it’s been like running a non-profit?
It took about six months of You-Tube research. Understanding how to get an EIN, a tax id, how to make a budgets, how to apply for grants, it was really just a lot of research.
I initially started the non-profit because I realized I needed to be able to accept donations and write grants. If I wanted to reach out to JOANN’s, for donating fabric, I needed it be a nonprofit for companies to sustain us. Then I realized that non-profits have a thousand more things to do than that. It’s really been a learning process. For instance with our summer programs. The population we work with, pretty much a marginalized youth from under resourced communities, not just youth of color, but just in general, there’s always hidden cost that comes up. Some kids will be a part of the program and will have no transportation to get them there or often they come without breakfast. So we weren’t budgeting for things like breakfast, we were budgeting for lunch, so let’s be more prepared to deal with kids not eating before the program starts at 9am. So meals, transportation to the workshop and home, we need to find a way to secure bus passes so kids can get back and forth because whatever adults they have in their life aren’t able to support them.
What’s the best way that makers, sewers and those attending Midwest Craft Con can help support an effort like Social Justice Sewing Academy?
If you can hand sew, sign up to embroider a block. Sometimes our workshops will be all day and we’ll get a 120 kids who will each make a block. So we need a 120 people to help embroider each kids art squares. So embroiderers are a great way and step to get involved. Cash or check donations are also needed to help cover mailing. People are willing to help with donations of fabric but it’s a 3 – 4 dollar charge, per square, to cover the expense of even allowing people to embroider.
If you are part of a quilt guild you can host a fundraiser for old sewing machines or old fabric scissors. In our long term programming every kid is given a sewing machine and fabric scissors and typically a cutting mat.
Every summer since we’ve started, back in 2016, we’ve had a full time summer program. Last summer we did an art institute program for a week with kids we flew in from Baltimore. then we did a five week program with kids from Oakland and all the kids were able to keep sewing machines. We are constantly asked why do we need so many sewing machines. That’s because throughout the year we are saving up machines so at the end the 37 kids kids in the program can each get a machine that’s been donated to SJSA. We have a constant need for sewing machines, fabric donations, fabric scissors, rotary cutters so these kids can have a starter pack when the leave the program.
What’s been the response from graduates of your program? Are they still sewing? How many have started their own businesses? How has this influenced who they are today?
Out of fifty percent of the kids in the program they continue to reach out for when they need help. They ask for mentors or someone to come to their house because their machine is stuck.We have embroiderers willing to come visit them or they go out to the kids. I think really it’s about connecting them, just having a connection to those adult/mentors around them or a grandma figure because most of these kids really don’t have that active,involved or sewing knowledge’d adults in their life.
We’ve had kids from the first summer program who come back on Instagram showing that they’ve made another quilt, like “we’ve done this” and sharing and showing that they’ve enjoyed the process.
It’s not about making them become amazing sewers or making sure their 1/4 inch seam is perfect. It’s about giving them the tools: rotary cutters, scissors fabric, glues, appliques, embroidery thread, to express themselves with fabric. It’s really not about technical skills but do you like it? Does it share what your feeling? Does it convey your intention? I think that it allows to express themselves through there color choices and fabrics that might speak to them and that absolute fine.
For those involved in political change and activism, what are your personal tips for allowing yourself to step back and take some time to and allow yourself to move forward?
My biggest self care is reading! I Amazon Prime myself two books a week. So on average I allow myself to read eight to tent books a month, And I don’t just mean academic books, I mean good books. My book shelf is filled with the best self care because it’s filled with good literature. Sometimes I go by recommendations, sometimes I go by my favorite author but really: James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelo. I just read, and I read what I like. I have a corner of my house that has a sewing chair that rotates and it has comfy pillows. I think getting off social media, which can be overwhelming with the amount of young black guys getting killed, the amount of racist social interactions. Sometimes you want to be aware of whats happening but sometimes it’s nice to just unplug and just read.
The theme for Midwest Craft Con 2020 is Crafting your own adventure. How has SJSA allowed you to do that?
The power of personal narrative is more important than people realize. Owning your story and knowing your background, knowing where you come from regardless, whether that’s a place of privilege or disenfranchisement. People don’t understand how powerful their own story is.
I’m never going to be on the eviction side of being kicked out or experience gentrification but allowing the youth to share their stories and their process of making a quilt while being pushed out is far more powerful than me trying to speak on behalf of everyone making their art. Hearing from a raw 18 year old boy who didn’t want to sew initially but his mom signed him up for the program. For him to have had a chance to experience what this was all about to see his narrative and interpretation through a block quilt, its powerful in the community. I can say a lot but it’s coming from such a place a privilege and I started SJSA to be everything not like me. I started it for kids of low income, who didn’t have access. I came from a two parent background with a degree from Harvard. I come from such privileged background and I want to share it with those who don’t have one.