If you’re curious about quilting, Tisha Thorne, co-owner of Sew Creative Lounge in Mount Rainier, Maryland, has some advice. “Don’t let anything stop you,” she says. “The hardest part is getting started. Once people start then they’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, why did I wait so long?’”
As we round out Black History Month we’re recognizing three Black-owned quilt shops that are helping to introduce quilting to a new generation and keep the love of quilting alive in their communities. Their skill and passion are helping to build community around sewing and crafting.
Owner: Lisa Shepard
Location: Rahway, New Jersey
Website – culturedexpressions.com
Instagram – @culturedexpressions
The bustling neighborhood in which Cultured Expressions is located offers many opportunities for collaborations.
Lisa Shepard Stewart’s fabric journey started at age four, At 12 she learned to sew and “fell in love with fabric.” That love led her to the Fashion Institute of Technology. Since writing comes as naturally to Stewart as her interest in fabric she studied marketing and communications. In 1986, she took her first trip to Africa, a group tour to Senegal. There she met the market manager for one of the largest fabric mills in the country. “That’s what started my love for African fabrics,” she says.
“My passion for the fabrics led me to want to share with other people,” she says. So she wrote a book about it, titled African Accents: Fabrics and Crafts to Decorate your Home.
“The first chapter I spent explaining the fabrics themselves,” she says. “I didn’t really realize that I was showing people aside of Africa that they don’t see,” she says. It wasn’t about famines, charities or war. “It was like, here’s creativity, and here is how we can enjoy it,” she says.
She’s since written two other fabric books and runs a periodic magazine whimsically titled Fabricgasm. But that first book marked the beginning of her business. She started accepting speaking invitations teaching classes out of her basement. When that was too limiting, she opened a shop in December of 2017. It was perfect timing. The town of Rahway was taking an artsy turn, with galleries, breweries and an active train station driving business.
The bustling neighborhood offers opportunities for collaborations. “We did a thing where people would come to my studio to use African boutiques in crafts and then we had a meditation class at the yoga studio.” Those types of events are important to a brick and mortar shop. “It has to be a multipurpose kind of space,” says Stewart.
“You have to entertain people. It’s worth it, but it’s a lot of work.”
Stewart says her passion for fabrics makes the work easier. “The ideas and the creativity just come and you just kind of act on the ones you want to act on.” For example, Stewart was ahead of the curve on pandemic-style sales. She launched virtual shopping visits in 2018, inspired by a customer who Facetimed with her daughter to choose fabrics. She uses Calendly to schedule with remote clients.
Stewart says her passion for fabrics makes the work easier. “The ideas and the creativity just come and you just kind of act on the ones you want to act on.”
Somewhere along Stewart’s fabric journey, she discovered quilting.
“I began to see like there was a whole other creative world I hadn’t even really thought about,” she says. “And I began to realize that the quilting customers were the ones that were the most interested in the fabrics.”
Stewart makes beautiful quilts, and you can learn about several of them in a video of her exhibit at the Barron Arts Center. “Sometimes, I’ll imagine the person who made the fabric itself and what they imaged the fabric would be,” She explains. “It’s kind of a spiritual thing, wanting to kind of feel what the person was making, and then take that and add to it.”
Owner: Jennifer Cox
Location: Cincinnati, Ohio
Website – heymakedo.com
Instagram – @heymakedo
The Make. Do. on the Road vehicle. Cox normalizes failure at Make. Do. “People get to experiment,” she says. “It’s low risk.”
Jennifer Cox grew up in a family of educators. To stay busy in the summer months, the kids just kept learning, mostly arts like painting and sewing. It wasn’t until she was an adult looking for community that Cox found her way back to crafting. “It’s 10 minutes a day that my hands are busy in a way that relaxes my brain,” she says.
Maybe it’s that childhood background that propels her bold approach to creating.
Cox fully embraces her mistakes. “There is a reason they make seam rippers,” she says. Often, she’ll mark any flaw with a note for the recipient. It will say she made that mistake, just like she made the quilt, or sweater, or hat. She made it for you.
Cox brings that get-after-it attitude to her shop, aptly named Make.Do. “People get to experiment,” she says. “It’s low risk.” Normalizing failure is part of how she creates an inclusive and welcoming space. “You’re going to drop a stitch,” Cox explains. “Cotton continues to grow and sheep continue to make wool. There’s no shame in throwing the whole thing away,” she says.
“Starting over is the joy of making for me.”
Quilting is a tidy metaphor for Cox’s worldview. “It speaks to the stick-to-itiveness, the ingenuity, the making-do of people who live in the margins. Whether they be poor, rural white people, black people in the South, whatever it looks like – we don’t get broken,” she says. “We take the things that are discarded, and we make them into something beautiful and useful.”
She owns a threadbare quilt handed down from her grandmother, who was born in 1898. Cox likes to think that maybe a piece of that quilt is a scrap of cloth from her grandmother’s grandmother. “For me it’s the making part of it for sure, but also the gift of history that’s involved in quilting,” she says. “A quilt can make your stories tangible and useful and comforting and near you.”
“For me it’s the making part of it for sure, but also the gift of history that’s involved in quilting,” Cox says. “A quilt can make your stories tangible and useful and comforting and near you.”
In the early 90s Cox volunteered to help organize the NAMES Project, to build a memorial quilt on the National Mall to memorialize victims of AIDS. “I think about like the power of that kind of physical representation of somebody’s voice,” she says.
“If you are doing stuff with your hands and your heart to tell a story that the world needs to hear, and you have the chance to share it, wickedness. How often do you get to do that?”
Along with suspending judgement at the door, Cox has second secret to creating a welcoming, joyful atmosphere – snacks. “Breaking bread together is a way to connect,” she says. And she sees creating opportunities for connection as her mission. “Part of my life’s purpose is to be charitable and giving to my community,” Cox says. She finds that the more she gives, the more she gets.
Recently a burglar took a hundred dollars from the cash box and Cool Ranch Doritos from the snack stash. She posted about it on Instagram. “The next day was the biggest sales day of the year.” Customers stopped by, brought cookies and wine, and shopped. When things get hard, her community shows. “It sounds like magic. But, I think that’s kind of what it is. It’s a little bit of maker magic. I found my tribe, and my tribe loves each other.”
Sew Creative Lounge
Owners: Cecily Habimana and Tisha Thorne
Location: Mount Rainier, Maryland
Website – sewcreativelounge.com
Instagram – @sewcreativelounge
Tisha Thorne and Cecily Habimana are working to bridge the common gap between the generations that knew how to sew and the rest of us at Sew Creative Lounge.
Over the years, Cecily Habimana has heard the same two narratives over and over. “The first story is my mother sews, but I didn’t learn how,’” she says. The second is that the customer learned to sew in home economics, but hasn’t done it in 20 or 30 years. Habimana and her business partner, Tisha Thorne, are working to bridge that common gap between the generations that knew how to sew and the rest of us. “We are the culture keepers of sewing and quilting,” says Habimana.
The duo’s project started in 2014 as a series of popup Sip and Sew classes. They were a hit. “All of our classes were selling out,” Habimana says. “So we were looking for a way to serve more people.” Their husbands, who were helping them set up and pack away 35 sewing machines for each class, encouraged them to find a permanent space.
In 2017, Sew Creative Lounge opened its doors. “Next year, will be 10 years of us teaching sewing classes together. This the first time I really thought about it,” says Habimana. “That’s kind of crazy, right?”
At first, the local demand for classes and fabrics couldn’t support the business. The shift to online sales during the pandemic helped.
“The balance between having sewing classes, and virtual classes, and a store was actually a model that we could sustain us as a business,” says Habimana who focuses on the business side of Sew Creative Lounge.
Now they have six instructors, a nationwide membership program that’s400 strong, an online store, a children’s program, and quilting conferences.
Habimana is also fashion designer. “We’ve done a number of pieces where we have merged the world of quilting with fashion,” she says. But she is not a quilter. At Sew Creative Lounge, Tisha Thorne is the quilting queen. She had 20 years of experience when they opened the shop.
“When we think of quilts, we think of something that we put on our bed, not in the quilting world,” says Thorne. “Quilts can be something of a masterpiece.” Thorne thinks of herself as an artist. “Although I do traditional quilting, I find that I love art quilting.” Following a quilting kit is realizing someone else’s vision. “Whereas with an art quilt, oh my gosh, it’s like a blank canvas,” she says.
Tisha and Cecily from Sew Creative Lounge. The jacket Cecily is wearing is one of their most popular patterns. It’s called the Nyla Jacket.
Thorne often finds inspiration for her quilts in the outdoors. She takes pictures of images that strike her, like a favorite tree with honeyed light filtering through its leaves. Or she’ll find a beautiful bamboo stick that will become a rod for a wall hanging.
And Thorne is passionate about sharing her knowledge. She would love to be in the classroom every day.
“As an instructor, I’m always thinking about that person’s first experience,” says Thorne, remembering the uncertainty and anxiety she felt in the classroom. “I try to always remember, just make it fun.”
Both Thorne and Habimana have a passion for African fabrics and the meaning and symbolism they carry. They hold at least one lecture at every conference that covers the meaning of African fabrics and the cultural context of quilting in Black communities. At their last event, they focused on the Freedom Quilt, explaining how enslaved people used it to access the Underground Railroad.
African fabrics are also celebrated for their striking color schemes. “I love the vibrant colors.” says Thorne. But she leans on her team, including Habimana, to help match the colors and patterns to create quilting kits. Habimana looks for common base colors “that can speak to each other across different patterns.” From there she likes find patterns in the same genre, bundling either geometric or organic shapes.
I have visited and participated in events sponsored by Cultured Expressions and Sew Creative Lounge and have had great experiences. These women provide valuable experiences for creative expression. I’m glad they are in my “neighborhood”.
I really enjoy Cultured Expressions Instagram account. Make.Do. reminds me so much of my grandmother. If that wasn’t her favorite saying it was definitely among her top ten. That jacket is gorgeous!
I got an actual visceral reaction to the photos in this essay. My gut was literally jumping for joy at the colors and designs depicted in the photographs. And the stories of these lovely women who are opening these quilt shops, reflecting their cultural expressions yet with an inclusivity that is undeniable to the rest of the quilting community. This is much more than just “opening a quilt shop.” They are opening themselves up to not just the black community but to the entire creative community of quilters, regardless of race. And they are bringing to the table their joy, the sadness, their truth, their creativity and the depth of family of their culture, which is really what we all strive to accomplish in our quilting anyway.
Quilting is so all-inclusive (I remember the utter joy at first seeing a Gee’s Bend quilt exhibition here in Loveland, Colorado years ago). I am so happy to see how different cultures embrace quilting and make it their own. And the stories! Above all, the foundation of quilting are the stories that uphold each and every quilt. I truly don’t think you can have one without the other. Perhaps that is why quilts can finally be called the works of art that they really are.
I love some of the colorful designs but can’t find them here. Was wondering if any of these shops are online where you can order?
Yes, click on their links to check out their websites.
Ooh I wished I lived closer to you! I’m a self proclaimed “fabriholic and I absolutely LOVE your bold colours and prints!!
May you have many years of success and happiness with your business and new adventures.
This was a great write up!!! Thank you
Love the coat with all the different colors.
I enjoyed these interviews and the photos of the wonderful fabrics, designs, shops and of course the proprietors. I see that Sew Create Lounge is near me! How’d I miss it? Thanks Craft Industry Alliance!