Two women, born in the same year on different continents, are now working side by side in Tulsa to fulfill their dreams of making quality, high-end textile goods. Their stories began worlds apart, but have come together around fabric, sewing machines, and a shared passion.
In her modest home in Tulsa, Ciin’s sewing machine is on a table near her children’s toy box. The room is multi-purpose - playroom, sewing room, exercise room. The machine is quiet while her four children are awake, but when they are sleeping the young mother begins her work, and her machine begins its rhythmic whirring.
Sometimes she sews at night, starting at 9 p.m. after her four children are put to bed. When she has a tight deadline, she can be at her machine until 1 a.m. Ciin also takes advantage of nap times during the day, but those are unpredictable and sometimes she gets less work done than she had planned. Like many working mothers, she is juggling family and her job. A few weeks before Thanksgiving, she began working as an at-home production seamstress.
Ciin was born in Myanmar, a tiny country bordering China and India, and where the per capita income hovers around $2.70 per day. A family like Ciin’s living in their home country would likely have a monthly income of $60, but in most families the husband would be the sole provider. In rural villages, there are no high schools and families can’t afford a boarding school, so most girls leave school after primary level. Without higher education or the opportunity for a profession, girls in the rural areas are at risk of continuing the poverty cycle. It is a familiar story across the globe, where girls without education and income are vulnerable to prostitution. In Myanmar, Ciin’s mother taught her sew by hand. There was no money to buy a sewing machine, so she learned with a needle and thread, a slow, tedious process but with beautiful results. In 2011 as poverty continued to eliminate even more opportunities for jobs and education and threats of persecution escalated, she fled her country, leaving parents and siblings behind. In Myanmar, girls are often the ones forced to sacrifice their dreams, even the simple ones like becoming a village seamstress.
A few miles away in Tulsa, Shae’s sewing machine is put to use throughout the day as she builds her home-based business tailoring and making handmade, high-end custom clothing. When she was 15, Shae decided she needed a creative outlet and taught herself how to sew. She dragged a cabinet sewing machine that had been used as a desk down to her family’s basement and set up shop. She found sewing supplies at yard sales and began making her own clothing. She was consumed with figuring out how each garment piece could be put together to create something wearable.
“Eventually, I found out you could actually study ‘making clothes’ in college. My dad helped me put together a portfolio with all the things I had made for high school Shakespeare plays, or clothes I had sewn for myself, and I headed off to New York for my degree.” Shae says.
After moving to Tulsa in 2014, she began to sew full-time, doing tailoring for customers of SoBoCo, an upscale, secondhand store in Tulsa. Soon, her business, The Tulsa Tailor, was born. Now, she’s ready to take that business to a new level, partnering with women like Ciin who are motivated to sew and looking for home production opportunities.
The two women found each other through our RiSE Program - a sewing program for refugee and immigrant women. The program provides sewing classes at no cost and connects women with income-earning opportunities. Many of the women in the program are isolated at home because of language barriers and family responsibilities. Although they want to contribute to the family income, they have limited opportunities. One of the goals of the RiSE program is to find local sewing businesses that will hire the more experienced seamstresses to work from home.
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For Ciin, it’s been a long road to that first paycheck she received in November, 2018. When she came to the U.S. in 2013, she lived in Charlotte, N.C., where she entered Make Welcome, a sewing program for refugees. There, she learned how to sew everything from bags to clothing. When she moved to Tulsa in 2017, she knew no one and missed being a part of a sewing class. So she started one on her own. On Fridays, five women would gather in her kitchen around her sewing machine where she taught them the basic skills. When the RiSE program was beginning in March of 2018, we were researching programs to model ours after and we saw Ciin’s name on a Facebook post on the Make Welcome page. She had just moved to Tulsa, so we contacted her and asked if she would like to help instruct.
As word began to spread about our program through the local media, Shae contacted us with an idea. Because her business is service without a store front, she needs a flexible model that provides people the opportunity for the clothing to come to them, without the additional overhead and complications of a storefront. Women like Ciin, who also need flexibility, benefit the business, and also benefit from the model. If Shae can receive small batch production needs, she can scale her business using Ciin and other women like her who are trained to sew professionally.
“It’s the perfect combination of hard-working women who desire to build beautiful things in a central location in the country,” says Shae. “Small production for textile goods is hard to find anywhere these days, and I believe it’s a service people are looking for.”
Hand-made clothing is new and different for many people. We’re conditioned to purchase our clothing fast (think big box stores and Amazon), which forces companies to cut corners and manufacture clothing that is sub-standard quality in order to get us our clothes quickly and cheaply. We have to then purchase more often because our clothing doesn’t last as long. “Buying locally ensures that we understand how lives are positively impacted by production, not the other way around, and that is something to feel warm and fuzzy about,” Shae says.
A proud moment for both Ciin and Shae was the first paycheck Ciin received. For Ciin, it was the joy of contributing to her family’s income.
“Sewing makes me feel happy and healthy. We don’t have much income,” Ciin said, “and it is good that I am now able to also earn money for our family.”
For Shae, writing the check to Ciin was an amazing moment. “This isn’t a charitable act,” she says. “Ciin performed great work and was fairly paid for it, and I’m just so humbled that I got to play a role in that process. Every woman deserves to have a fulfilling job that gives her joy and purpose.”
Both women have big dreams. Shae will soon be training Ciin and another women in the RiSE program how to use a serger, a machine for sewing stretch fabric and t-shirt material., with a goal to begin making specific garments that can be sold in small batches. “We have the perfect combination of hard-working women with the desire to make beautiful things, and if the demand is there, I know we can fill it.”
Ciin wants to take her skills to a higher level. “I want to learn tailoring and how to design clothing,” she says.
Each time Ciin and Shae work together, joy is evident. When they are planning or trouble-shooting a project and they solve a problems at the same time, there is a moment of synchronicity that crosses cultural and language barriers. Two creative women working on beautiful products that bring satisfaction and compensation.
“We all dream of being paid to do something we love and together Ciin and I both get to do that,” says Shae. “My goal is to be able to keep the women at Rise and myself very busy!”