Don’t Trash It, Sew it!!: Sustainable Creativity with Shams el-Din Rogers

0.75x 1x 1.25x 1.5x 2x 0:0000:55:19 Don’t Trash It, Sew it!!: Sustainable Creativity with Shams el-Din Rogers

Episode Summary

In today’s episode, we welcome Shams el-Din Rogers to discuss sustainable sewing. Shams shares what she learned about sustainability while living in Egypt. She discussed the effects of textile industries on the environment, recycling of clothes, camper van wall insulation, the role of home sewing in the Black community, and the creation of a society where people are healthy and safe. We also share some insights on the evolution of slavery in the USA and the harming of children by the textile industries. Tune in to learn more about this engaging conversation.

Episode Notes

Find Shams el-Din Rogers’ on Instagram

Shams mentions reading Vicki Robin,

Shams volunteers at Creative Reuse Toronto.

Lisa and Sham mention Aja Barber and her book Consumed 

Aja is on the podcast next week!

Lisa mentions a poem by Francis Ellen Watkins Harper

Lisa also mentions Fannie Lou Hamer’s 1971 speech “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”

Shams mentions Shaun King‘s vertically-integrated, Black t-shirt company, A Real One

Black Women Stitch’s NEW webpage, patreon

Read Full Transcript

Lisa Woolfork  0:09  

Hello stitchers. Welcome to Stitch Please the official podcast of Black Women 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. 

Hello everyone and welcome to the Stitch Please podcast. I am your host Lisa Woolfork, and I am delighted and honored to welcome Shams el-Din Rogers to the program. I have invited Shams to talk with us today about her approach to sustainable sewing and making. Now you might recall in an earlier episode, I talked about why it was important to have a scrap bin. I did an entire episode about why you should have a box with your scraps in it. And don't throw ham sandwiches in there. And don't throw like, you know, the old used bag of Doritos. You don't want any food waste in your fabric, because you want to keep it clean and easy to repurpose. And Shams has taken that to an entirely different level. She has managed to create and furnish her van with wonderful furnishings, wonderful decorations, wonderful elements from stuff she has found and repurposed and reused. She is not heading out to the fabric store to buy yardage of fabrics. She is discovering and repurposing. And so, Shams, I'm so happy to have you. Welcome to the program. Thank you for joining us today.

Shams  1:51  

You're so welcome. It's great to be here with you. I've enjoyed participating in one of your online workshops before. And I'm also excited to be able to talk to an audience, to talk about the effect of textile production and waste on the world and in particular, on the Global South. You know, when you think about the fact that one pair of jeans takes 1800 to 2000 gallons to produce, of water. Okay, wait a minute, that's a few years of water for an individual. And it takes that much, whether these are high quality jeans that are going to last, or whether they're inexpensive jeans that are maybe not even going to make it for five wearrings. If we understand that the people whose water is in crisis right here in the US in Flint, Michigan, or the people whose water is in crisis in Sudan, or the people in Bangladesh inundated by excess water, because the water is melting because of human activity, we have to start thinking about our role in the production and waste of textiles. And so as a sewist, I've been a knitter and a sewist since I was eight years old, and I've been involved in designing clothes. I've been involved in now teaching people how to upcycle from clothes that you already have or clothes that you found. So I don't want to make it look like I've never been to a fabric shop. In fact, I have plenty of fabric at home. But the way I started on this whole life of "let's try to use less stuff" was when I was studying in Egypt. I was 19 years old. I had gone to the American University in Cairo. And before I left, everybody said, "Okay, when you get there, they're not going to have the shoes in your size." That part was true. They said "when you get there, they're not going to have clothes that fit you or they're not going to have sanitary napkins. They're not going to have notebook paper." So I brought 10 suitcases. I was gonna be there studying for a year and so I had these 10 suitcases and you know, you know, like Hillary on the Fresh Prince. And she's like, "Yeah," you know, I was going to university. I was living that kind of lifestyle of not really caring about stuff. And the Egyptian ladies, the neighbors, came to visit me at home. They have a tradition where they can come in the house of a new bride and inspect her stuff. I wasn't a bride, but I was new, so they went and they came inside. They go all through your closets and look at all your stuff. And they say "Wait a second. You know you got red shoes. You got blue shoes. You got black, you got brown, you got cream. What is this?" I said "Obviously I need the red shoes to go with my red purse. When I have occasion to use the Navy shoes, I need the Navy purse," you know, and they say- and this is something that's really stuck with me- one lady said, "But you only have one pair of feet." Now this wasn't a village. This was Cairo. You know Cairo with a subway today. You know, Cairos had the internet, they have better internet connectivity than most countries and they've had it for 15 years. This wasn't a backwoods place. But they're just, "but why." And then I started just reading books about using less stuff by Vicki Robin, for example, Amy Decks Sissen (???) and going on to try to go to thrift stores. I tried to go to yard sales. Again, I did not mean at all that I've never bought anything new. But I mean that overwhelmingly trying to say, "Why do I need so many of these things?" So, in my knitting, I learned early that acrylic yarn is plastic. You need to say this, clearly, acrylic is spun plastic. If you do a burn test on it, it beads up. It smells like plastic. It's plastic. If you touch it it melts. I learned that wool. In fact, negates flames. And with this very sweater, I've stood in front of a classroom full of students and put a match to my hand. And my sweater won't take.

Lisa Woolfork  6:16  


Shams  6:16  

Because it's wool, and when you think we're going out into nature, and you're saying, "Oh, I need a performance parka. Oh, I need to keep warm." But if you get too close to the flames on your camping trip, you're going to be sorry. But if you've got that wool, the wool keeps you warm, even if it's wet. It biodegrades at the end of your need for it, as well, you can continue to repair it. I started to learn more.  Not only is the acrylic plastic, it has the same other qualities of plastic. It won't disintegrate. So people want it because their sweater or their jacket is going to hold together. But when you put your polyester blouse or 50/50 cotton poly sheets into the garbage that doesn't rot.

Lisa Woolfork  7:09  


Shams  7:10  

I started moving much more toward natural fibers. So in life, I started to say "Wait, also natural fibers are less sweaty."  They can breathe, the same way if they were wool, if they were cotton. If they were breathing in like in nature, they're letting you breathe, and you don't have that stinky odor as bad. You're gonna stink, okay, but not the same. 

Lisa Woolfork  7:38  


Shams  7:38  

And I started to learn also that today, the average North American buys 68 garments per year. So that's average. We know that some people are not, but some people are buying several things every week. And there are apparently companies- I don't even know about this- apparently companies where you can buy things for $4 for a blouse and $10 for a dress, and then that stuff is plastic. And it don't fit right, and it doesn't last long anyway, and it gets in the landfills. So I have been concerned about waste, been concerned about energy use. But I did something that isn't a very concerned about waste move, which is to buy a camper van.

Lisa Woolfork  8:21  


Shams  8:23  

You can say that in some ways it reduces energy use. It's always less useful of fuel, you use less fuel if you're in a van than if you're on a plane. But still, driving it around, parking it downtown, taking it to the hardware store, what have you, you're using a lot of gas. I said "Okay, what can I do to kind of mitigate that?" I said, "Okay, every textile that I put into the van is going to be trash, only trash can come in." So I started getting sheets that somebody was donating, first good condition sheets, and then I said "Wait! Why don't I just ask the neighbors? Can I have your sheets that are too ragged to donate?"  Then I'm making repairs on these things and putting them in the van. "Can I have your jeans that are too ragged to donate?" I need to say a bit about donation. When you think you're donating and somebody is going to use it, what happens is if there's any damage to it at all or if it's dirty, it doesn't go out for resale in North America. It gets bailed into these huge bales, set to the Global South- in particular one place we know about is Kantamanto in Ghana. Then those people want to try to resell it if they can. But if they can't, it's now in their landfills or worse in their oceans, on their land, being burned, causing air pollution. So we know that if people have jeans that are not useful for charity, we know it, It's gonna become trash. Okay? So I said to the neighbors, "Can you give me jeans that are not suitable for donation?" And people did, they gave me jeans with rips. They gave me holes and things like that. So I started cutting those up and making the bags that you need for things in the van. Instead of storing things in little plastic bags, I'm storing them in denim bags that I made myself. Also a couple times- and I have one here- a couple times people are giving me something that, I think you could see the big rip on the leg. Yeah, and giving you a three grip on the leg. 

Lisa Woolfork  10:34  


Shams  10:34  

And I learned sometimes they're giving me something that's the right size for my husband. I have started fixing those things up as well. So the van, the sheets, the comforters, the towels, the pot holders, the drying mat that you put your clothes on when they're drying, things like that. Then I wanted to go a little further. The van doesn't have as much insulation as you might want. Sure it has insulation, but everybody's discussing that you need to put more. So I went to a wool processing plant and got some wool that was considered trash. It was too short to be spun into effective yarn, so it was fresh. They hid in a huge pile. They were going to sell it to a carpet manufacturer. And I said,  "But wait. How much could I pay for that wool?" Then I brought the wool home and I washed  the wool sitting outside in the summer. And this ritual of putting your hands into the clean wool- or not yet clean but you turning it into clean- of course biodegradable soap. Don't misunderstand.

Lisa Woolfork  11:39  

Of course.

Shams  11:39  

And now I have started to insulate in the van with trash as well on this commitment to don't bring anything in there unless it's trash. So I volunteered with Creative Reuse Toronto. When the director heard about this, she said, "When it's safe to have people coming and going together and gathering, could you please bring your van?" So they're already arranged. They're going to park the band right outside the Creative Reuse Toronto and bring people inside so they can see these things- so like pot holders made out of jeans, or Kleenex box holder- you know to keep your Kleenex box from rattling around. I'm using Velcro on the back of it. The Velcro was from trash. All these kinds of things. So I started now to go even further, to now that I'm here in my Vermont house- I'm not usually in the Vermont house, usually Toronto- I didn't have as many sheets. I didn't have as many towels as I wanted. So I told in the neighborhood Facebook group, "Can I have stuff that's ragged, you know, that can't be donated?" And people are like, "Sure. Great!"  And so I got all these things. And some things weren't all natural. If they're all cotton or all wool, I'm repairing them and putting them on the shelf. 

Lisa Woolfork  12:57  


Shams  12:58  

But somebody gave me a fleece blanket, and it had been bitten by a dog or cat or something. I take everything. I put it on the sanitize, wash and dry. So I felt it was clean. Well what am I going to do with it? I don't deal in fleece and polyester. So coincidence, one of the Canadian groups that I volunteer with said "We need some fleece neck warmers for the homeless people in the winter." And I said "Well, I've got a fleece blanket in here." So now I've got and made a neck warmer. 

Lisa Woolfork  13:28  

Oh, look at that. It's so nice. It's so pretty and colorful. 

Shams  13:31  

Yeah, that was what people gave. They gave it to me like that. So we got a neck warmer now.

Lisa Woolfork  13:37  

Oh, that is so cute. That is not what I was expecting when you said that you made that out of my blanket a dog had chewed, I was like, "Oh my gosh, the unhoused people shouldn't have dog chewed blankets." And then I'm like, "Oh, that's so pretty!"

Shams  13:49  

Right? I cut off the dog-chewed section. They won't have the dog chewed section. But the rest of it was in fine condition. So we know that that blanket couldn't be used the way it was. It had to it had a spot big enough for one of these that you couldn't use. And it would be inappropriate to give that to a person, housed, unhoused, whatever, it's inappropriate to give them an already damaged garment. But if you cut around the bad part, you can make a good part. So I've started and I got approval- this one looks like they're supposed to- so now I'll make the rest. It's really quick and fast to do. And we're learning more and more during our mask project, and off camera you and I talked about that I was involved with the mask project in Toronto. And with Creative Reuse Toronto and with volunteers I led a team, and my team made more than 1200 masks for people in unhoused or recent immigrants and so on situations, marginalized peoples 

Lisa Woolfork  14:56  


Shams  14:57  

And some people would donate sheets to us. We'll ask for sheets. We asked for forever. So people would put sheets in there. And we said, you know, "We're gonna respect them by giving them new fabric that they have to put next to their nose and face." You know, with sheets, always, it takes a long time. I strip them with OxiClean. I put them again through the sanitize.  It still takes a long time for the sheets to smell like nothing. They always smell a little bit like somebody's shampoo or somebody, you know. And to just say to the people, "We are not giving you the dregs. We're giving you something out of new fabric. We're giving you something stitched to the best of our ability." You know, we have volunteers. We had quality control on those volunteers as to how it was supposed to be. So I do think that's very important. If we have something that would be otherwise a waste, and there's nothing wrong with it, and it's needed...I didn't even know how to sew with polyester fleece. I had to get advice because I don't deal in that, but do we want it in the landfill for 400 years? It's still going to the landfill after the person uses it, but maybe it can get some more use along the way. 

Lisa Woolfork  16:07  

I really love what you are describing here. And it's a way to have sustainability to be a daily choice. And we know that we make choices every day, that also can trigger other processes and you know, each choice reflects a constellation of other decisions. And so what I see, what you're doing is rather than having this family, your neighbor, pitch this blanket that the dog had chewed up. They give it to you. You pitch the part that the dog chewed up, which is a very small part, but then you're able to create, who knows now, 10-15 neck warmers that will help one and that is  stalling and keeping at bay the accumulation that will last for a really long time. Right? And you are helping to slow down that process from commodity to trash, you know? And I think that that's really, it's very impressive. And the way that we can think about sewing as a process of renewal, as a process of regeneration that, you know, the ragged jeans that someone thought that "Oh this has a rip in the knee. I'm not gonna do anything with this," they fit your spouse. And you're like "I can fix the rip in a jean. I can actually make a rip look good. I can do some sashiko stitching by hand or whatever.  A lot of folks are doing, I think the 'make do and mend' movement is kind of coming up- I don't wanna say "coming back." I mean  for some people that never left, but this idea about sewing is that you can fix things. You can hem pants. You can repair a tear.  You can modify something, and you are doing all of that. You were talking about the van and how the van needs insulation, you know, and so like that's something I would not have imagined. I'm not sure what's all required for a camper van, so like did you have to make bench seating did you make...

Shams  17:11  

It's a purchased, four season van made by Winnebago, and people do use them all winter without putting in any extra insulation. You just run the heat all the time. But the more insulation you have, the less propane you need. 

Lisa Woolfork  18:33  


Shams  18:33  

So people are putting insulation around the water lines, because again in this particular van as long as you keep the heat on, you can run the water all winter. You can take a hot shower. I am thinking,  "But if I put more wool around it so that the pipes stay warmer, they have less likelihood of freezing and furthermore, I don't need as much propane to keep the temperature as appropriate. So it's not that I had to do that, it's that I'm choosing to do that to minimize the propane use.

Lisa Woolfork  19:08  

And even that is a sustainability choice. Right. Less fuel consumption, less off-gassing, less or less all of it. So like if someone were to give you, because what I see in your vision is that you're able to see what these things can be despite what they look like. Like I would see a ripped up blanket and think "That blanket, it is broken. You know that's a ripped up blanket," right? You see it and say "Oh, this could be neck warmers. This could be potholders. This could be all these other things.

Shams  19:38  

Not potholders. 

Lisa Woolfork  19:40  

That's true. You can't use a lot holder for polyester. That's a terrible idea.

Shams  19:46  

One thing I think is that I look at them as raw material. So I'm looking at these things, and you mentioned 'make do and mend' and I'm certainly very active in the mending spheres on Instagram and so forth. I taught mending to people in Vermont and in Toronto. When you think of mending back in the day, we're talking about grandma, my grandma made quilts out of old clothes that they had. And she herself picked the cotton in Louisiana that she stuffed the quilt with. And I have a fragment of one of her quilts. And some of my other cousins have pieces of that too. They were saying, "Look, we have an old blouse. It's worn. They were wearing things for real real. They were wearing things down. "We have this old blouse, we can use this for something else." This is our blanket, or part of our blanket now. That's our heritage, not just as Black people, but also our heritage as humans. Fabric was horrendously expensive until the Industrial Revolution. If you had to pay someone to spin that thread, you had to pay someone to weave it, that person is sitting there- You know I have woven. I have gone to weaving class with traditional looms. You are up there all day long, and at the end of it, you've got a couple of yards if you're lucky, and these weaver's are also skilled. It's not something you can just start doing. So you think of the wages involved and having enough wool for a suit, all the people, all that you think about, and you see that even in Shakespeare's will, he's willing some of his clothes to people. We see that fabric was tremendously expensive. And these days fabric is cheap. It's made on industrial machines. It's been getting cheaper and cheaper since the 1970s with globalization, the idea that we can have someone in a country- usually a brown someone in a country- we can have someone be paid 20 cents to make your jeans. We can have someone being paid four to six cents to make a blouse, one penny for the underwear. That can allow the consumer in the richer countries to say "Oh stuff is cheap." And it is in comparison to your hourly wage. It's no longer that you have to get one new outfit. I don't know. If you remember growing up and you would get the Easter clothes. Yes. And also you would get the first of the school year clothes. And in my family we didn't get too many more clothes than that, except hand-me-downs from another family. They had five girls that were older than me and my sister. So we had wear all five of their clothes too. That's not because we were unusually poor. The thought process was, "Why do they need new clothes? Clothes exist? 

Lisa Woolfork  22:46  

Exactly. We still do that. Like my sisters and I, we all for some reason all had boys. And so my sister has the oldest boy, and so he has a great taste in clothes. And so every season we would look forward to Devin's hand-me-downs. They would come and Riley, my son, would have them, and then the next boy in the size range- my other sister's would have them. My mother did the same thing with us. It was three girls who were born with three years apart. And so she was actually saying the other day she was like, "Oh, I would get three dresses. They'd all be the same." And my youngest sister would wear that dress for 10 years. Right? And so my mother said, "I am sick of looking at this dress. I think I have had this dress in this house for 10 years. The same one."

Shams  23:35  

I know those five girls, they had identical bedspreads. And we only were two of us. So we had to use those bedspreads until they were going to be worn out. We use those bedspreads until I went to college. When I came back from college, I said, "Okay, no more." But my mother had to give those things away. They had been 15 years with us, I think. And there were still several of them that were fine. So we've changed out of that. We've changed to a society of, you know, when my aunt passed away, we had literal rooms of closets, literal of “room” closet on all three sides, clothes hanging some with tags on them. And that's not just her. That's not just one person. We can. She grew up in those times when you couldn't. I want to say a little bit about the role of home sewing  at least in Detroit in the Black community in the 40's, 50's, 60's. People's moms were making them clothes. It was still cheaper to make your clothes. The globalization hadn't happened. A lot of people were working in service, and when I say 'in service,' I mean they were in houses, cleaning houses for people. And they were also working at the low level in the factory perhaps or things like that. They didn't have extra money. And so they, like kids do, would try to zero in on someone's clothes and say,  "those are mammy made." My father talked to me about the fact that people would call the clothes "mammy made," and if somebody had a patch, they would call it "patches." So my mother made her clothes coming up. But she stopped when she quote didn't have to. I want to connect that to the visible mending trend that's going on in a lot of circles. Today people are in public libraries, and certainly lots of craft stores are teaching visible mending. But I remind, when I have the chance, that in our community- and by this I mean the Black community in Detroit, and I'm betting Baltimore. I'm betting St. Louis. I'm betting Chicago, but I'm from Detroit. That's what I know.-  We can't ask people to go around with patches of a different color on their sweater on their clothes. First, I think that mentality of 'It's less than' is still there. Also, we have enough trouble in the larger world without going into a place of business with a green patch on our purple outfit to try to get what we want done. So I love the beauty of it. But I do rather invisible mending for public things. And that's what I teach people. It may not be 100% invisible, but really very subdued. 

Lisa Woolfork  26:35  


Hey, friends, hey! What are you doing on Thursday around 3pm or so? You got 30 minutes to hang out with Black Women Stitch? You got 60? If so, come through for 30 minute Thursdays, Thursdays 3pm Eastern Standard Time. You can chill with Black Women Stitch on Instagram Live or talk with us through the two-way audio on clubhouse at 3:30pm Eastern Standard Time. That's Thursdays for 30 minutes. Come hang out, chill, and have fun with us. See you Thursday. 

It's really interesting too to think about how the wheel of time turns. The idea of having homemade clothes, like my mother made our clothes as well. And she was,  my grandmother as well, they were so good at it, that the teachers did not believe that my mother had made these things. I remember teachers taking my clothes and turning the seams upside down so they could see how it was finished. Because they did not believe me. Right? And that was during the time when I was a girl in the early 1980s. It was like, there were no surgeries at home. Right? So stuff was done with the pinking shears. It was done, finished with seam tape and hem binding and all of that stuff. And now, you might have like, you might call somebody "patches" because they had a patch on their jeans and it just was really ragged, or whatever and people'd get picked at. And it was also not seen as respectable. And so what you're describing about the ways that Black folks needed to sell fashion themselves and present themselves. There was a time when no one wanted to present themselves with, with holes or patches or anything like that. But now what we see is that in some ways, the things that we would do for sustenance, in order to make ends meet, or in order to extend the life of a garment has now become a trend, where people are now like writing books about this and doing 'how to's' on how this and having, like you said workshops at libraries and community centers, to mend things and have the mending be the art. And yes, sure it doesn't have to match, it can just exist. It's a very big cultural shift. That I also, kind of, it just gives me pause. I'm not saying people should not mend. I think mending is wonderful- visible mending and invisible meeting. All of it's great. And we're also having it where folks seem to be pretty excited about wearing ripped jeans. I remember ripped jeans being a thing when I was a teenager, and now they seem to be back and so much so that even you can see the inside of the pockets. Like they'll be poking out through the rips. Like the thing is more ripped than jean. Which I think is great. Yeah, let's relax that aesthetic. But I think it is also worth acknowledging that there is an alternative- not an alternative- there's also a history that completely contradicts the wonderful social reclamation that seems to be right now.

Shams  29:48  

I mean, you know, also when you tell the story- so I'm a teacher, I've been a teacher for some decades- and the teacher touched you and looked inside your seam. And our society has changed, or at least I hope so. I don't think it's appropriate for us to do the kids like that. I don't think it's appropriate for us to be doubting them and involving ourselves with their clothes and their mom. They say, "My mama made it."  "Okay. Sounds great." You know, as our culture shifts, and we move more toward accepting others, part of accepting has to be that we have to accept the children's bodily autonomy. And we have to allow the child to decide who can touch them and who can't touch them. 

Lisa Woolfork  30:36  

So true. So true.

Shams  30:37  

I mean, we've gone a long way from the idea of so many sustainability. But if we want to have a society that works to where people are healthy and safe, part of it has to be that our bodies as humans, we are part of the environment and our spirits are a part of the environment. So when we keep putting our hands on people who didn't ask for it, and telling them, "You don't have a voice" and telling them, "I get to do what I want, because I'm grown up, because the state gave me authority." We hear about the missing people. In Detroit, there are thousands of missing people, largely women and girls. Were they taught that nobody better touch them? Were they taught to defend themselves? So when we ask those questions- I know that wasn't what we're supposed to be talking about- but humans are part of our environment. We are part of the biosphere. And so our brothers and sisters and non-binary siblings, particularly sisters in the countries that are making these clothes, they're under tremendous pressure to make the clothes faster and faster. They often are experiencing inadequate shelter. Inappropriate food. And it's not just overseas. Come to find out that you can work in the United States for producers or for retailers, and don't make enough to avoid food stamps.

Lisa Woolfork  31:59  

No, no, absolutely not. Absolutely not. That's absolutely true. That's actually true.

Shams  32:05  

So the consumer, as a taxpayer, is paying for this person to get food which they need, as opposed to the consumer as a consumer paying a price high enough, 

Lisa Woolfork  32:18  

yes, that this person can sustain and support their own livelihood with a living wage.

Shams  32:22  

Right. And we look toward especially Aja Barber. I think you already interviewed her.

Lisa Woolfork  32:27  

I haven't interviewed her, but I know who she is. She's awesome. 

Shams  32:30  

Okay. And she has written a book called Consumed, and she's been a voice for quite a while. 

Lisa Woolfork  32:36  

She really has. She's amazing. I would love to talk with her. It's hard to get a hand, it's hard to reach out. She's really blown up so much and so well.

Shams  32:46  

She's reminding us that none of this is existing in a vacuum.  I recently made the decision. No more factory clothes at all. Clothes that I trash pick- like I trash picked this LL Bean turtleneck, 5% of cashmere, 95% cotton. It was outside the thrift store and in the "free" -only thing wrong was it was dirty. But I told you I have a washing machine.

Lisa Woolfork  33:16  

You have a sanitize setting. 

Shams  33:18  

Yes, exactly. So I trash picked that. But other than then trash picking. I either have to make it myself, or pay someone whom I can see to make it. They have the campaign "Who made your clothes?" I know who made these clothes, because I made them or I picked them out of the trash. So that's includes and I already have been making panties for decades now. So I know how to make panties. And been making bras for about 15 years, socks. So but that includes everything to me. No buying of any clothes whatsoever. So that's been like my plan. It has developed in that way. I ordered something from a Nigerian-Canadian seamstress so I got some clothes from her, but I'm not buying nothing. My husband asked me you know, when I got these free jeans with the rips and he was wanting some new jeans. I said "Babe the new jeans are made in China." They're literally keeping those people as slaves. So schools back people, even the US government acknowledging it. You know things that bad if U.S. government is saying they keeping the people enslaved.

Lisa Woolfork  34:28  

That's true. 

Shams  34:29  

They're forcing them because of their religion, to be in concentration camps and to pick cotton and to work in textiles. He said "Well, can I just have one pair?" I said, "How many pairs of slavery jeans do you expect me to allow you to have?" You can't have any slavery jeans? 

Lisa Woolfork  34:46  


Shams  34:46  

If you can find some jeans that are not slavery jeans. I will allow you to buy some jeans because it's you. It's not me. Okay, but otherwise, I'll make you some jeans. I bought a pattern. I already had some cotton. You know, try to figure out how to do it until this new batch dropped into my lap that fit. How many pairs of tiers jeans, of captivity jeans, do you think you deserve? I'd say zero.

Lisa Woolfork  35:17  

Right? It's absolutely true. And you know what this reminds me of. There's this wonderful poem by Francis Ellen Watkins Harper, who is an abolitionist in the 19th century, a Black woman writer. And she actually has a poem, and I mentioned this to Aja, like in a post or something. And it talks about the abolition of slavery in the U.S. and how it was so difficult, and so difficult for so long, because people could not imagine- and by people, I mean, the white folks who were in power and had all this access to labor resources or whatever- to do without it. Right. And so they actually talk specifically in the poem about the poor slave, who is picking the cotton just so some lady can have a delicate handkerchief, right? Like, how can you say that you believe in abolition, and also buy products that are based in stolen labor? Right, and like, and so she, and this is the thing that I really appreciate about looking at her work and a lot of other 19th century writings, is that it gives the lie to the idea that nobody knew any better, right? That's one of the biggest lies they want to say about slavery. "But nobody knew that slavery was bad." Lies. People who were enslaved knew that slavery was bad, except nobody listened. There were a lot of people who were not enslaved, and also knew it was bad. There were people who were enslaving people, and they knew it was bad. So yeah.

Shams  36:50  

Of course.

Lisa Woolfork  36:51  

We don't have this excuse to say, "Oh, no, no. We didn't know, especially with the way that globalization has worked to pretty much the exclusive benefit of those in the Global North and in the West, in particular.  This has become such a massive issue, an ethical issue, a moral issue, a justice issue, you know, like, I think it's Fannie Lou Hamer that says, you know, "Nobody's free, until we're all free." And one of the things that we also have to accept, in addition to letting other people have their own bodily autonomy, I think it's also the hard work of accountability. Right? Like for me, I like to think that "Well, I think I'm doing a good job with sustainability cuz I don't buy clothes." Like I make all my own clothes- bras, underwear, everything. I don't know how to knit. So I do buy socks or they're gifts or whatever. But also most everything else bras, panties, shirts, dresses, umbrellas, shower caps, everything, right? I make all of that. And it was actually funny. It was my son. You know, it takes sometimes a smart ass kid to help you realize your limitations. Because we were arguing about something or having a spirited discussion about something. And I was like, "I don't want to buy that because it is made with exploited labor." I know what it was. It was he  is into fast fashion. And I explained to him, "I find fast fashion amoral." I think that it's like you said, the t-shirt, like to make a t- shirt is like 11,000 gallons of water for a T shirt. 

Shams  38:29  

I don't think T shirts as bad as that.

Lisa Woolfork  38:31  

T shirt. It was a surprising, It was a lot. I was amazed.

Shams  38:34  

Eleven hundred. How about 1100?

Lisa Woolfork  38:36  

Maybe 1100. Two ones and some zeros. I didn't know that so much water went into a doggone t-shirt. It was a lot of water. And so I was explaining like, you know, and then like, the way that you have this shirt here for $7 or this suit for, this whole three piece suit for $90. That's, you can't get that without exploitation. So he says to me just like that. He's like, "Mom, don't you think that there's some child somewhere making your fabric that you're buying at the store? What's the difference between you buying this fabric and me wanting this t shirt from this website?" and then I was like "Go to your room. You're under restriction for the next three weeks."

Shams  39:18  

I have a couple points for your son. Most fabric is mechanized today. They are not sitting in individual hand looms. They're actually loading the fiber into these big, big vats. And it's being pulled down and spun and then sent in huge rolls of thread to the power looms. So I would say to your son, children are being harmed but not that way. 

Lisa Woolfork  39:49  

I see. 

Shams  39:50  

Children are being harmed by the dyes that are polluting their environment. Children are being harmed by their parent parents working until all hours and not being able to provide adequate nutrition or schooling. Children are being harmed by their environment. We can choose to step back. So I've been buying organic cotton when I don't find anything for free. And now I've contacted a local Vermont Weaver who has sheep in Vermont, will shear the sheep and spin the wool and dye it with black walnuts in Vermont, and weave the wool in Vermont. I've just started talking to him about some material for a suit for my husband. I've also ordered some Vermont wool hats for an organization I'm part of, of Vermonters of color. So we are getting our own wool and spun locally. 

Lisa Woolfork  40:52  

That's amazing. 

Shams  40:53  

Yeah, you can choose to, to opt out. First with all the fabric that you have, and all the fabric that I have., and all the fabric that's in everybody's houses. When somebody passes away, there's all this fabric coming. We're not even calling the fabric that's already close. I'm just saying the fabric that's still folded or on rolls and so forth. We don't need to go there. But your son is right. In the idea that the fabric has an effect. 

Lisa Woolfork  41:23  

Yes, yes. 

Shams  41:25  

And those standards need to change. But the children themselves are not sitting over those sewing machines. They're not staying in these dormitories, where the people are abusing them and where they can't get out if there's a fire. That's not what's happening with the fabric. So, you know, your son, he not all the way wrong, but he also doesn't get to say to you, "you're wrong, too, so Imma just stay wrong." 

Lisa Woolfork  41:50  

Right. Right. Exactly. Exactly. He was also, I think, 11 years old. So...

Shams  41:57  

But he not wrong, wrong. 

Lisa Woolfork  41:59  

No. No. I'm willing to concede. I don't have to be right all the time.

Shams  42:06  

I would like to talk about a activist Shaun King. And a lot of people know that he's been really fighting for justice, especially against police and other state violence. But a lot of people may not know yet that he has started a vertically integrated Black t-shirt company. 

Lisa Woolfork  42:25  

What does that mean "vertically integrated?"

Shams  42:28  

It means that every step in the production, everybody involved is Black. Also, everybody's being paid a fair wage and everything. And it's all organic. So vertical integration is when a company owns all the pieces that go to it. Or in this case, a Black people own all the pieces. So he hired Black designers. He sourced cotton in Tanzania owned by Black people, not just picked by Black people. He found Black factories to do the spinning and cutting and dyeing and sewing. And then back in the U.S. to do the silk screening and the distribution. They also found Black shipping company to bring those things. But they don't own the ship. There are at this time no Black companies owning the international ships, but handling the shipping as much as he could control. So the company's called "A Real One." And the t-shirts cost a lot more than $4. You say, "Of course," but people have been tearing him to pieces. They've been saying, "Why are your shirts so expensive?" He's been trying to fight back by saying "Look at Gucci t-shirts for $2,500 and Balenciaga and so on that y'all are readily buying." I think that people don't understand what you told your son, and he was 11. But there's no way when you think, it takes me half an hour to make a pair of pajamas. We're not discussing the fabric. We're not discussing the rent on my house or the machines, the scissors, the yada yada. We're saying it takes me half an hour to make pajama bottoms at my labor rate. That's $45 just for the labor. When you discuss the other factors, how you gonna get pajama bottoms for $4?

Lisa Woolfork  44:22  

No, no, you're right. You're absolutely right. And I think that one of the reasons that people need to like be self-examining, is to recognize that we have responsibility or culpability- however you want to describe it. That things that have been conveniences for us often rely on exploitation other people. Like that is just a basic fact, that when you are looking at a $3 t-shirt. that's brand new in a shop that is selling these things, and there's a whole bunch of them. Those cannot come from someone who is being paid a living wage that allows them to support themselves and a family and all of this. Because it's just not possible that capitalism won't allow it. Right. And that it seems to require, it feels like, the squeezing of other people. And one of the things I like to imagine- those of us who are interested in sewing, in do it yourself- that in the same way that we don't want to subject ourselves to exploitation, we should not want to force that, you know, even accidentally onto other people.

Shams  45:47  

Because essentially, if you buy something made by people who are enslaved, you are a slave holder. You can smile about it and be like, "well, actually see, I didn't...", but you did.

Lisa Woolfork  46:02  

Yeah, that is so true. It's and that's a hard truth to accept. It's absolutely a truth. 

Shams  46:08  

When we go through the textiles. Now I know people are activists, around a lot of different issues. But I choose to concentrate on Texas. When we look at the fact that there are six times as many produced clothes on the earth today, as there will be needed for this entire generation. 

Lisa Woolfork  46:31  


Shams  46:32  

I'm just talking about produced clothes, because you know that not everything we own we wear. No, I'm not over here to tell you to get rid of your stuff. I AM saying when you get new stuff, think about where it came from. Who made your clothes? Why are these clothes here? And when you need to have stuff that you're thinking about letting go- a couple of the things I found in a dumpster, it's just because they're missing a button. The thrift shop does not have time to be paying somebody to be someone on your buttons. Right. So that goes. What do we want to have as our legacy? Yeah, I want to say a little bit about costs to get we talked about the pre industrial revolution we talked about, I don't know how much of it has to pay the student for money to spin to grow and spin and die and weave the wool for the suit. But that's his life energy you're paying for your clothes are supposed to be expensive. It should not be cheap. You should say this is precious to me this sweater that I have I made the sweater 25 years ago. Beautiful. I love that. Thank you. This is a traditional Norwegian pattern. But I made it in my own colors. Because I know I'm free to do that because I'm the maker. And I've had this sweater for 25 years. It's not my only sweater. But one year when winter time came one of my colleagues at work in suburban Michigan teaching she said, Oh, I guess this winter you brought that sweater out? Oh, okay. I said, I said you don't like it. Do you think it's inappropriate to wear in front of children? She said, I'm not saying that. She just says I'm tired of it. I said, Well, good thing. You're not in my class. I'm tired of looking at your sweater. What? No, yes, that's, you know, she's carrying a mindset. She's one of those teachers that was always in the teachers lounge complaining about her finances. And her husband is an engineer also. She was being saved between her nice salary as a teacher and she said, Oh, it's so difficult. Oh, barely make ends meet. Or

Lisa Woolfork  48:44  

Maybe you should wear your sweater next year. You know, I didn't say that. I'm just thinking, getting I mean, wow. And this idea that somehow you owe her a new sweater every year. You have her ideas that she should not say everything they think.

Shams  49:02  

Well no, that's true. We know that. And I have not even been making as many clothes as I used to because I don't need any clothes. Because I already have clothes and so we see these delicious challenges and we're gonna make this in December. This in October, whatever. I'm having to say. Wait a minute, though. I already have a fill in the blank. Yes, yes.

Lisa Woolfork  49:27  

I don't need one. Yes, yes. And you find joy in the repurposing. You find joy in the saving of a piece of garment, a textile and giving it new life, extending its life. Not converting something from like a store or whatever, but it's like you're being like a sustainability superhero. 

Shams  49:51  

Well, thank you. Thank you. I'd like to be, I think, I'd like to be a sustainability hero. If I really could be a hero, I'd like the power to unearth everybody's trash that they themselves ever made. I like to be able to come to your house, Lisa, and say, “This is your life in trash.” 

Lisa Woolfork  50:17  

Whoah. Your life in trash. You know, it's kind of like, what was that the Dickens story with the ghosts that come at Christmas time or whatever. The Christmas Carol. Yes, they take this group and they show him the ghosts of Christmas past, and I can only imagine. Can you imagine like as much trash as this we make in this country? Like, I think it would be, it would probably fill up this entire house just mine. I mean, like it's really yeah, very sobering. It's a very sobering

Shams  50:46  

and I had a lady do this to me in Egypt. Again, Egypt was just so formative to me, because I would put my trash out. And she came, and she opened and brought my trash back in. And she said, "You're paying the garbage man too much." Because apparently you give him money. You give him a little tip, but your trash is part of his tip. And they have a whole area in Cairo called, The Zabaleen- or the trash pickers area. And it's in a historic cemetery. And the families are there separating the trash into organic things they give to pigs. These are people of the Christian faith. They do eat pork. They're separating into things that need to be burned, things that can be resold- bales of plastic, metal, whatever. So she came and she said, "You're giving the man too much payment. You're gonna ruin it for the rest of us." And she was taking this or this, "You can reuse it. You better take it back and save your (unclear). And I was, "Wait a second. You're all in my garbage. This is embarrassing." But it's sobering.  So if I had a power, yes, I would love to have that power to just say "Look at you. Look at what you've done." and that applies me too, "Look at what you've done."

Lisa Woolfork  51:55  

I want to ask you one last question before we wrap up. And I've been asking this question to some folks on the podcast recently. The slogan of the Stitch Please podcast is that we will help you get your stitch together. Okay, if you wanted to help someone get their stitch together, what advice would you give, to make for that purpose?

Shams  52:17  

Oh, this is a good one. I recently began to become friends with another Black woman in Montpelier, Vermont. There aren't that many although the number's growing. And I taught her how to mend. I also found some of the clothes in the free bin to give to her and her husband, and she gave me some eggs from her chickens. And I would say my advice to anybody from where I'm standing, is I would like to help them understand how to use a sewing machine, how to shop for one, preferably a vintage solid machine- if they're just at the beginnings of sewing. I don't only use those but I also use expensive computerized machines too, once you know you like it.  I would like to teach them about fibers, teach them with their 50/50 polyester. The cotton part just gets gone away and then the sheets are things that just get thinner and thinner then are "what?" and that's gonna rot. If I can help people get their stitch together, I would teach them how to use those tools, the tools of their iron and their scissors, to revolutionize their consumption and output of textiles. I love that you've asked that question and that you invited me to be on your show. We never talked about the hand-picked zippers that we were going to talk about.

Lisa Woolfork  53:49  

I know. I know what that'll be for the next conversation. 

Shams  53:52  

Okay, thank you so much. I really appreciate it. 

Lisa Woolfork  53:55  

And thank you so much. I'll get you just to hold on one second, but thank you. This was awesome.

You've been 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 questions, you can contact us at If you'd like to support us financially, you can do that by supporting us on Patreon, P-A-T-R-E-O-N. You can find Black Women Stitch there in the Patreon 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 podcast 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 Please podcast that is incredibly helpful. Thank you so much. Come back next week and we'll help you get your stitch together.

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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