A student at Black Girls Sew works on a project. Black Girls Sew is a non-profit in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of New York founded by Hekima Hapa.
Photo courtesy of Black Girls Sew.
Fashion designer. Business owner. Sewist. Teacher. Mentor. Community supporter.
Hekima Hapa is all that and more, including the founder of Black Girls Sew, a nonprofit in New York’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood that teaches girls not just sewing skills, but how sewing can be life-changing.
The mission of BGS, says Hapa, is to positively impact young people through classes, workshops and summer camps that teach not just sewing and design, but also entrepreneurship and life skills. “I teach them that not only is sewing fun, but it can be a business,” explains Hapa, who has been in the fashion industry for more than 25 years, designing, teaching and running her own boutiques, Harriet’s by Hekima and Harriet’s Alter Ego.
The seeds for Black Girls Sew began in 2012 with a simple desire – to show her oldest daughter, then 8, sewists who looked like her. “As a fashion designer, I was doing a lot of sewing at home and my daughter was very interested. I wanted to show her images of girls who looked like her sewing, so I typed ‘black girls sewing’ into a search engine.”
But the only images she found were of black women sewing in factories or getting sewn-in hair weaves. Hapa wanted more. She and a friend decided “we have to be the people taking those pictures, getting those images into search engines.” So they did. Hapa began posting those photos on social media. “People in my fashion community started asking me to educate their children.” Some joked about Hapa opening a summer sewing camp.
The joke became reality when the non-profit Ancient Song Doula, a birth-justice organization, offered Hapa space in the group’s Bedford-Stuyvesant office. A year later, she was teaching 10 young sewists. “Just having 10 kids in a room and trying to replicate my studio in a safe way was a challenge.”
“We had a lot of fun,” Hapa recalls. “After that summer I got so many requests I thought, ‘this needs to be a business focusing on us, on our community.’”
Sure, there were other sewing classes in New York, but most were too expensive and too far for those in her neighborhood. “Classes needed to be affordable and accessible to the Bed-Stuy community,” she explains, with sliding fees and some scholarships.
At a runway show, the students proudly show off their creations to family and friends.
Photo courtesy of Black Girls Sew.
More than just sewing
BGS Sewing Camp is also more than just sewing lessons. It’s about entrepreneurship and empowerment; sustainability and business ethics; community and the world; self-care and helping others.
For instance, Hapa starts by having students examine the clothing brands they wear. “We talk about the ethics of the brand, how clothing gets to them and why that matters; about the impact (clothing manufacturing) has on the environment. We talk about the importance of keeping things local, sustainable, how that’s important to the planet and the community.”
Khat Maat attended sewing camp for three years, starting when she was 13, and became a counselor at 16. “Sewing camp exposed me to fashion and helped me realize that I wanted to be a (clothing) stylist,” says Maat, who now works with Hapa, and says she learned more than just sewing while enrolled in the program.
“Learning to sew taught me patience, gave me a sense of community, and ways to help others. It also introduced me to another side of the fashion world.” Meeting other African American women in the industry also sparked her entrepreneurial spirit and influenced her college decision to major in business, rather than fashion.
From left to right: A busy sewing class, a Black Girls Sew tote, and Lesley Ware with Hekima Hapa. The two women are writing a book together to be published by Abrams in 2022.
Photo courtesy of Lesley Ware.
Serving the community
Hapa has always reached out to the underserved. For instance, she hosted small gatherings at her stores for unknown and struggling artists who couldn’t get into galleries. “I was funding all these dreams,” she says. “I used my first boutiques as if they were nonprofits, though I didn’t realize it at the time.”
After struggling for six years to keep Sewing Camp going, friends told her she was basically doing nonprofit work, and she should not be on the short end of the money. She began researching how to become a nonprofit, again reaching out to others. Luckily, she says, “I have strong friendships with people in various business arenas,” including law students who helped with paperwork.
“The Bed-Stuy community is strong and close-knit,” adds Hapa, whose fundraising included GoFundMe, grants, and reaching out on Facebook.“I have a large following of professional women, mostly African American, who supported us and sent their children to the camp. People dropped off sewing machines, materials, notions. Others volunteered. We’ve been really blessed.” Finding financial resources “to make the ideas in my head come into fruition,” is still challenging, she says.
Creating a book
One exciting project for BGS is an upcoming sewing book, in collaboration with writer and designer Lesley Ware, owner of the Creative Cookie blog and author of several sewing books, including Sew Fab: Sewing and Style for Young Fashionistas; My Fab Fashion Style File; and How to Be a Fashion Designer. Black Girls Sew, featuring patterns and projects designed by Hapa, is slated for publication in 2022.
“It’s the workbook I’ve always wanted,” Hapa says. Besides sewing lessons, the book also shares the BGS philosophy, the value of entrepreneurship, and finding opportunities. “Lesley is guiding it and giving it voice.” Hapa is also thrilled that one-third of the royalties will go to BGS, “which is very generous.”
Hapa and Ware have traveled similar paths. Both learned to sew from their mothers, both teach sewing at public and private venues, and both believe sewing can change lives. They also share dismay about the dearth of people of color in sewing books.
Hapa grew up in rural Florida, one of 12 children. Her mother came from a family of quilting aunts and sisters who sewed their own clothes out of necessity. “My parents were uneducated blue-collar workers who used the resources they were naturally given. Mom made 70 percent of our clothing and home interiors.” Hapa and her siblings, including the boys, “had to help Mom whether we liked sewing or not.”
Ware, an only child who grew up in Michigan, also learned to sew from her mother “because it was a fun thing to do together. I loved going to the fabric store, picking out special buttons, or a pink zipper,” she says. She loved that her clothes were unique, letting her stand out in a crowd, making her feel good.
“What you wear changes people’s perception of you,” Hapa tells students. “If you have nice, clean, fashionable clothing, people don’t necessarily question your economic status. I teach girls that that’s a way you can be empowered. Even if you grew up in a home with little money, you can make things for yourself.”
Roberta G. Wax
Roberta Wax is an award-winning journalist and imperfect crafter. A former news reporter, her freelance articles and projects have appeared in a variety of newspapers and magazines, from the Los Angeles Times and Emmy magazine to Cloth Paper Scissors, Somerset Studio, Craftideas, Belle Armoire, etc. She has also designed for craft companies. Although she has no art background she was a crafty Girl Scout leader. www.creativeunblock.com