Scraps of fabric litter the floor and sewing machines hum quietly inside the Johnson Hall Art Gallery at JSU. Kristen Martin, a 2018 graduate of the College of Business, has been spending the week teaching middle and high school students what she calls the ‘lost art’ of sewing.
“I really enjoy it,” says the Lutcher, New Orleans native. “I’m completely content making prom dresses for people and bridesmaids gowns. I’m just happy sitting at home sewing.”
Martin and Shonda McCarthy, director of galleries at JSU, are heading the “Say it isn’t sew, I will learn to sew” summer camp. The week-long program, June 4 – 8, is designed to educate the group of 15 students on the fundamentals of sewing and entrepreneurship.
“The sew camp is beneficial because the craft is becoming an endangered art form,” says McCarthy, who points out that manufacturing in the U.S. has increasingly declined and many people have ceased making clothes at home.
Once a fashion designer in New York, the director says returning to Mississippi and teaching “what was taught to us by grandmothers and great-grandmothers and to pass on the knowledge of having a business is very important.”
Martin shares similar sentiments, explaining that she started sewing in the third grade by helping her grandmother alter the choir robes for churches in their hometown.
“She would also hem the deacon’s pants, and I would assist her with that. Helping my grandmother turned into me liking to sew,’ she says.
The alum explains that she began altering her own clothes because as a powerlifter in high school she was slightly more developed than the rest of her classmates.
“My arms were bigger. So I would always have to add elastic in the thighs of my pants or elastic in the arms of my shirt just to make them fit,” says Martin, also the founder of Dash Daren, her business that focuses on alterations, tailoring and custom designs.
Over time, the entrepreneur learned to improvise when she or her mother could not purchase some of the more expensive garments Martin wanted to wear.
“When skinny jeans came out, I couldn’t get skinny jeans. So I took my flare legs and made them skinny jeans.” She says, “But then I realized I could just make the stuff that I wanted if I couldn’t afford it.”
Campers like Destiny Jackson, a rising sixth grader, attending Byram Middle School in the fall, are benefitting from Martin and McCarthy’s tutelage.
“I learned how to sew number one,” she says with a giggle. “I also learned how to thread and work the sewing machine.
An aspiring fashion designer, Jackson shares that she has been sketching since the age of 6. However, the camp has shown her how to bring her designs to life. The 11-year-old point outs a mannequin in the corner of the room wearing a skirt and bag she crafted with Martin’s help. Her face beams with pride.
Looking to occupy her free time during the summer, Murrah High School junior Abigail Showalter took an interest in the camp.
“I like art, and I like using my sewing machine at home, but I’m not very good at it. I needed to practice,” She says, adding that she has now learned free-hand sewing, which allows her to be more creative with materials instead of relying on store-bought patterns.
Showalter asserts that fashion is more than simply sewing but also a form of expression. Furthermore, she says there is also much to gain from the art and history of quilting – the process of sewing two or more layers of fabric together.
“Quilts have kind of become a way to show off the artwork of the times and how people make things look nice from small scraps of fabric,” she explains. “I think we need to realize that little scraps of fabric and a hand needle can be a lot more than a fancy dress.”
Campers have also learned how to repurpose goods according to McCarthy, which falls in line with the University’s recycling initiative. Students bring old clothing and curtains to the class and make them into handbags. Others turn worn jackets and dresses into pillows and skirts.
“So now they know that they don’t have to go to the store every time they want to make a purchase. They can produce at home,” says McCarthy, who is also planning to have a fall version of the camp.
Derrick McNealy, an upcoming senior at Madison Central High School, joined the camp out of his enthusiasm for graphic design and making shirts. He says learning how to construct and deconstruct clothing is a necessary foundation for fashion designers who want to be in the industry.
“I can make basic things now, and I’ve only been here four days. So I feel like that’s pretty good,” he says, adding that sewing is not just a ‘girl thing’ but something all people should know how to do.
“It feels good to be able to make your own stuff. You get a sense of pride from it. Everybody deserves to know what that feels like – young, old, male or female.”