Fabric Alchemy with Mahdiyyah Muhammad

 

Mahdiyyah Muhammad is a self-taught Artist, Fashion Designer, and Instructor who began designing at a very young age, breathing new life into discarded clothing. 

She draws inspiration from her practice of fabric alchemy; with an ability to take recycled, bio-based materials and turn them into one of one works of wearable art that boost healing properties. Taken from her research of naturally occurring materials and the effects they have on the body, each design is created with intentional fabric carrying high vibrational frequency like linen, cotton, wool, and organic cotton. Knowing the body in its optimal health has a vibrational frequency of 100, and fabrics like linen and wool contain an extremely high frequency of 5,000, she carefully selects her materials with this in mind. Mahdiyyah speaks more about this in her educational fabric workshops.

With a passion for sharing her knowledge about fabric textile origins, healing qualities, and sewing education, she offers sewing classes, educational healing fabric workshops, and project-based sessions. Her upbringing in East Orange, NJ rooted her values in the importance of community, and creating opportunities for others who may not easily be afforded them. Other initiatives include mentorship opportunities for youth, and collaborations with various community organizations to provide sewing and healing fabric workshops for their members.

Insights from this Episode

  • How Mahdiyyah would characterize her sewing story
  • How Mahdiyyah built her creativity
  • At what point in her life Mahdiyyah decided she wanted to make design her only career
  • How Mahdiyyah made all her pieces without a sewing machine
  • Why doing her own outfits was a special moment for Mahdiyyah in order to build her confidence
  • How Mahdiyyah founded her own business
  • Why “repurposing textile” is fundamental forMahdiyyah’s business
  • How did Mahdiyyah pair fashion with teaching and community building
  • How Mahdiyyah’s experience with an artist in Barbados influenced her purpose with fashion
  • What challenges did Mahdiyyah face in her collection of natural materials
  • How Mahdiyyah’s childhood influenced her desire to help under-resourced communities through fashion
  • What is fabric alchemy
  • How does vibration in fabrics works
  • What Mahdiyyah would say to help someone to “get their stitch together”

Stay Connected:

Lisa Woolfork

Instagram: Lisa Woolfork

Twitter: Lisa Woolfork

Mahdiyyah Muhammad

Website: https://www.mahdiyyah.co/

LinkedIn: Mahdiyyah Muhammad 

Instagram: Fabric Alchemist

Facebook: Mahdiyya Mbugua

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Lisa Woolfork: 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. [00:34]  

[00:38 Interview Starts]

Lisa Woolfork: Hello, everybody, and welcome to the Stitch Please podcast. I'm your host, Lisa Woolfork. And as I say every single week, this is a very special episode, because it is a very special episode. Y'all, I am talking with Mahdiyyah Muhammad, who is an amazing, fantastic visionary of a designer. Her work is so vivid; it is so alive. Her use of color is so striking. But she has such a powerful and broad vision for her work that I absolutely had to speak with her. And I'm just so delighted, Mahdiyyah, that you are here with us today. And I'm very, very grateful. Thank you, Mahdiyyah, and welcome to the program. [01:18]

Mahdiyyah Muhammad: Thank you for having me, Lisa. It's great to be here. [01:21]

Lisa: I am so excited. Can we get started with, how would you characterize your sewing story? Did you start as a little-little? How did you begin? [01:31]

Mahdiyyah: I actually started by just being a child that was very innovative and resourceful. I grew up in a household where my mom would get us new clothing every now and again. But for the most part, a lot of things were passed down through older cousins and other siblings. So, you know, hand-me-downs, things like that. So a lot of times, if I didn't like the way something fit or the way it looked, I would try to alter it in any kinda way to make it my own. [01:54]

And then that also transferred over to me, just wanting to do more like my dolls. I would be like, “Oh, I want them to have more clothing when I want them to have more options to wear when I take them to play outside.” My mother was like, “Well, we're not gonna be buyin’ all types of accessories and clothes for Barbie all the time.” So I would take that same innovative idea and attach it to that. So I would take, maybe, a pair of stockings my mom had that had a run in it. And turn it into, like, a dress or head wrap. Or even a pair of socks. I would cut one end of the socks off and turn it into, like, a tube dress for the dolls. So it just spilled over into that. 

And then from there, I remember, I think, I was about eight or nine years old. I saw my mother hemming a pair of my brother's pants by hand, just with needle and thread. And I just really sat there and I watched and somethin’ really, like, struck me about it. It just looked very, like, peaceful and meditative, and it resonated. So, I got me one or two dollars, went to the dollar store, and bought my first sewing kit. And I took to a pair of old jeans that didn't fit anymore, and I made my first messenger bag. And that was, like, my first official project. [02:53]

Lisa: That is such a beautiful story, Mahdiyyah. I mean, it is so beautiful because what it allows me to think about is that creativity is somethin’ that we can build upon at any stage in our lives. But there are folks who have learned to sew from you go to a store and you buy a pattern. And that is one path to learning. 

Mahdiyyah: Yeah.

Lisa: But what I really appreciate about what I'm hearing in your story is that your learning was really organic. Can you say more about that? [03:23]

Mahdiyyah: Sure, yeah I was gonna say, even with that, to speak, that continued to really be my process and my connection to sewing. Because continuing then, I want to do more. I was like, “Well, I don't know how to do this or where to go about doing it.” I just knew that this was something that was gonna stick with me and somethin’ that wanted to grow with me. So, I would rip out pages from the magazines, and tape them up on my wall of different outfits I maybe wanted to try to make and try to style up. So it started with tryna style the actual clothing that was in my closet first to look like what I would seeing. And when that didn't go over, I took to a pair of scissors. [laughs] [03:54]

Lisa: Wow

Mahdiyyah: So I would start to cut things and try to tie things here and there. And then maybe take my little needle and thread and make a couple little alterations. And every now and again, I would bring it to my mom and I would go, “Can I wear this outside?” [chuckles]. As long as it was, like, appropriate, she would be like, “Okay, let me see.” Y'know, “Turn around, let me see how it looks on you.” But that was like the earlier phases.

And then, I think, as I continued to do it, I learned that a quick way for me to figure out how to get somethin’ that fit the correct way with my body is to find something and take it apart. That way, I can get more familiar with how it's made. And then in a sense, I guess, that was in a way creating my own pattern, which I didn't realize at the time. I just was, tryin’ to figure out a way to make something as close as possible to what I was seeing. So, that's kinda what it transformed into. [04:37]

Lisa: That is so beautiful. Because what I'm hearing in your story is that sewing was equipping you. It was equipping you to have the things that you wanted but might not have been able to get. So your mother was like—  

Mahdiyyah: Right.

Lisa: “No, fam, we’re not buyin’ fifty-eleven," 

Mahdiyyah: Right.

Lisa: [continues] “Barbie dresses and shoes for you to lose one shoe of every pair." No, no, no, your doll will be stylishly dressed because I believe that you are a creative person who can make her stylishly dressed.

Mahdiyyah: That's right. [05:05]

Lisa: And you did that. You absolutely rose to that occasion. You were able to take discarded materials and textiles and turn them into something that gave you joy. That was able to help to fulfill a vision that you had. And now what you're explaining is that with just a few little tweaks, just a few little stitches here and a few little snips there, you were able to take your wardrobe and to model it and to style it upon other things that you had imagined. So it's like you're stitching to make your own dreams come true. It's very impressive.

Mahdiyyah: Thank you. [05:40]

Lisa: I am just still captivated from the fact that you learned how to do some sewing by deconstructing ready-to-wear. Which is something that I believe to be challenging; I always find that very difficult. And you started doing this just when you were a kid? [05:56]

Mahdiyyah: Yeah. Eh, I wanna say between 10, 11, and 12; that age range is when I started to cut things apart to, like, take the pieces out, lay them out on the floor. So, I could see how things were made. [06:07]

Lisa: So you were a 10,11,12-year old; you were in elementary school? 

Mahdiyyah: Yeah. 

Lisa: And you were deconstructing your clothing? 

Mahdiyyah: Yeah

Lisa: Most people were trying to figure out how to learn the four times-tables or the nine times-tables tables. 

Mahdiyyah: [chuckles] 

Lisa: [continues] You were like, “Oh, that's okay, I got that." I'm gonna see and learn how to a front fly on some jeans. Like, that's what I’mma do instead. Y'all go ahead and study for the spelling bee and whatnot. Imma show up there with the baddest outfit you've ever seen. [06:29]

Mahdiyyah: My personal style definitely always spilled over into school. [inaudible 06:32] still tells me to this day that I, like, started to dress myself very young. She’s like, “Even at a young age,” she's like, “you knew what you wanted to wear and how you wanted to present yourself," so I let you take the reins. And she said, “And you looked nice." 

Lisa: Oh, that's so beautiful, because from what you've said, it sounded like your mom did not want you out in the streets lookin’ any old kind of way. She was like, you’d had to go and show her that your outfit was like, “Can I wear this outside?" And so she had what some would consider a strict vision for how she wanted her children to appear in public.

At the same time, she also, let you play. Let's just see how it goes. And I find it very special that she's [07:08 givin] you latitude to explore, and to create, and to invent yourself. That's pretty special. 

Mahdiyyah: Yeah. [07:16]

Lisa: I wanted to ask also, at what point did you tell yourself—I believe I read that you studied English? [07:23]

Mahdiyyah: Yeah, at Hampton University.

Lisa: At Hampton University, that's right. I'm in Virginia as well, so I was like, “Oh! She went to Hampton.” 

Mahdiyyah: Yeah.

Lisa: And I'm an English professor. Surprise!

Mahdiyyah: Wow. [laughs]

Lisa: Hey, but listen, I know English is not for everybody. My own child was an English major, and that shocked me. I was like, “What, really?” [07:40]

Lisa: [continues] So, English is not for everyone. I've enjoyed it very much, but it's not for everyone. And it was not for you, but you found what was. And I think we are all grateful for that because you have some gorgeous pieces. Your work is so inspiring.

Can you talk about when you discovered that "Hey, you know what? I'm not gonna be an English teacher, I'm not gonna do law school, I am going to do this instead. ” How did you make that decision? What did it take for you to get to that point? [08:12]

Mahdiyyah: It took a lot. I mean, it's funny, because I knew that I wanted to pursue fashion, like, full-time and very seriously, by the time I was about 12 or 13 years old. I created this pitch to give to my mother to convince her to let me go to FIT [Fashion Institute of Technology] or some major fashion school, so that I could continue to pursue it. And she, very gently, let me know, “Okay, this is great. I love that you are exploring this creative side that you have here. And I don't want you to lose that passion for it. But, I also want you to consider, maybe, a more lucrative career choice. I don't want you to look back and not have something to fall back on. ” She was aware of the risk and how fickle the fashion industry can be. [08:41]

And of course, as a concerned parent, you want your child to, like, be okay. And so, — 

Lisa: Yes.

Mahdiyyah: [continues] That was a fear of hers, and she was well within her means. You know, you're gonna listen to your mother. You're 13 years old. I'm not able to make my own decision to do whatever I want at that point. So she said, “Y’know, you're very articulate, you speak well, you write well, you enjoy reading, you write trunk poetry." So, maybe consider doin’ something with writing. Something with, like, public speaking. Oh, you want to help people, maybe, law. ”

So I said, “Okay, I'll go to school for English and then I'll figure it out from there.” So I enrolled in Hampton. I went to Hampton. I majored in English, with the intent to consider doing law school afterward. But while I was at Hampton, someone actually gifted me my first sewing machine. [09:20]

So, up until this point, I hadn't had a sewing machine. I had just been — 

Lisa: Yes. Can we just talk about how you did all these amazing things? Including deconstructing and reconstructing ready-to-wear with no sewing machine?

Mahdiyyah: Right.

Lisa: Like, you were resewing that stuff together back, by-hand?

Mahdiyyah: By hand, yeah. 

Lisa: Wow! Unbelievable, seriously.

Mahdiyyah: Yeah, and so I got my first sewing machine as a gift when I was at Hampton, I wanna say in my sophomore year. It was in my apartment. And so I would have friends come and they — “Hey, can you fix these [09:51 pants] for me? ; Can you do this here and there for me? ; Can you take this up for me?; Or, take this dress in? ”

And so, I was doin’ little odd jobs for people. And then when we would have events to go to, I would make my own outfits. [10:01]

Mahdiyyah: [continues] And then I started to wear my own outfit, and as I started to do that, it built the confidence in me because not pursuing fashion seriously definitely took a blow to my self-esteem and confidence when it came to my craft. It didn't make me feel like “Oh, I should be presenting this to the world.” because, maybe, this is something I just safeguard and keep to myself because it's a hobby.

Lisa: Oh.

Mahdiyyah: Mm-hmm, and so once I started to actually wear my outfits, people's reactions are what made me go, “Wow, maybe I should do it even more!” [10:26]

Lisa: Yeah, cause I was thinkin’ when you were saying you were building your confidence, I was like, “Also, sis, you were building your reputation." Because when people see you in those outfits, they're like, “I want that.”

Mahdiyyah: Yeah, that's exactly what happened.

Lisa: “I want what you have.” You gotta tell me a bit more about how you were gifted this sewing machine. I'm hoping that it was the case of a friend who knew you’d love to sew and was like, “I'm gonna give her this sewing machine, because she will really appreciate it and she can invest and do some sewing in her free time.” Or –

Mahdiyyah: Yeah.

Lisa: The person was like, “Oh, I think, I heard she knows how to sew, and if I get her the sewing machine,

Mahdiyyah: [crosstalk 10:56]

Lisa: [continues] She's gonna have more stuff for me for free. " Like, which was it?” [11:06]

Mahdiyyah: No, it was somebody who knew that it was a passion of mine. They gave it to me as, I think, it was either a birthday gift or a Christmas gift; I can't remember. They gave it to me because they knew it was a passion, and they saw how invested I was. They were like, “You need your tools.” [11:10]

Lisa: Yes

Mahdiyyah: They got me the sewing machine as a gift, and it took off from there.

But yeah, I wore the outfits. People started to request things. So, they would have different events happening. So people will come over and say, “Oh, can you make this for me?” And I’d go, “Yeah, sure, I’ll make that.” I'll make something quick for them. Every now and again I would charge people, but I wasn't really goin’, like, super crazy with the business side of things. I was really more, so focused on my academia, tryna finish school. So that was for the most part, and then I just continued to do it.

When I graduated from Hampton, I knew for a fact that I didn't wanna teach English. And I knew that I didn't want to pursue law. So I was like, “Oh, okay, what can I do?" Maybe public [11:47 relations], y’know? It’s communication, and I’m still able to use my degree in some way—and maybe fashion PR. [11:52]

Lisa: Yes.

Mahdiyyah: So, I was tryin’ to find a way to still be connected to the industry. So I went, and I did maybe two or three fashion internships in public relations. And I also, at the same time, I was working at Nordstrom in the women's designer department. So that helped me get very acquainted with merchandising, and floor plans, and visual –-the people that styled the mannequins, that kind of thing. And actually styling the customers, because Nordstrom does have personal shoppers. So that was another aspect of it. [12:19]

And that really helped me to continue building, I wouldn't say my knowledge about the industry, because at the same time I was thinking in my mind, I would beat myself, kick myself, cause I'm like, “My peers who are into fashion are probably so far ahead of me right now in our industry because they’ve gone to school for this. They've been trained technically for this. They're in those environments where those resources are around for them to grasp. And I'm nowhere near any of that. I'm just here sewing when I can, doing retail, and doing internships. ” So anything I could soak up and learn, I would ask as many questions as I could, and just try to put myself in all these different positions of the industry to learn. It went from there.

And then, from retail, I took on a project management position at Uniqlo, so that I could learn about that aspect of it. I worked at, like, White House/Black Market for a few months. I, like, bounced around a lot in the retail space, but with different position. And then finally landing, like, a bigger gig at a PR company in New York. So I moved to New York. I took on that job. And then, as long as I had clients who were very tapped into lifestyle and fashion, I was enjoyin’ what I was doing. But as soon as I wasn't doing anything with fashion, I was miserable. Absolutely miserable. And I was like, “I cannot do this.”

So anyway, something very, very fortunate happened to me, where I was able to walk away from the PR world, take some saved money and some acquired funds, and launch my business in 2017. And that's when I was like, “Ok, I'm gonna take this thing serious, and see where it goes.” [13:39]

Lisa: And what a five-year gap it has been. I mean, my goodness. Like, in the last five years, it's such a powerful story. And —

Mahdiyyah: Thank you.

Lisa: You were trying to do what your mother advised. You were trying to keep the backup plan. Have something just in case, y’know, have a safety net. And you had all that. But you were able to recognize that, in terms of your own mood and happiness, which is the most important thing, right?

Mahdiyyah: Right.

Lisa: You were happiest when you were doing whatever you were doing, near fashion.

Mahdiyyah: Yep. [14:21]

Lisa: I also hear you saying that, comparing yourself to, like, other folks. Like, “My peers, my peers.” Mahdiyyah, seriously, part of me is like, “What peers?" [14:16]

Mahdiyyah: [laughs]

Lisa: [continues] Seriously, I am! I’m like, “What peers? Which peers? Who are your peers?” Because whowas deconstructing their clothes, making patterns, and restitchin’ them together by hand?

Mahdiyyah: Right.

Lisa: Like, It is not a large, robust peer group of people, of 10 to 12-year olds, who were doing that. Who are the 13-year-olds that are making a pitch deck for their Mama so that they could convince her that you should go to school for fashion, right?

Mahdiyyah: Right. 

Lisa: Yeah, I don't know about this “peers” thing. There might be some people who’re your own age, but I dunno –

Mahdiyyah: Right.

Lisa: — if they might be able to call them peers. Cause peers do what you do, and I don't know if anybody doin’ what you do.

Mahdiyyah: This is true [chuckles]. [14:55]

Lisa: And so you had this really powerful growth, and I wanted to learn a little bit more about why it was important to think about sustainability, and refashioning, and using that form of textiles. Instead of new textiles or designing textiles or building new textiles, you are content to use that which already exists in order to reuse it. It seems like it's a building block from when you would take socks and turn them into sheet dresses and stuff like that. Is there a particular reason or a particular appeal that comes from repurposing textiles? [15:33]

Mahdiyyah: That, right there, was the connection. Lisa, you made it. It's definitely building on where I started when I was younger. The younger me; this is where she was happiest and thriving, and this is where my practice started. So for me, it always made sense to return to some form of doing it this way, but just stepping it up a bit more. Adding more to it, more finesse, more style to it. So, that was more or less where I got that from. [15:56]

And to be honest with you, while I was running the business and gettin’ things goin’ in 2017, that was the beginning. And then the following year, 2018, I decided to launch a program where I could teach the youth local to where I was; I was in Brooklyn. I could teach the youth how to sew. [16:10]

So I wanted to offer them one-hour classes free of charge. And I partnered with a few other Hampton alum so that they could sponsor the classes for the children. And then I could pair the children with the Hampton alum who were in their respective career fields. If I met a younger girl or younger boy who maybe had some interest in fashion or the arts but also knew for a fact that they wanted to pursue law, I’d partner them with someone I went to school with that ended up pursuing law. Have them exchange that information. Have Mommy or Daddy exchange information with them, and then we go from there. And so I would host these one-hour sewing sessions in the library for free, and that would be it.

And actually, one of my students, she used the classes to get into Fashion Industries High School, which was really impressive. We worked on her application. She was actually admitted into the school, so that was exciting. And only maybe a few months into doing that, I got somebody from Harlem Children's Zone reached out to me, to come and bring what I was doing to their high school, to teach their high school students fashion and sewing. So then that was my first time being in, like, a school setting and teaching in that way. So it was so funny, cause I was like, “Ah-ha, now I’m using that English degree!" [laughs] [17:10]

Lisa: Exact—that’s what I’m sayin. I was, like, first of all, like –-

Mahdiyyah: It came back.

Lisa: You’re like, “You have a business. You've decided to commit to fashion in 2017. In 2018, you take that same fashion commitment and you pair it with teaching and community building.” It's incredible.

Mahdiyyah: Thank you. 

Lisa: And then you go from doing things your own way and doin’ them in the library. And bein’ so smart in connecting with alums and relying on your network to help sustain this next generation of sewists. Then, you end up in a school, teaching at a school. Like again, peers, where?

Mahdiyyah: It's so funny though, because of, like — I did that for [17:47 a minute]. And then I traveled. I went to the island of Barbados, and I stayed there for three months. I was [17:52 workin’ up] there with another artist. We kind of created our own residency, basically. [17:55]

Lisa: Wonderful.

Mahdiyyah: We connected with other artists on the island, and we worked with them. We did, like, an exhibition, all those things. So while I was there, I connected with another artist there. He was an elder on the island who’s a loom artist. And this was my first introduction to loom work and textile creating, and I was like, "Woah, this is amazing.” This is the basis of what I do.

Lisa: Yes.

Mahdiyyah: And I was like, "I think it's important for anyone who's in fashion, who is a sewist, to really tap into that side of the industry, to really have that appreciation for that step of the process." because a lot of us just go into a fabric store or order from our fabric wholesaler. But to see it made, it's completely different. Really, havin’ that opportunity, I was just really grateful, that— and honored that he invited me to his studio. I came and I saw him working, and he even gave me a bunch of scrap to take back to New York with me. And he was like, "If you're workin’ on any collections, feel free to add this into your work." And I was like, "I'll do that and I'll credit you" and, y’know, all those things. And it was just amazing. [18:49]

So I took everything back with me. I really liked how natural that whole process was. And he taught me about Sea Island cotton –

Lisa: Ooh.

Mahdiyyah: [continues] And all these things. And I was just like, "You know what, this is somethin’ I want to continue to incorporate into what I do." And the vibe and the energy from that is what made me do my collection, called the NAAC collection. And that collection was all linen, Lyocell, and wool.

Lisa: Wow!

Mahdiyyah: And so I didn't have a job anymore, because COVID had started as soon as I got back to the States. So I couldn't return to the school because they had shut the school down.

Lisa: Right.

Mahdiyyah: So, I was like, “Okay, back to the entrepreneur bag.”

Mahdiyyah: [continues] I shifted gears, and I was like, “Okay, I'll start doin’ sewing workshops digitally.” and doin’ all these things. But in the meantime, I also still want to post—I wanna be able to do collections still or at least put some kind of content or work out. I was, like, sitting on all this scrap fabric from Barbados, and that's when I decided, “Okay, all my fabrics are gonna be linen, wool, Lyocell, and cotton.” What I did was try to source the fabric in a cheap way, and that was so hard to do because natural materials are not cheap. [19:49]

Lisa: That's right, they really aren’t.

Mahdiyyah: So it was like, “Okay. I'm over here tryna make, like, a full set, like a pair of pants and a shirt, and you want me to spend how much on the yard? ”

Lisa: Yes!

Mahdiyyah: So it was just like, "How can I combat this?" And I was wracking my brain, trying to figure out how to not just be spending and spending for no reason. It kind of hit me all at one time, and I said, "You know what? I need to return back to how I was doin’ things before. " I can go to these thrift stores, I can go to the Goodwill, I can go to Salvation Army, and specifically pull only cotton shirts, only linen shirts, only wool this, wool that, when I want to create. And take those pieces that are discarded, and put them together, and breathe life into it. [20:26]

Lisa: I love this so much, Mahdiyyah. I absolutely do. Because when you're talking about linen, cotton, wool, these are things that grow. These are things that come from plants. These are things –

Mahdiyyah: Yeah

Lisa: [continues] that live in a way that's different than things that are completely manufactured. I know we’re gonna talk about Fabric Alchemy cause I'm so excited about that. 

But I wanted to give you a shoutout again, if I hadn't already [20:51 once], to congratulate you, y'all, because we are also talkin’ to the 2022 Best Designer award for Refashion Week NYC 2022. And what you made was this amazing puffer set that was with recycled materials; the materials you're describing. And the thing that moved me so much about it was your quote: "Reach the world, but touch the neighborhood first." Can you talk about that? About the garment? As well as about the slogan? [21:20]

Mahdiyyah: So the "Reach the world, but touch the neighborhood first." quote, and I know you saw it, but the ‘hood’ in neighborhood was underlined, because I grew up in East Orange, New Jersey. East Orange borders Newark, and, like, Irvington, and all these other areas. And these areas are—I wouldn't say they’re hoods. But I guess whoever does zoning and figures these things out might [inaudible 21:41] certain areas that, right? But I also will say it wasn't necessarily the safest area to grow up in. [21:44]

But what I will say is that I always appreciate and respect the fact that my mother really, really, really made it a point to enroll my brother and I, any program she could find. Like, anything she could find that was beneficial, that was enriching. Like any type of music we could do, art, like, camps. Anything that involved traveling or going away, or trying new things. And so the fact that she had to do that, it's not lost on me, because what it meant was that our communities aren't necessarily awarded the same resources and opportunities that other communities are.

So that quote really speaks to that, and how being resourceful is really just, a lot of times, a result of you having a lack of opportunities. [22:24]

Mahdiyyah: [continues] And you havin’ a lack of, not handouts, but sort of somebody kind of going, "Here's the way to do it, here's what I'm gonna give you." It's you havin’ to go out and find and look for those things, bring them to you, versus it being brought to your front doorstep. [22:35]

Lisa: Yes.

Mahdiyyah: So I always think about all the children who are growin’ up in those areas, who maybe have all these grand ideas and these visions, but don't know how to get from A to Z, because that was me. So I'm always telling people as much as I can. I'm like, "Focus on those children, focus on that youth, because they need it more than anybody." I needed that; my brother needed it; all of us need it. Because these children are our future. And they have these visions, and they’re creators, and they’re artists, and they’re changemakers. They're setting the trends; they're doing everything.

But they need that; they need that encouragement. They need the mentorship; They need the actual resources; They need the capital.They also need to be reminded that what they're doing is desired, and people are paying crazy amounts of money for what they're doing. So that is something that I like to talk about. [23:18]

Lisa: Yes. And what I appreciate too is about the way that you emphasize how your mother's creativity was a way to supplement being in an under-resourced community. And this is something I'm always tellin’ people about. Like, just because you grew up in a poor neighborhood is not because –

Mahdiyyah: Right.

Lisa: People are not poor because people are somehow, quote unquote, morally failing. They are poor because their neighborhoods are deliberately and structurally underdeveloped on purpose. And so you have to drive across town to go to the blankety-blank. Or they might come to the school and say, "Hey, we're offering this to some kids, and we have, like, 10 scholarships." And the thing that I really appreciate about hearing what I've heard from your story so far is that I think, when you grow up in a community that's under-resourced, it becomes really important, at least the way that my mother did it with us, was that we were still always worthy. You know what I mean?

It wasn't because there was somethin’ wrong with us; there's nothin’ wrong with us. It's just the resources that are currently not here. And so, we know that these resources exist; it just takes a little more effort, y'know what I mean? Why people like, "Oh, well, you know, poor people are lazy?" And I was like, "You've never been poor. That's bullshit, cause that's a lot of work. " [24:22]

Mahdiyyah: Exactly.

Lisa: It’s a lot —   

Mahdiyyah: [crosstalk 24:31] The hardest-working people I know come from those areas.

Lisa: Exactly! [24:35 It’d] be like, "Oh, yeah, they're just la-." I'm like, "Are you kidding me?" Do you know how hard it is if you’ve got to take three kids on the bus to go someplace? Because you don't have a car— not just, like, in a city where they have great public –  

Mahdiyyah: Multiple zones, too, and all types of weather.

Lisa: All types of weather. [24:52]

Lisa: [continues] So basically, we can see the way that creativity works. Creativity is that thing that makes sure, even if you don't have money for, like, the fancy-fancy whatever, you can make it. And it could be even better, just your own. I just really appreciate that. And I'm seeing such a powerful vision for your work. The places that you grew up in that were under-resourced, so that people know that the resources are available to them. And that they, as human beings, as individual kids; they are a resource. Like, they are valuable and important and are doing things that are just so wonderful. [25:27]

So congratulations on that award. And I want to use that image. I think you shared an image with us of the outfits. I think I want to use that to make sure that people see this, cause it is amazing, absolutely amazing.

Mahdiyyah: Oh, yeah. Thank you. [25:41]

Lisa: Let's talk a bit more about Fabric Alchemy. I am so excited to talk about this because when I think about alchemy, I think about metals. I think that alchemy, as I understand it, way back in the day, of  1400s or 1200s, or whatever, way-way far a long time ago, people wanted to know how to turn metals into gold. There's always, "Goodness, I gotta figure out how to turn somethin’ into gold." That was the very original: I gotta figure out how to get this money by tomorrow. [26:10]

Mahdiyyah: Absolutely!

Lisa: [chuckles] So they're tryna figure this out. The fabric alchemy is different; it's something else all together. And I am just captivated by this idea. Can you say more about it? Can you define it for us so that we can dive into a chat? I love it. [26:26]

Mahdiyyah: The same way that you have your understandin’ of alchemy, I had a similar one. And, I kept thinking of [26:31 my mind] –  I was like, "I'm a fashion designer, but what I'm doing is also very different, and I want to call it something else." So I would play around with different hashtags when I would post some of my work on Instagram, and I'm, like, just figurin’ out different things. I’m like: "wearable medicine," "wearable art." I’m like, [chuckles] different things that— “old to new '' or, whatever. [26:49]

And then at some point, I was like, “What do I want to call myself?" Like, “What is my practice?” and I just remember thinkin’ of the word alchemy. And I'm like, "Well, yeah, I know they're transforming one metal into another for the purpose of a more beneficial use." And so once I did [27:01 more] research on that, and I was like, "Well, I'm transforming one thing into another for a more beneficial use." But it's not necessarily metal; it's fabric. 

But I'm also working with a natural material, so why can’t I call what I do alchemy? It is a transformation. And so that's how I look at it. And that's what I define as fabric alchemy: taking something ordinary, turning it into something extraordinary.

It's in a way, a lot of times, that it is sublime and sometimes hard to explain; you just have to see it. So I was like, "This fits the bill. This fits what I'm doing " [chuckles] [27:32]

Lisa: And as you describe it, it absolutely fits the bill. It is absolutely as you say, “Describin’ what you're doing. ” I was thinking, the transformative properties of alchemy, of course, changing one thing into another. But you are changing something that was discarded, not seen as valuable, or put away, or put aside. And making it into something that is more beneficial, like, that is exactlywhat you're doing. I’m like, "How can she not call it alchemy?" It has to be called that.

Mahdiyyah: And the funny thing is, one of the aspects of alchemy is something called panacea. [28:05]

Lisa: Yes!

Mahdiyyah: Which is to be able to heal, or, like, find some sort of cure-all elixir, or somethin’ like that. And I was like, "Okay, I can take that word and not necessarily need to use it verbatim what its definition has been." But I can say that what I'm doing is a form of healing because the fabrics have a vibrational frequency that do heal your body. If you're wearing these fabrics, you're sleeping on these fabrics. It's good and beneficial to your skin and your body. So that's a form of healing that's included in what I'm doing. So I'm like, “Here's another reason why I can call it some form of alchemy.” [28:35]

Lisa: That was [28:36 the other] thing that I was so excited about was the vibrations, the vibrational properties of fabric. And I’d have to think that it's not unconnected to the fact that organic cotton or organic linen or whatever, why these fabrics are so expensive. As opposed to some that are cheap, or some that have a high polyester count, or all polyester, or whatever. Can you talk about your views on vibrational properties of fabric? I think for you — Was the ideal vibration. Was it 100 or was it 1,000? I apologize for misidentifying that number. Can you talk about how the theory works? [29:10]

Mahdiyyah: So your body, when it's at its optimal health, it usually vibrates at a frequency between 70 and 100. Anything below, I think, 30 is when you start to fall into illnesses and unwellness. So this is research that I've found just by doing my due diligence to read up on all this stuff and, like, really look into it. So, the body, at its optimal health, is between 70 and 100. 100 being, like, max, optimal health. [29:32]

And so, knowing that, that's the vibrational frequency it vibrates at. Then there are environmentalists, agricultural specialists, and scientists who have done research to find out what the vibrational frequency is of certain fabric. And the funny thing is, they initially started out by checking out what the vibrational frequency of linen was through using flax fabric that comes from the flax plant. And you know, the flax plant grows in nature, so that's what linen is created from.

And anybody listenin’ to this, if you ever get a chance, really, to go on, like, YouTube or just Google, how linen is turned from the flax plant into actual fabric. It's incredible to watch, just puttin’ that out there. I've done that too. I've watched that too. And I'm like, "I'm gonna do this at some point." 

But anyway, getting back to that, they took a piece of linen cloth, and they wrapped it around, I think, the machine. I think it was called an Ag-Environ machine. And there's another one called an oscilloscope, and that machine is what detected the vibrational frequency of the fabrics. And so linen vibrates at one of 5,000. And wool also vibrates at 5,000. And then organic cotton vibrates at 100 and cotton vibrates between 75 and 80, I believe. [30:40]

Okay, now that I know this, I was like, "I'm gonna intently use these specific materials." Because I know that when you're wearing a fabric that either is a higher frequency than yours –

Lisa: Yes.

Mahdiyyah: Or at the level of yours, it's going to keep your frequency level or raise it. Which is ultimately gonna help to heal you and make you feel better. [30:59]

Lisa: Wow, that is so powerful. That is so powerful to hear. In some ways, the closer to the plant, I'm not sure, like, what accounts for the variation in vibration. The flax to linen process or even the sheep or wool roving to wool fiber; yarn to fabric; it's absolutely incredible.

Lisa: [continues] Now you were sayin’ that they also tested polyester fabrics, or did they? Did they test synthetic fabrics? What did they find in it? If you know if they tested synthetic fabrics. [31:27]

Mahdiyyah: Yeah, they tested some synthetic fabrics like polyester, for example. And they found that those vibrate at, like, a frequency between, like, 15 and 20, I believe. [31:35]

Lisa: Wow!

Mahdiyyah: So those fabrics are not recommended to wear over long-term use. Or like, sleep on for long periods of time, just because it's not necessarily beneficial. Knowing this, I especially thought about the folks who have eczema or any type of skin condition, things like that. I’m like, “This probably is further agitating anything that is already there.”

For you to wear linen and cotton as much as you can you can. I always tell people that, "As much as you can, put on some linen or cotton." Or at least sleep on it. [chuckles] [32:00]

Lisa: Yeah, yeah, and that this is all figured for optimal health. The pieces that you're working on then, and that's one of the reasons that you continue to use — That's one of the benefits of the recycled and upcycled materials. Do you think there's a connection when you were talking about working in Barbados and being gifted this woven fabric that you get to see being made right in front of you? And collecting items from thrift, or for buying repurposed clothing. Do you imagine that there's frequencies, or stories, or narratives, or something? 

Cause when you was speakin’ about the artist in Barbados, I felt like, I could hear the heartness of it, in your voice. Like, you were saying, how moving it was. And I'm like, I can imagine that fabric being so powerful. And whatever you put it on, is it imbued with that as well? Do you see that at work in repurposing and recycling fabrics or textiles? [32:51]

Mahdiyyah: When I'm in that process, that process is very intuitive. It's like, I'm very aware of what I'm doin’, and it's for the purpose of healing. It's not just- I want people to look good when they wear the clothing. Don't get me wrong. That's the first thing aesthetic, is what we see. It's what we want to look like. It's what we wanna – 

Lisa: Yes.

Mahdiyyah: If you like what you see, then you're gonna wanna see more of it. That's how that works, right? But it's not just that; I'm like, "I want clothing to do more than just look good, because it can look good. But is it doing anything good for you? " So, I want it to look good, feel good, and do good. Those are like three pillars that I really focus on when I'm creating.

Like, this is going to be what I continue to do, because I could easily go, "Oh, I'm gonna go pick up rolls and rolls of this polyester, because it's cheaper. It's easier to work with; it's this, it’s that. " But it's like, "No, now that I know what I know, I'm not gonna undo what I know." [33:36]

Lisa: Right?! And I really appreciate how you are able to recognize this, so that in some ways, repurposing fabrics isn't just because it's sustainable. The fact that it's sustainable is very valuable and it's very important. But there's also part of the sustainable aspect of it that contributes to your overall vision about clothing, fashion, and wellness.

I just have one last question for you, and this is somethin’ that I ask everybody at the end of the podcast. I'll ask, the slogan of the Stitch Please podcast is: We will help you get your stitch together.

Mahdiyyah: I like that. [chuckles]

Lisa: [continues] We'll help you get your stitch together. So I'm gonna ask you, Mahdiyyah Muhammad, who is this fantastic designer and creative, and who has done so much. And who has quote unquote “peers”, who I still haven't figured out who they might be? What would you say to help somebody get their stitch together? [34:30]

Mahdiyyah: I would say this, cause this is actually a meditation, a thought that I had recently. To all the creators out there, and all the doers and makers, it's really a great idea to take a little bit of this and that from successful processes that you witnessed, or seen, or study. But don't get so routine or boxed in to doing things all one way. Allow yourself room to expand and stretch out and grow and try new things. Don't become so regimented to the point that if you need to switch or change course, you're completely thrown off or shaken by it. [35:02]

Sticking to doing things one-way completely because you saw it become success for someone else doesn't necessarily mean that it's gonna become a success for you. Like, you really have to tailor, and tailor, and tailor whatever your process and your journey is to you. Because we all have our own path to walk. [35:17]

Lisa: Wow. And on that note, Mahdiyyah Muhammad, thank you so much for being with us today. We are so grateful. Thank you. [35:25]

[35:26 Interview Ends]

Lisa: 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 blackwomenstitch@gmail.com. [35:45]

If you'd like to support us financially, you can do that by supporting us on Patreon, P-A-T-R-E-O-N. And 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. [36:03]

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 and the Stitch Please podcast, that is incredibly helpful. [36:32]

Thank you so much. Come back next week, and we'll help you get your stitch together. [36:36]

[Audio Ends 36:44]

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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