Cultured Expressions with Lisa Shepard Stewart

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[00:00:00] Lisa: Hello, stitchers. Welcome to stitch  please the official podcast of black women's stitch. The sewing group where black lives matter. I'm your host Lisa Woolfork. I'm a fourth generation sewing enthusiast with more than 20 years of sewing experience. I am looking forward to today's conversation. So sit back, relax, and get ready to get your stitch together.

[00:01:00] Hello everybody. And welcome to this special episode of the stitch please podcast. I call it a special episode because this is an episode, a tale of two Lisas.  I call it two Lisa's because I am Lisa, as you know, and my guest today. Is Lisa Shepherd Stewart. And this is an extra special episode because for Patreon subscribers, you will see the video recording of this episode, which is amazing because I'm in my studio wearing a blouse that I made that is a slightly too small in the bust right now.

And Lisa is in her studio in Rahway, New Jersey, where she is surrounded by her gorgeous fabrics from her travels. All around as well as a lovely prize. That is associated with today's [00:02:00] episode. she's got this gorgeous what you can't, but you, if you are a patron subscriber, you see it right now. It's a 10 fat quarter bundle with a button and a postcard.

And these have been handpicked by Lisa. For this prize. And so the prize giveaway, it's going to be operating through her Instagram page, cultural expressions. there's a link to the page and the show notes. Also the giveaway will close on the 17th of October. So be sure to go to her page. it's a follow for follow type of giveaway. If you follow Black Women Stitch and you follow Cultural Expressions, and then you go to Cultural Expressions and tag a friend you're entered. And guess what? If you tag a friend, your friend is also entered. So this is a very easy contest. Go to Lisa's page. When you get there, you don't have to make a [00:03:00] comment about what you would make.

All you need to do is tag a friend who would also be interested in you would then you will both be interred in this absolutely gorgeous, African fabric. Fat quarter bundle. So I am delighted to welcome Lisa to the program. Lisa is, she's an example of that phrase we hear this phrase a lot, "community over competition."

and this has meant to promote the idea of mutual aid, the principle of mutual aid, where people support and help each other. we hear people that people say they don't care about competition. They care about community, but few people actually do it. I think more people say it. Then actually believe in it as a practice.

and when it, it comes to business, there's so much competition and stuff like that. There's so much jockeying, even in Instagram, there's so much competition about, you know, who gets likes for this and likes for that. But when [00:04:00] I met Lisa at a time when I needed it help and support, and I didn't know her at all, a mutual friend, Carole Lyles Shaw, who was on the program last week, introduced us, or she said, you need to talk to this person.

And so I called her and Lisa from the very first "hello" she was so kind to me and so, so supportive. And I said, you know, I want to do a retreat for black women. I know you do retreats and you take in people to Colorado and to Ghana and to other places for your retreats. Just give me some advice. She didn't think, Oh no.

Why is this girl coming after my stuff? This is what I do. I don't want to help. She was so generous. She was so helpful. She was. She really treated me like a peer, which I thought, which I was really honored by because I was [00:05:00] completely new and had no experience. She has decades of experience but didn't hold that against me.

She leveraged that for my benefit. And that's what mutual aid is supposed to do. Mutual aid is if somebody has something that you don't have. You use that to help that person get what they need. And I will be forever grateful to her, to Lisa Shepherd Stewart  for helping me get it started with Black Women's Stitch to helping me get started with the retreats.

supporting me with the podcast like, Hey, have you thought about doing this? Have you thought about doing that? And I was like, no, you know, like things like that, it's just been wonderful. So again, Lisa, welcome to the program. Welcome to this episode and thank you so welcome and hello, Lisa.

Thank you so much after an opening like that, I don't even know what to say, but, it's really just, it's been a pleasure to know you and to help you from that first event that I wish I could have [00:06:00] attended.

And, I think a lot of it is just the passion that I have for it. I just want everybody else to have that same feeling and that same experience. So it's easy for me to share and that way, and it's just, it just kinda flows through me even, and it's not so much that I'm doing this and I'm doing that, but it's just the energy just flows and you have to release it otherwise.

It's no good, you know, so you have to help other people. That's so beautiful. The way you describe yourself, almost like a conduit. Exactly. Exactly. That's beautiful. So let's get started talking about your sewing story. How did you get started? How did you, how did you end up where you are now? What is some of your earliest memories of either sewing or how you knew that this was something you were going to be passionate about?

Well, my sewing story or fabric story begins at the tender age of four. Literally. I remember. Having a favorite blanket. It was like a very loosely woven, you know, one of these little acrylic blankets that you just have as a kid or whatever. My favorite one, it was like red and blue and like really deep colors.

And that was my first sense of my color sense too. But anyway, [00:07:00] I was just enthralled by how all the threads kind of were held together, held in place, just like magically, they all, all the weaving of it. And I just thought that was fascinating. So, and I didn't really voice that at four, but I was just had an interest in it, always cuddled it, and it was spelled, you know, the whole thing.

So that led me to just a love of fabrics at age 12. I learned how to, so I went to singer and went back when singer had had actual stores in the mall, that kind of thing. And there were two things that happened at the same time. My grandmother was a seamstress before I was born. And then she, she then went into nursing and healthcare after I was born.

But she had that sewing gene, I guess, as I like to call it. Which kind of skipped my mother. My mother liked to sell by hand a little bit, but she didn't couldn't deal with the machine. So as they say, it skips a generation, I picked up the gene somehow and between her winning a sewing machine and one of those puzzle contest, even written the magazines, they have those little word puzzles, you could win a prize.

She won start way back, wait, wait, I'm gonna [00:08:00] date myself. But way, way back, she won the sewing machine and said, Oh, maybe Lisa would like this. Maybe she'll get into it. And I'm 12 years old. And I was never the type, you know, for summer vacation to go to camp. I was not that outdoorsy. I was like, give me a stack of paper and some crayons or pencils, or I'm good.

I'll write a story. I'llsketch something, whatever. I like my light bright, my extra sketch. So it was that kind of

Lite Bright. With the black paper. And you would put the little punches in, Oh my God. And it lit up.

Yeah. I mean, I can do that light bread and just sketch like all day long. So.

And like I said, paper and crayons. And what were those, those little fashion plates you could, you can trace the little,

yes. Remember fashion plates, you know, they're coming back now. That's why, cause you get getting bodice and you would get a waist and a legs. Right?

It did come back for a minute. Cause I saw a commercial anyway.

I was just anyway, so that was my kind of thing. I didn't really like to do the summer camp. So, my mother, when my grandmother won the sewing machine and gave it to me. My mother saw an ad for singer saying we have, you know, classes for kids. You know, it's a [00:09:00] long story short. I took the eight week session.

Loved it. And the combination of that was we did a fashion show on the mall of whatever we made and I made this green and white tripe vest.  And I was just so proud. I mean, buttonholes the whole thing first project. So it was great. I learned what a facing was, you know, the whole, the whole experience.

we modeled on the malls, like little fashion show and everything. So that was great. And from there I took off. That first sewing machine, I burnt out, literally smoke was coming out of it. Cause I used it so much. Had no clue. You had to like maintain a sewing machine. I'm just like having fun and zoom, zoom, zoom, and all that.

Right. So 12, 12 year olds think that things last forever. Right.

But that was great practice when I got my first car at 18, because I knew I had to actually take care of the mechanics of things.  you kind of retain that the lessons. So it's better to burn out the sewing machine than an entire car.

So. Had that machine went through some other ones. I made clothes myself, my mother, I mean, I just made, made, made Sew sewed and sewed the whole thing, this is from age 12 to [00:10:00] high school. Then I got an interest in, I thought, what can I do it? This fabric interests. Cause by then I'm like just buying fabrics and not necessarily African so much. I hadn't discovered that yet, but just in the fabric store, enjoying life. So that led me to F.I.T.  I studied marketing and communications, which was my other interests was writing and communications and all that. And I didn't really want to study textiles as a hard study, but that came later with different jobs, learning on the job kind of thing.

I always, I'm a big believer in learning on the job and you should get more out of a job than a paycheck. Like it should be teaching you something. So that was the one of my things, as far as choosing where I wanted to try and choosing where I would like to work and that kind of thing. So. Did that went to F.I.T.

Couldn't wait to start working. So I went after my associate in, advertising and communications. I got a job at a small company and in New York city. So I was still in the city every day. I said, well, let me go back and get the other two years, get the bachelor's in marketing. And at least I'd have a little full package, but I couldn't wait to start and be an adult in the [00:11:00] whatever.

So it did that first job that I had was a Maxine Fabrics was a little family business and we sold fabrics to custom tailors and dress makers around the country. So my job was to actually go into the markets of the manufacturers by their, by their seconds and their overruns and all that.

They're their leftovers and make them into a fashion story. And then we swatched it and sent catalogs out. Great job. I thought I could be there forever. So I love that.

Okay. I'm going to ask you to slow down a little bit, because this is all so exciting. That's the review. So FIT is fashion Institute of technology.

Is that right? And that is a fashion and design school in Manhattan. And you were there for your associates. And, but, but because you were so excited, you're like, you know, I want to work and I want to go to school. I want to study and practice and sharpen my skills in the classroom. But I also want to put that to practical application.

All right. Right now at the same time. So you associate for the first two years, and then [00:12:00] you were also working and then you realize, well, I'm here all the time. I might as well,  the train is going right past school.

the same train fare. Right. So I might as well,

you know, so you went in and finished it.

And so I just think that's really amazing. And then this, this Maxine Fabrics, like you creating. Fashion and style stories, going to manufacturers going to, I mean, I think that this is what you're talking us through is something really powerful in fashion history, because a lot of manufacturing now has moved out of the space.

So you got to go. There was fabric was being manufactured right here in the U S and other places. But in addition to New York city, you would go in there and you would say, I'll take a little with this and this and this and this and this, and you would put it together. So can you just real quick for us?

What our seconds and what are overruns?

well, clothing manufacturing, they may  buy a thousand yards [00:13:00] of  this print just to make it simple and they only use 700 for their run, you know, whatever they're making, say, they're making dresses for that season or whatever. They have another 300 yards left that they need to need to get rid of.

So someone like me or our company would come in and buy the five. Well, that's not really seconds. That's just leftovers. That's overruns. Seconds are more like irregulars.  But when you go in and say, okay, I want to buy 100 yards of this red, and then I would. Go through either that manufacturer or other companies, there were a whole bunch, again, seventh Avenue at that time, all the manufacturing, you know, the, the companies were there and then I would scout the market through our regular resources, looking for coordinates.

So maybe I find a bottom weight to go with it and a jacket weight. And I put a story together, being sure that we had enough of each, like at least say a hundred yards of each one, so people could kind of buy it together. Right. So we sold it to, like I said, tailor shops and. And just makers all around the country.

There was also a spinoff company that we sold to home sewers, but little swatch kits.  there was the seventh Avenue [00:14:00] of fabric club and Vogue fabrics. We tried to emulate with Vogue patterns, magazine, put out, work with them to try and say, well, they're using a blue Stripe. I tried to find a blue stripes and you could make the same look, that kind of thing. So that was really cool.

This job sounds like your job was to do fashion plates. Now 40 years later, that's like your job, your job was like, okay, I'm going to take this top and then this middle, and then this bottom, then I'm going to sketch on it with it and then make it easyfor the dressmakers and tailors to present a look to their customer. And maybe they like the fabric combination, but they want a different style, whatever. So they did that and it was the best, first job was the best job ever, still. I mean, You


Lisa: to be like 19 years old in the city every day, wearing sneakers to work and coming in at 10 and leaving at four, I mean the whole package, I mean, for me to go into somebody's shop and say, I want a hundred yards of this, and I want a hundred yards of that. and spend somebody else's money. [00:15:00] Ma'am. Anybody within the sound of my voice can manage to find me a job like that with my current salary benefits.

I know. I mean, and the job couldn't exist, even if, if I wanted to go back to it because there was no more fabric in the city.

Like there's no, there are no sample rooms, hardly. There's no sourcing, you know, there's so that kind of thing wouldn't really exist anymore. And there's really no more overages because also the manufacturers buy so close to what they need or they'll sell the design first and then buy that much fabric.

the whole business model couldn't even right, right. Cause to me, you know, it's like, ah,

Wow, but that's amazing that you, that you were there for that. And then you got to have that experience and that shaped, would you, or would you say that that shit did that first job kind of shaped the rest of your career in the industry? Were there certain things that your next job that you felt like, okay, I've done this for a while. I'm really happy, but when I moved to my next [00:16:00] position, I want to make sure to keep these aspects, but also add, like, was that what you were, is that was that part of the story?

well, one reason I left the company was, and against like seven people, like small family business was because I was still on my parents' insurance. You know how after you graduate you and your parents, and there was no insurance there cause it's a tiny little family company. And I literally, one of the reasons I left was to get a real job so I could have benefits and take care of that aspect of, you know, adulthood .

I was there about seven years maybe. And no one stays seven years in their first job, you know, it's interesting. And when I read the description on the, that the boards that fit the job boards, there wasn't a whole lot of interest.  everybody wanted to go for the big name designers.

And I didn't really care about that. You know, and the wealth of it, of the job was not in the name. It was just what I got to do. And then I got to write about the fabrics to, I write the descriptions for the catalog. So I was writing, I was buying fabric. I was coordinating stuff. I mean, it was just, it was crazy.

It was crazy. That's incredible.

[00:17:00] I loved it.

But it seems like you're kind of doing that now in your own shop. Right. You're buying the fabrics, you're writing the descriptions.

well, I'm paying for it. I'm not, if that was somebody else to pay for it. Yeah.  a lot of my jobs have had either some combination of writing, sewing, selling, buying.

it's been a real ride, so, that was part of it. And then from there I just moved on to some other, I found that job that had the benefits, not as exciting, not as autonomous and all that, but you know, you, you learn to adjust and you do what you have to do, but that was always my golden job , it was great.

I mean, it's really such a beautiful story, you know? And I feel like the way that you painted, I feel like I was there with you, like walking alongside you, going to the warehouses and.

Yeah, that wasn't glamorous because a lot of those warehouses were kind of gross and like, you know, you wear jeans cause you didn't know what

it's an actual warehouse, not like a Sam's club warehouse where everything is like all cleaning.

These were [00:18:00] like an old, like 39th street buildings on the eighth floor elevators. And you didn't know if you were going to make it out. And you know, it was like, it was, there was some trauma to it, but it was. At 19, you love that stuff. I'm like, now I'm not so hyped about, you know, a mouse running by or what are you gonna buy?

Let's do it, you know? So it was fun. A

An experience. AMazing such a good experience

the memories. And then the guys in the back that cut fabric became like my brothers, if we would, it was just, it was a whole thing.

Oh, that's so delightful. So after you finished with, and you ended up getting a different job that haven't had more structure and more benefits, how did you close the gap between that experience to publishing your first book?

that sounds like a lot of ground that gets covered between these expenses.

The job after that really didn't have any writing involved. And I still felt that itch to write about fabric and things. So I started doing freelance writing. Remember Sew News magazine.

Oh, yes, yes. [00:19:00] But do you remember when they were like a tabloid newspaper?

Okay. Okay. Newsprint. And it wasn't a, I found it in a fabric store once and I was like, so news and it was like literally newsprint. It wasn't even like a map at that point. No, I don't think, I don't think I knew that. So news used to be an actual newspaper.

I don't think I knew that it was, it was monthly, but it was on newsprint. So I was like, you know, kind of cheap and inexpensive printed, I guess. And it was, I think it was black and white with some color insert. It wasn't like a whole color. It wasn't like a magazine. Like it is, you know, now, like it's big.

So. I saw that. And I started writing for them and they had a column called updated and restated, where you looked at an old fashioned, like a trench coat. And I would look into the history of it. I had a little history of how epilepsy epilepsy came to be, and you're like a little history lesson kind of thing.

So the person writing that column left for whatever reason, then they asked me if I wanted to do that. I was like, sure. So I did that for a while and just did some other feature stories. And are there magazines to write what this is while I'm working full time, but just again, I felt that [00:20:00] itch to still , write about sewing.

So I did that and all the while still dated and restated, that was the name of the, what's the name of the column? The column, the column. Do you remember anything, any particular, you mentioned the epaulettes, for example, do you remember a particular garment from that series that was, that you wrote about differently? I think a lot about that now, like about old clothes, old garments, old pieces and how you can modernize them. Is that what you were doing? Do you, do you have any memories of like something that you might've talked about at that time taking the current trend and finding a detail?

I did one one surp ice neck lines, the , crossover, neck line. So it was more like just what's happening now. Just tracing the history, not so much trying to, I get so much, we didn't really do that much hacking then like sort of the pattern. But, it was more just not looking back on historical, you now, like the history, like I said, the epaulets were like a military, you know, touch on the, because they, I forgot what it was.

Oh, the, well, the buttons [00:21:00] on sleeves so that the soldiers wouldn't wipe their nose on their sleeve or something like that.

You're listening to the stitch pleas podcast. And I'm speaking today with Lisa Shepherd, Stewart owner of cultured expressions in railway, New Jersey. When we come back, we'll talk with Lisa about her first trips to Africa and how that shaped her approach to the work that she's currently doing.

Stay tuned.

The Stitch Please podcast is really growing. I want to thank you for listening to the podcast and ask a favor. If you are listening to this podcast on a medium that allows you to rate it or review it. For example, Apple podcasts [00:22:00] or iTunes, please do. So if you're enjoying the podcast, if you could drop me a five star rating, if you have something to say about the podcast, and you wanted to include that a couple of sentences in the review box of Apple makes a really big difference in how the podcast is evaluated by Apple, how it becomes more visible.

It really is a way to kind of lean into the algorithm. That helps to rank podcasts. so if you had time to do that, to drop


Lisa: little line in the review feature of the podcast, that would be really appreciated and it would help us to grow even further and faster.

So, so for your book, I'm really interested about the  story about that, about what you wanted to communicate in [00:23:00] generate.  what's your overall objective for that was because I really definitely want to talk about your travels and research and textile experience, in, on the continent. because I think that you have been such an important pioneer in that. And communicating that and bringing those fabrics, back from, from early days.  Can you talk a little bit about that? About why he ended up writing a book to help home sellers learn more about African fabrics?

it goes back to just the passion. In 1986, I went to Senegal. That was my first trip to Africa. And I went with a group that was a culture group from Chicago, but they did like general cultural tours to Africa. It wasn't like a fabric tour so much, but it was a general culture trip, but they said, if you have a special interest, let us know ahead of time.

We'll try to hook you up with people there and make it more meaningful to you and personalize, whatever I was like fabric. All I want to see is fabric again. So they got me an appointment with the marketing head of a company called [00:24:00] Sotiba which some of you might recognize as one of the biggest African fabric mills, like West African fabric mills.

And that was in Senegal and they've had other offices too, but in Senegal, that's where headquarters was. I went to meet the marketing director. Not only did he have access to African fabric, but he was cute and drove a white Peugeot. So I was all in and I was like, wow. And I'm like, what? 20.

How, what was that? 22 at this point 21, something. So I'm just, yeah, again, I was like, wow, this apparently meant to be, and he was just cute. It was just, you know, we were flirting. It was like so much fun. Now he can be like 20 pieces of fabric to take home. And he's like, Oh, don't go home. Stay another week.

You know,  that's a whole nother podcast, but it was, it was a lot of, so from there I came home with 20 pieces  from him as a gift and then whatever else I bought. Of batiks and all kinds of stuff and just loved it. And I was like, I'm here. I have to get it. Now, that kind of thing , when you see something you have to get it.

So that's when that kicked in. And [00:25:00] that's when my love for African fabrics in particular started because I just was again, amazed by the artists and the look and the quality. The fact that it wasn't a Africa is all famine and war kind of narrative. Like there was actual artistry and I wanted to bring that to other people.

not that I didn't know it existed cause it wasn't a surprise to me, but to really see it and be able to have a real, tangible way to show other people through what I love anyway, as fabric, I thought that was a real opportunity. So I started thinking about the book and all that and which is African accents, but I'm going to grab it for you.

Thank you. I, what I love about what you're saying, Lisa ,is the educational process. Right. That what were doing is you are revising and intervening in all of these racist narratives that the U S has propagated about Africa , this  story, I have like a famine and war, et cetera, et cetera.  all of these things that  create harmful impacts hacks in one's [00:26:00] imagination.

Right. It makes you afraid to explore for yourself because it's like, and you know, it's ridiculous. It's really ridiculous. So it's, and then for myself, I said why, and that wasn't thinking about doing tours at that point, but just bringing it to people in the form of a book that was manageable to me at the time.

And I just felt like, again, it's my passion and just kind of  jumped off.

I think that being able to look and to see, the artistry to, to see the creativity, even, you know, I think that this is becoming like rock right now in our current moment in 2020, people are doing more with this now,like helping to revise these racist narratives, helping us recognize that what we're looking at are actually racist narratives.

That we had to take deliberate steps to revise and to hold accountable. So I keep thinking about that.

That's important to tell your own story. I'm saying to tell the story and don't, I haven't told to you, but to explore for [00:27:00] yourself really important.

Exactly. That's exactly what I was thinking.

Absolutely. , and  , to recast this it's very much like what, I think this might've been William Lloyd Garrison talking about Frederick Douglass and he said, when lions write history, the hunter will cease to be the hero.


And so the idea of the lions writing history, that this idea of seeing this from, an African perspective, from a black perspective, from a perspective, that's not a colonizer's perspective. Right. And it, and that's something I just love that you are. Undoing these narratives, as well as building something really beautiful through textiles, and an hour in us to use our own imaginations and opening up spaces to us, in a way that is so beautiful and affirming.

And so that's something that I really appreciate very much about what you're doing

and it's fun. I mean, it's like everything, you know, I like something that's [00:28:00] practical and, you know, decorating your house. Obviously that's as practical as you can get. And, so I just, that was just, again, my passion and I, yeah, people also would be, you know, coming to where I lived and say, where'd you get that mud cloth pillow?

And if they even know it was mud cloth, first of all, some that some people did, but some people, you know, where's that, what's that fabric and all that curiosity. I said, well, there's probably a book idea. Yeah. Because I hadn't seen any other DIY books with African fabric focus. It just didn't exist. It was all like a Martha Stewart kind of a take a plaid or check and a stripe and a, you know, whatever.

And boom, there's your living room, but, you know, cute. But it wasn't, there was no feeling in it for me. So the only one who feels like that, who wants to have a more personal whatever, you know, so the warmth of these fabrics and sometimes the symbolism or the meanings behind them, or how they're used traditionally, all that kind of becomes part of the story.

And I just felt like that was really, really cool. So I thought, again, I can't be the only one who liked this, you know, so that's my litmus test.

[00:29:00] I think that's a great litmus test, right? That I think it's funny because something that my therapist said to me once. She's like for black women, we often have to build the things that we need.

That means that even though we're loving something and appreciating something, it's also a form of work. You know that we, so like you writing the book was an example of creating this really important archive, but also this opportunity for other people to step in and try things that they might not have tried or that they might not have known about.

And so you're like you're teaching and you're also providing opportunities for participation. In really beautiful ways. I was going to ask about how this turn to, like how the, you know, your first trip to Senegal in 1986, how did this end up, leading you to do your own trips that were fabric focused or [00:30:00] fabric and why focus?

Like, how did you, how did you get that started? Came a lot later, actually, because from 86, I didn't get back to Africa until I went to Ghana in 2001. So it was a long stretch of time. And then in that space, I'm still collecting and finding things locally. But I hadn't been back to the continent until 2001 and I went with a company called  Navaka dot com.

And they actually promote artists from all around the world. So it gives artists same small villages, that type of thing, you know, a platform to sell all around the world to get their pictures, you know, their, their picture and pictures of their work and all that. So I'm writing the second book, Global Wxpressions, which is fabrics from around the world, still decorating focus.

And I kind of Avoca because I saw they had some photography. I was hoping I could borrow for the book and just some shots of this and that. So they said, Oh, you are a writer. Would you like to come to West Africa with us and cover? And I think I was packed before I hung the phone up. I was like, hell yeah.

And I [00:31:00] mean, they paid for it. And it was just a, it was a, you know, simple kind of thing. It wasn't, you know, three, five star or whatever, but it was myself representative from Novack, her name's Catherine and Daniel, who is a videographer from California. They invited him also. So we all just kind of. Did the trip.

And I got to a lot of the artists that I now see, like every trip when I go back, I see a lot of them still and the whole thing. that was just a great experience to just really take in the culture. Then that's when I realized that Ghana has the most fabric, especially for quilters and Sowers.

That's the African Mecca is Ghana because there's so much there. I haven't been anywhere else since, because there's so much I have to like still explore. I haven't gotten to Mali yet. I haven't gotten to Nigeria yet and they're on my list, but Ghana find a new thing I have to kind of work with.

So I mean, crazy, crazy resources. Everybody's talented there and just a lot. So almost every year, since 2001, I've been here in Ghana for myself, you know, shopping and developing and finding people and [00:32:00] connecting with people. So that's, that's kind of how the trips began. And then in 2003, Was the, for my first group trip to Ghana that I did with another women named Lorna Johnson.

And that was more of a general culture trip. But my part of the trip, my part of the itinerary planning was arts and crafts fabrics. That whole part, there was a music track. There was an education track. So depending on your interests, we had different tracks ready for you. So that was the beginning of Sojourns, even though they weren't called sojourns back then.

And. Again, that sharing of it. I'm seeing other people's eyes light up when they see like, this is really what Africa is like, it's amazing. It was like really amazing. So that gave me energy, you know, to kind of do it again a few more times and everything. And it's just the whole, this whole Sojourn thing has just been like, again, I go back to, I can't be the only one who would love to go someplace and do textile related, you know, classes.

And I can't be the only one who'd like that. And by then I had a little bit of a following. , I had customers and things and the website. And Guild. So I had people that were interested in things. Yeah. Ready, [00:33:00] develop the base. And , to my add is something to the isn't this, it just was like the next logical step.

It seemed like, yeah, no five-year plan. I don't, I can't do a five year plan, but things evolve,  , so worked out, pretty amazingly, well, I would say. Pretty well overall. Yeah. I mean, I have some things that didn't work out, but you just, you know, you do things, you do something else and something else works out and you pay attention and you just go for it.

So learn and you do things a little differently next time. Nope. I just love this. I love this all so much. This is so exciting. and what I love about it is that as you're telling your story, it reminds me of that blanket that you had as a four year old. Because when you look at the fibers, you know, the way how we even works, like you have the warp and then you have the weft and it's like, you really have woven.

I'm making this very strange hand gesture because my, I really can't wave my fingers, [00:34:00] but, but what you're, what you've done is like you've woven together this gorgeous life. You know, that is so filled with it from the outside, looking in and the glimpse of a conversation that is so filled with your purpose, you know, that like, it feels like you've been able to, when people talk about walking in your purpose or whatever, it feels like you've been able to do that since not just since you were 12, but since you work, you know what I mean?

Like exactly. It's really beautiful. It's really beautiful. And that's why I'm so glad to be able to talk with you today. Let me ask about what it's like. To take all this information. You've got the training from fit. You've got the wonderful first job. When you were in there with manufacturers, you traveled to Ghana and Senegal.

You've written two books. you're very committed to African textiles and in some ways, decolonizing the racist imagination about the whole [00:35:00] story of Africa as a continent,you're supporting guilds. You're supporting local businesses. You're helping to build up these new institutions.

How do you move from that to opening up your own brick and mortar shop? Like how did that, like, I'm just, did you not think you were busy enough? That's what I, yeah.

Well, I guess there's a couple answers to that, that you don't have things just kind of, you have different situations that all kind of happen at once and it leads to something that's kind of what happened.

Never thought I wanted a brick and mortar retail shop because I wasn't the traveling and I wanted to be free at a moment's notice kind of thing. And I thought, Oh, well, if you have a story, you have to be open, you know, every day, you know, that just that mindset of retail life. And I was like, let's do that.

But then one of the things that happened was people began to get used to the idea of popup shops. The idea that retail doesn't always mean certain set hours, and you may need to check first people, especially with the specialty shop. People are got more accepting of that. Yeah. So I think, well, [00:36:00] maybe it may work in a space where I can actually do my own hours and it's still, the hours are pretty regular because I think that's important.

But when I do have to close, I don't feel like, Oh my God, you know, the world's going to end whatever. So that was, that was happening also where I live in Rahway, New Jersey, where we are now, the downtown area was being revitalized and getting more artsy. And they really had a whole real hold on, like specialty shops and the restaurants were popping up.

We have an art center, performing arts center. We have theaters and, you know, just really a really nice artsy vibe. And I said, Hey, it's an African fabric down here. It's the one thing that's missing. Right. Well that an Indian food, but I think that's coming. So I decided that maybe it would be a nice way to go.

Also, my part time job at Marcus fabrics, was beginning to change a little bit Marcus fabric for those who may not know they do, traditional quilt fabrics and crafting fabrics. I've been there and that was that's another part of the story I've been there for 20 years. Part time, just as a little, you know, as a supplemental, whatever, you know, before I got married, even I had that.

So that was helpful. so things began to change at [00:37:00] markets where I felt like I really need to maybe up my, the cultural expressions game and see what else I can do about it. And grow it rather than try to find another part time job. And I, you know, I just kind of Sonya short, I'm still at Marcus things are still great.

, we were bought out by another company. So I'm still there again, nice to keep an eye a hand in that end of the industry, the more generic, , industry. Well, that's great. but so those three things, the change in retail,  and the two is about retail shopping. The artsiness of downtown and the changes at Marcus that may or may not have come at the end, they were sold, but I'm still there.

So all those things I thought maybe I could find a nice little spot and railway. And then also I was teaching in my house and I could only promote my classes to people on my mailing list that I kind of knew because you can't just invite people to your house. So that kind of got a little old and stifling and limited.

So I thought if I had a space where I could do some classes, put the fabric up, you know, I have some types of special events. All in that railway vibe that was coming about and all those things that came at the same [00:38:00] time. And I started to think maybe I should do a retail spot. So that's the, the long short answer.

And, that was December of 17, 2017. I decided to do it in April and then found a space. Another space fell through and, you know, just kind of plugging along. Signed the lease for this place in October. And I had the rent opening in December. So it was pretty quick. It wasn't a whole, you know, 10 year mission.

So you're saying you had the idea in April of 2017 and then you had a space that didn't work out, but then by the time you got, by the time you got to December of 2017, you had a shop with stuff in it and people could come and buy things. Yeah. That is not a lot of months between December. I found the place in September.

I signed the lease. I just wasn't ready until December. Cause I had to do some, a little bit of carpentry and some electrical  so I really didn't open hard until December, [00:39:00] but I signed a lease in Septemberto start for October 1st landlord, let me come in two weeks early because we had this thing called culture crawl in Rahway, and he let me come and just put out cards and say coming soon pencil, he was really cool.

He let me come in two weeks early. , so really from April to September, I was literally in the space and then December was more like , technically like a firmer. And I just felt like, like at the space, it didn't fall through, like I said, thank God. Cause this one is like so much better.

You're not things happen for a reason.

They do. Yes, they do.

I just put my one foot forward and you know, the rest of it came to me in, in part, in large part. So, it was, it's been great. So now it's going on three years already. And I'm cool stuff. It's cool stuff. I love it. Yeah. I spend more time here. If there was a shower in the back, I'd barely even go home.

So that's probably not a shower back there because then by the way, but it's true. I mean, I want to use a shower. I have a kitchenette, I got the bathroom, you know, and my office is in the [00:40:00] back. I, I feel very safe, but sometimes I'm here till midnight, like the height of the pandemic. Business was great.

Thank God because everybody was sewing the mask and they were home and they wanted to finish that finally and midnight, some nights filling orders. So I can feel safe here late at night. I just, there were two apartments upstairs. So it's residential and commercial kind of like a mixed use type thing.

I'll bet I'm across from city hall and the police department. So I mean it's and the post office for shipping. I saw the spot. I was like, this can't not be, I mean, this cannot, that's amazing. That's an energy that you feel secure and that you got a, you get resources to like the post office. Like when I say I'm putting it in the mail today, I mean it, because I ain't really across the street and ship your package.

Wow. Oh, and the other big thing with the whole downtown Revit re re wasn't revitalization or whatever. [00:41:00] railway train station is a block away. So my in New York and Philly and all those folks can make a change. That was part of the reason. And until that I did this because again, but now it had, I had customers and I had like a following.

Or do you want to call it? And so those people could easily, you know, kind of come here and get, go here and there and, and, and also have a nice meal around. And, you know, so it's like a nice little spot, like destination day kind of thing. Yes. So it's like a nice little outing, right? It's something you can go and say, it's a day trip.

I'm going to do a day trip. I'm going to go and I'll be there all day and I can get something to eat and I can maybe take a class. I can do some shopping. I can, whatever. Yes. Oh, the black owned yoga studio and a couple other black owned businesses. So we all share it, you know, send people to each other.

There's also a hotel, not black owned, but as a hotel. So if you want to go from the train station across the street to the hotel, come here, you can actually do a whole week. I mean, it's crazy. Oh my gosh. That's incredible. So like have you had, this is a perfect location and I'm very glad that your other one fell through.

And [00:42:00] that was down the street, but just, this is just better just the walking distances and all of those things make a really big difference for people who like don't want to drive or if you don't drive. And yeah, no, that's wonderful. Now, now I'm planning ahead when the outside outside opens up again and I get some, I know, cause the virtual visits are great, but I mean, being here is like even better.

So the virtuals, that's another thing that we started and really, I started doing those in 2018. the virtual visits. So people, cause again, I had people when I opened the studio and put it in the newsletter, Hey, we're opening a brick and mortar studio in railway. And people are like, well, I'm in California and I buy from you.

So, you know, I started to think, how can we still service people and get them? You know? So a woman came in one day husband and she's like, Oh, my daughter would love this. She FaceTimes her daughter. And in the studio it's I can't even say it. It's totally, it's completely an original thought, but it spurred something.

And she's like, Oh, the daughter is like, Oh God, give me two yards of that. And I'm thinking, Oh shit, look at this. You know, my daughter spends like 50 bucks, like over [00:43:00] the phone with the mother and I'm like, okay. So I went home that night. I said, I need a little cute name. I was like, I got to get this, that my assistant ed, who was helping me, I was like, what do we call like a virtual visit?

And then people, we can do this net, but FaceTime is only on an iPhone. I'm not an iPhone girl. I don't I anything. So I'm an Android. So I had to find an app that was like that, that worked over both. Found Google duo WhatsApp. And now everybody's on zoom. So that's our third option. It's almost like being here with no, no refractory refreshments.

That's what I said, no snacks, bring it on. We have like fruit or something and tea and all kinds of stuff hanging around. But, it's like that, but no snacks naturally see everything we can do closeups. You can, you know, you can count the weave if you that kind of thing. So. We've been doing that again, pandemic time we were set up for it.

And now since then, I've gone to booking online for those. Cause it was too much to kind of be on the phone and trying to figure it out. Right. Right, right. So people can still set appointments with you to [00:44:00] do a virtual visit. Where you walk through and you'll show people things, and people can ask questions.

And I think that's just really genius. I am absolutely loving this. I wanted to ask just a couple of last questions. And what do you see as the future of, of African fabrics for those of us in the U S I feel like now that, you know, I know there's so many different, like controversies or like, You know, is this real?

Is it authentic? Is it, you know, like, you know, I seen some pieces at Joann fabrics and some which was alarming, frankly. I saw them at Joanne's and I was like, this looks like it's all, some colonial is nonsense. What am I looking at even? well, I don't know. So that's why I was asking, like, how do we, I think actually it's funny.

Cause the first time that anyone that I was in a class that anyone ever even mentioned. what could be considered some of the [00:45:00] elements or ethical dimensions of African fabric was at another black owned fabric studio. This is one, this one is closest to me. This was  Sew Creative Lounge with Cecily.

I don't know if you know her, but she, yes, actually she and I did an event together a couple years ago, but, It was, I went to the shop in like maybe 20, I think it's 2018. And it was the very first time that someone had said, we need to think about like who we're buying from, what we're buying, who we're supporting each purchase is giving money to some people, et cetera, et cetera.

I don't know. It was just, it was just an interesting conversation. and to me it was a sign about how some fabric folks. Take a holistic approach. It's not just about buying what's cheapest. It's not about buying what's on sale. It's about trying to have an ethical sensibility about one's fabric acquisitions.

Do you have any thoughts on that? I do. [00:46:00] It's thinking about the prints just in particular African prints, you know, that's a term everybody uses and it's, it's just accepted at this point. But they had an, an origin that was, it was completely outside of Africa. Long, long story short, the Dutch were creating, batiks and different wax prints and things for the Indonesian market Indonesian market center.

We don't want this. We don't like it. It's not our style. Get out of here. It took it to Africa to kind of dump it in Africa, except in parts of it, but change parts of it too, kind of injected their own style and their own, you know, kind of. Like flavor to it, you know? And so there was a, it's a real, kind of a hybrid kind of thing.

There's all different levels, different types, different makers, different mills. And even to this day, when I go, to Accra  in Ghana and I'm going in the markets and I'm buying things, there are Chinese imports there. So you it's almost unavoidable. I mean, to say, you know, where was this print made?

Somebody may come into the studio and say, well, where's this print made. And [00:47:00] I'll say, honestly, can't tell you, you know, I know who I bought it from, and I know if I got it, whether I got it from Ghana directly or from one of my suppliers around the country that shipped to me, I know them, but that's in the market.

There's, there's arguments over among the vendors of over who's, you know, who's may who made what? And where'd this come from? And I think I almost started, I thought I almost started a riot at once in the market. Cause I had somebody something and the other vendor said, no, no, no, that's not from there. And they had this whole big and I was like, Oh my God.

So I'm like, I'm done standing back watching this. And another one comes over and they're like, that's not from citizens. And then they'll, they'll crack up laughing. Cause this is like just a thing for them, you know? And I was like, Oh my God, I started world war three right here in the market. It's part of the culture, but they just were like into this whole heated exchange.

And they're like, you know what you're talking about? I was like, Oh my God, all I said was where's this from, you know, so a lot of discussion among them, a lot of different ideas and opinions. So my thing is, if you like a fabric, go more for the quality than where it's from, because you may not [00:48:00] know you may not ever really know what Miller came out of.

There are also mills in West Africa that are Chinese owned. Oh, what's that doing for us? You know? And then they're bringing their own workers. It's like a whole, that's a whole nother podcast, but, there's, there's just, I feel like if, if a fabric speaks to you, the design and everything, my thing is more so is it a quality fabric?

Cause you want to always work with something that's quality and not a piece of junk, you know? So you have to kind of weigh that. And if you are of African descent, you're, it's becoming African because you're infusing your creativity into it. Right, right. That's really the best you can hope. I mean, if you're going to not use a fabric, you don't know where it's from.

You're denying yourself. I have a whole lot of creative pleasure and end up here that titled tight with it. Now, what I can say is when I buy the, The Jacquard batiks from Ghana. I worked with four different ladies. I know they are making it. They and their artists must do the batik right there. They don't make the base cloth.

Even that's important. The plain base cloth there, again, a fusing, their, their creativity and their African look into it. [00:49:00] So that's when you have to really kind of focus on and then just enjoy the fabric because it's not overnight. And it is what it is. And. Just enjoy it. You know what I mean? Life's short.

Hey, I like that. Enjoy it. Life's short. on that load, Lisa, I'm going to wrap up. Thank you so much. Can you tell us where people can find you on the socials? I'm going to be sure to include all of your links, your, this, okay. The website is cultured and to keep it easy. We're also on Facebook and Instagram at cultured expressions.

And, what else? Those are the main one. I'm they're the important ones I would say. And then on YouTube. Yeah, it's C E fabric videos slash videos. So CE for cultural expressions. Fabric videos slash videos. We have some head wrapping videos. We have some quick sewing tips and some of those stuff like that.

So, and that's how the mask videos, I think you had some mask ones it's video. Yeah, that was, that was, that was Epic. Yeah, it was pretty Epic. and remember [00:50:00] y'all, there is a contest that you still have time to enter to get these lovely and absolutely gorgeous, 10 fat quarters and a button and a postcard.

So you get all these treats that are available to you. if you, follow black women Stitch. Follow cultural expressions and on the cultural expressions page tag, a friend, and you all can both be entered to win this amazing fabric. Bundle it with the button. It is gorgeous. Lisa, thank you so much. This has been amazing.

It's been fun.

In listening to the stitch, please podcast the official podcast of black women stitch. The sewing group. Where black lives matter. We appreciate you supporting us by listening to the podcast. If you'd like to reach out to us with [00:51:00] questions, you can contact us at black women's If you'd like to support us financially, you can do that by supporting us on Patrion P a T R E O N.

And you can find black women stitch there and the Patriot directory. And for as little as $2 a month, you can help support the project with things like editing. Transcripts and other things to strengthen the podcast. And finally, if financial support is not something you can do right now, you can really, really help the podcast by rating it and reviewing it anywhere.

You listen to podcasts that allows you to review them. So I know that not all high cast, directories or services allow for reviews, but for those who. Do for those that have like a star rating or just ask for a few comments, if you could share those comments and say nice things about us at the stitch plays podcast, that is incredibly helpful.

Thank you so much. Come back next week and we'll help you get your stitch together. [00:52:00] .

Hosted by Lisa Woolfork

Lisa is a fourth-generation sewing enthusiast who learned to sew while earning a PhD in African American literature and culture. She has been sewing for more than twenty years while also teaching, researching, and publishing in Black American literature and culture.

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