The Black Makers Matter Collective has catalyzed an immeasurably important movement to help spread awareness about systemic racism and its impact on black creators in the sewing community. AFCI spoke with Monica Tetteh, Erica Bunker and Khira Momodu about the goals of the Black Makers Matter Collective as well as the institutional gatekeeping that exists within the craft industry.
AFCI: Crafting and the art of making are rooted in tradition. As creators, what are your personal histories in relation to you all becoming crafters and how does that inform your art and your relationship to the crafting community?
Monica: For me, I started a sewing about seven years ago. I wanted to connect to my late mom who was an avid sewer as well as family members that have sewn. When she passed, I longed for her and missed that connection to her. So, sewing for me was a way to connect back to my mom. In terms of making, I was always a DIY person from a young age, trying to put things together. For me, I've been doing that for years and I truly enjoy it. It's a way to relax and just to see something that you've made with your hands come to life. That's kind of how it fits in. I enjoy fashion as well, so it was interesting that from sketching at a young age I'm now able to make the clothes that I love and want to wear.
Erica: Everyone in my family was always making something, so you just knew how to make things--everything from cooking to sewing. I became a stay at home mom in 2005 and I was looking for hobbies and crafts to break the daily monotony while the kids were at school. I became a serial crafter. I did everything; I was scrapbooking, I was knitting, I was crocheting--even decoupage. You name it, I tried it.
And, just like Monica, I love fashion. I was thinking of a way to produce the clothes that I was used to wearing when I worked and had multiple incomes in our house. At the time, I just couldn't justify going out and buying designer clothes while I was at home. I decided to just pull out my sewing machine and it just started from there.
I was online, and I was looking for information about crafting, like knitting and crocheting. I came across blogs, and I saw other crafters posting pictures and sharing how to make things. I thought to myself, “Wow, this is so cool. This is so interesting. I can do that.” So, I started blogging from that point on and just began engaging and interacting with other people. You start to make connections, and back then I was on different types of message boards, and you just kind of wrote to the community through those platforms. That was back in 2005 and into 2006, and it just spread from that point.
Khira: For me, sewing is not part of my family. I kind of came into sewing from watching “That’s So Raven”. So, even when I was in third grade, I watched my show and I was very inspired by her making clothes. I've always, like many others, had the crafting gene. But with sewing I just really thought of how cool it was to just have a piece of fabric and transform it. I was lucky that my family, my parents specifically, allowed me to take classes at my local fabric store. That's how I got my first sewing machine. From there I just took classes and then I didn't get away from it.
AFCI: Given its predominant whiteness and history of gatekeeping, how has the crafting industry as it exists today inspired and motivated Black Makers Matter to affect change?
Monica: For us, I think, and I'll speak for myself, in terms of crafting and I think about going into different stores, I never really saw people that looked like me. And, as I got more involved in different organizations, different groups on Facebook, as well as Instagram, I noticed that I didn’t see a lot of people, again, that looked like me. However, I was really truly surprised when I learned of the sewing community that existed and all of the groups that I started to see. So with that, as we started to see each other meet, interact, even me in person, it started to make us feel like, “Wow, there's another person that looks like me. Let's join, let's do this.”
But, you started to hear these stories about how they didn't feel included. There were times when I was part of the American Sewing Guild, the Plano chapter, and I’ll be honest, that there were a lot of white, older women, who were lovely. But, there were some, not all but some, when I would go to functions, and I was like, “What are you doing here?” That would make me feel unwelcome. I think for, for me, Black Makers Matter was very important to highlight and showcase that, not only are black people makers, not only do we make, but we’ve been doing it for years, hundreds and hundreds of years. Actually, some of us, especially within African culture, were the ones who created some of these techniques that we see today. So, as you learn your history to not see that, it's really disheartening at times.
Erica: I’d like to piggyback off of what Monica said on how she felt by not being able to see herself in the craft world. I didn't have a problem being a minority; my problem was dealing with white women who had never seen me and just being under the scrutiny of that middle American, baby boomer age. I found that it was a lot of body shaming, a lot of fat shaming. I understand the culture of how women of color may have a different appreciation for their bodies and how we're not trying to make tunics and cover up hips and thighs. These women would say things like, “Oh, your pants are too tight, you need to cover up your butt, you need to cover up your thighs. Maybe you shouldn't tuck the shirt in”, because they grew up seeing versions of women that look like Twiggy back in the 70’s and early 80’s. They didn't have black people in their social circles, and they really didn't deal with black women like that until the rise of the Internet.
The thing is that a lot of us did not know how to make these pattern adjustments from using commercial patterns because they were created for a certain body type. In books today, there are still very few alterations that we see that we can use to make adjustments for curvier hips and curvier butts, and we just have had to get out there and just figure out how to do these things on our own. That's what it feels like when you're assigned these commercial sewing patterns straight from the envelope. Everyone had an opinion, but there were no resources out there. It was really only when white women became curvier that they started to develop these alterations over the last decade. Now everybody knows how to do a full seat adjustment on a pair of pants because it suits the majority of the consumers now. Those kind of things are coming around now; clothes tapered more at the waist and curved out more from the backside and through the hips. Just that scrutiny, the cultural differences, have been so apparent.
Khira: For me, I definitely have to piggyback off of what Erica also said, in that being a minority based on color, I know that if I walk into certain stores, I know I won't see myself. I find myself at times within different Facebook groups or different Instagram groups and pages that I follow. I definitely do look at the people of color in the community just because they tend to wear the material that I would like to use. I want to see how this fabric might look, and I think, “Okay, there's probably a person of color who's done that before.” With Black Makers Matter, we’re trying to spread awareness, because when we're in stores and spend the money, these materials are not cheap. We matter because when we buy these products, it is very important for us to see ourselves. It shouldn't be so difficult to find ourselves. Just to see my body type, especially in the stores, it's so helpful. Just to know that I’m being represented and being talked about in the community is important in what we're trying to correct.
AFCI: Why was Black Makers Matter founded and what is its core mission? Why is it so important?
Monica: Around the time of Mr. Floyd’s killing, a lot of us had noticed that many companies were speaking out on social injustice as well as just what was going on in the human race. We noticed that a lot of companies that we patronize said nothing, and some of us had deals with these companies. It was a little disappointing, especially when these companies have brand ambassadors that are black. Even Nike was able to put out a statement. I remember just messaging a couple of wonderful, fabulous individuals that are currently part of the coalition and saying, “You know, let's do something. Let's show our power. Let's just have a meeting, if we can, and let's talk about what we can do together.” We did not know Black Makers Matter was going to form, I'll be very honest. I think I thought it was going to be a weekend thing. I sent the message out, I think it was a Wednesday. We met on Thursday, met again Friday, and we launched and it grew from there and we were like, “Wait, this is needed.”
Our mission is to make sure that we help to bring and implement cultural transformation within the crafting, makers and sewing industries. That's our biggest mission. We want to make sure that our voices are not only heard, but that we are seen. We also envision a landscape that reflects our voices, as well as the diversity within the makers community. When I started typing in “black” and only just started to see “black makers” and “black sewers”, I thought that this had to be created right now because black makers weren't seeing it, or they weren't welcomed in the places that they were in. I will say that having a group, for instance, on projects makes it very inclusive to everyone. However, there have been times when I've gone to places and never felt that special connection. Our goal was to come together to create groups and organizations where we could feel comfortable. That's that was the biggest thing for us.
Erica: You walk into like one of the major sewing machine manufacturers and they just don't even believe that you're in there to even make a major purchase like that, because some sewing machines are upwards of $15,000. They have no clue that they’re turning off a great customer. There is so much disposable income that black women have in this community that we use to buy tons and tons of fabrics and machines. When we love something, we spend money on it. They don't even believe that we exist. Sewing is a very luxurious and a very expensive hobby. A lot of other black people don't even believe you when you tell them that sewing is just a hobby because they assume that you’d only sew if you’re a seamstress. It's like, if you can operate a sewing machine, why aren't you slaving over it and sewing for other people? Even for men, we don't really see male patterns. Men today are being very crafty. They're taking these patterns and they are working them to make them either gender neutral, or they are working to have them fit their bodies. But, the focus has always been on older white women.
AFCI: What are some of the ways that you currently augment awareness for Black creators in the craft industry?
Monica: We are about two and a half months old now. Immediately, when we formed the coalition, we started receiving messages from companies and corporations that wanted to meet with us and talk about how they can be more inclusive and how to be supportive of Black Maker Matter. Currently, we are working on building advisory councils around those companies from which we want that assistance and that help, because that's important. They need to want to make change, because it's not just a moment. It's something that we're looking forward to be molding in the future. It’s not something that is going to happen overnight. We understand that.
We are also highlighting black makers on Mondays. We have our “Makers Monday” series where we highlight makers from various backgrounds, and we put a call out on all of our respective social media channels, as well as the social media page that we currently have. We've received interest from hundreds of people and makers. We highlight from crochet enthusiasts, painters, bag makers, etc.--anyone that's a maker that has done something with their hands.
We've heard from companies who haven't been able to find anyone who has a particular skill, sort of treating us like consultants. They can also do the research the same way I found it; put yourself out there. We're showing techniques on Tuesday, as well as on Thursdays we focus on a throwback. We go back into history and find makers from all over. Some are still living legends and some have passed away, but they've made a mark. We also want to highlight our future makers. That's important because we have kids, we have young adults, and we have millennials. We want them to keep making and we also want them to see themselves reflected in the industry.
AFCI: What have been some of the highlights and challenges since Black Makers Matter was founded?
Monica: I think the biggest highlight is knowing that we were needed. Just immediately, within the first few days of launching, we reached about 10,000 supporters. We call them supporters and not followers because we need everyone's support. Change does take time and does not happen overnight but can happen through continuous relationship building.
In the beginning, it was challenging because, again, we didn't know we were embarking on a journey that would extend past a weekend. Two and a half months later, we're about to form an organization of likeminded individuals, and we've had some great working relationships. You have a bunch of different people from different backgrounds coming together to work on one mission, so being able to navigate each other and learn has been both a challenge and a big plus. I've loved Miss Erica Bunker. I've loved Miss Khira Momodu for years. Even though you interact on social media, Black Makers Matter really brought us together. We have our own little group chats and we're becoming a family, and I think that has been the most beneficial.
Erica: One of the biggest highlights for me is just to see the fruits of our labor come about. The idea that we sat down and we talked to these marketing directors at the sewing machine companies and fabric companies, and then we see people out in the communities start to get ambassadorships and build partnerships with these brands makes my heart sing.
Khira: For me, I really enjoy seeing people shine. You have provided space for so many people to shine, whether it's within the same community. We feature people almost every day, so that allows so many people to shine. We always feature different people. One thing I think is really interesting is that we're also showing people that you don't always see in fabric certified patterns, or certain places that we’re highlighting. We encourage people to shop PDF, but we're also providing them support. If you don't want to print out all those pages, go to this website. We're also supporting a lot of small local businesses.
AFCI: What is your message to other black makers and crafters and those in the upcoming generations that might help them succeed in this industry?
Monica: I think that the number one message I would give is to support. Everyone has different ways of cooking chicken, boiling an egg, etc. We're all on this journey, but we're all playing different roles. It's important that as a culture and as a community that we support each other. Even the new makers coming up to understand we all started somewhere. Some of us may have 10 followers, some of us may have hundreds of thousands of followers, but at the same time, we're still wanting to affect change within our communities, as well as make beautiful things. That hasn't stopped, and I don't think that will ever stop. But, I think support and community are very important. That's the message that I would want to continue to put out there, as well as if there's any knowledge that you have. We're partnering up with the Social Justice Sewing Academy to help with their $50,000 grant to help young makers to start businesses on their own and to learn how to be creative makers. I think that's a start. If you're able to share your knowledge, I think that that's one of the things that will support and strengthen the community. That's where I stand.
Erica: Finding support and finding that community is very important. If it's 2030, or however many years from now and you're still not represented in certain place, don't accept that. Many of us have been fighting previously, and we're trying to make you not fight. We're trying to have diversity and inclusion in the future. But, if you're still fighting, then there's something wrong. Find people, find a community that will help you continue to fight.
Khira: I agree with what both Monica and Erica said. You just have to just get out there. If you're on Instagram or another platform, just produce and create beautiful content. Engage with people they will notice you. You really just have to find your tribe.
Be sure to follow Black Makers Matter on Facebook to continue spreading awareness and support the inclusivity movement.