Stitches in time

"Stitches in time" Continued...

Issue: "Rocks in their heads?," Sept. 11, 2010

The first year Hawks took three sewing machines-all treadle machines to avoid problems with maintenance and electricity-to one village in northern Uganda. Today the village has 20 machines. The women she has tutored-some are widows, some are from polygamist households-not only support themselves through the skills Hawks and others have taught them but also help to fund an orphanage and a school for disabled children. From sewing and tailoring, the program has expanded to include jewelry-making, baking, and other crafts. Hawks just returned from three months teaching and mentoring in the same area, and she hopes to spend more and more of her time there.

But back in New York she early on realized that her industry could add an important part to the mission. And that's how she launched Sewing Hope's annual fashion show. Hawks began talking up the needs of African women and her projects in Uganda among designers and fellow garment makers. She returned from the next trip with armloads of African-made textiles and began proffering them to colleagues.

She organized a runway show where several designer friends "built" garments using the indigenous fabric-with proceeds from the event going toward Sewing Hope. That year the show had 120 in attendance and raised $500.

The third annual show, held in May, featured 18 designers-including names like Project Runway's Emmett McCarthy-and showcased top models displaying their creations at a Saturday night event. It was attended by 300 and raised more than $20,000 for Hawks' organization. "It became entirely focused on the fashion and costume industry, and there is nothing else like it," Hawks said. "It's beyond my expectations."

While working to help African women, Hawks discovered a different kind of need within her own industry: "People are coming to me asking what they can do to help." That's how she wound up with 110 volunteers, most of whom, like Hawks, already had put in full work weeks before squeezing in time to organize the May event. Cynthia Flynt, a costume designer with 25 years in the business that includes the movies The Preacher's Wife, Eight Men Out, and Passion Fish, was one of those with a longing to do more: "Our industry is about escapism, about bringing mirth to life. Yet sometimes I question, 'Isn't there something out there more I should be doing? Something I can do to help that will last?'"

For the show, Flynt used bright-colored African cotton to fashion a dress ensemble that recalled 1940s women's baseball team uniforms reminiscent of a film she worked on, A League of Their Own. Others on the runway were more melodramatic: An evening gown worn by "America's Top Model" winner Jaslene Gonzalez mixed deep-­colored block-print fabric and jersey; cocktail dresses boasted bold-printed flirty skirts; even menswear jackets incorporated the African designs.

Hawks said, "This is not a religious organization, but it is tapping into a group of people with compassionate hearts who did not have a way to help. I don't have a lot of conversations about motives or hearts, but I get a lot of searching questions about meaning and priorities in life."

What's clear from the show prep and the success of the latest runway event is that Hawks' passion and calm spirit attracts already overworked volunteers, but what also draws her for-profit colleagues to her nonprofit venture is respect for her skill. Top designer McCarthy tells a story of Hawks calling him before refitting a size 8 jacket from his line for a size 2 actress on Gossip Girl. "It can't be done," he told her. "But when I saw the jacket on the show, it was an amazing alteration and I have been her fan ever since."

Widows who never believed they could be designers are becoming designers, said Geoffrey Waiswa, one of Hawks' associates in Uganda. And designers who never knew how to help are helping Africans. And beneath it all, said Waisa, "People don't stop using clothes."


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