Social Justice Sewing Academy

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 me and my family. 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 e 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, “Sew With Sara” and “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 by Fabriquilt” and “Folkheart Fabrics by Fabriquilt.”


I used to teach (along with my mom and Eleanor) an after-school, free 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; and we taught kids how to make purses, quilts, pajamas and 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 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 provided the resources needed to purchase machines, fabrics and materials needed to start a sewing class. The Social Justice Sewing Academy in Berkeley this summer provided me with 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.

RaulPF C.

October 07, 2017

Thanks for sharing your inspiring story.
Fish S.

September 28, 2017

Sara -- thank you for this story. What's especially powerful for me is hearing the stories of all the adults who supported and inspired your work -- and what that meant to you. I think that'll be inspiring to all the adults on our site who are supporting young people in their projects!

One thing that's also neat is the great support you got from your college. It reminds me of a question another young person had -- maybe you have thoughts to share with them?