By Erica Wright
The Birmingham Times
Inside Bib & Tucker Sew-Op in Avondale, there are sewing machines and fabric everywhere, along with drawing boards, tables, measuring utensils, quilts hanging on walls. It is a space where creatives can come and work on their art, whether it is making quilts, sewing clothes, or making household items like aprons, cooking mitts, or pillows. It serves an ideal place for everyone.
At Bib & Tucker, members and anyone else can express their creativity through the long-standing art forms of quilting and sewing. The nonprofit organization’s mission is to cultivate skills for those who like to sew and serve as a place where everyone can be both a student and a teacher. The group has about 25 members who get together weekly on Tuesdays or Thursdays for sewing and quilting classes; membership is only $5 a month.
“When you come to Bib & Tucker, you’re around other [mostly] women who enjoy it, all these creative juices start flowing, and you’re doing all these neat things,” said Sonya Muhammad, who has been a seamstress for more than 20 years and has been a member of the sew-op since July. “I’m around people who feel like it is important, respect it, and are excited about it. I learn from them, and [there’s] really good energy. I never leave here feeling bad.”
Leaving a Legacy
Quilting and quilts are also some things you can pass down “for generations, like I have my mother’s embroidery scissors that were my grandmother’s. I’m going to pass that down and my sewing machine, as well,” Muhammad said.
Bib & Tucker’s programs promote sewing activities that encourage education, empowerment, and economic opportunities, such as Woodlawn Sewing Training, Summer Camp at the Sew-Op, Jr. Membership for young people, and a Quilting Activity Resource Kit (QUARK) for elementary-school-age children; it even hosts birthday parties for children. The sew-op has worked with the YWCA and the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) Hospital Nurse Family partnership to make baby quilts for teen moms and their babies. And last year, the organization launched “The March Quilts,” a project that celebrates and memorializes civil rights and human rights movement anniversaries through “needles and thread, one stitch at a time.”
Bib & Tucker was founded in 2010 by friends Annie Bryant and Lillis Taylor, who met at a Birmingham Quilters Guild meeting. The organization’s name is from British slang meaning “the finest clothes”—women would wear blouses and skirts but then embellish their bibs and aprons to dress up their clothing. Taylor chose the name because she wanted something unusual and clothing related, and sew-op is a play on co-op because the partners wanted to create a sewing cooperative in Birmingham.
“We decided we wanted to start a group that would get together and sew, learn new skills, and do different programs for the benefit of the community,” said Bryant. “We started out at the Tarrant City Library as a small group making quilts, and we invited other members to come and learn and how to do basic sewing.”
Bib & Tucker not only stresses the importance of sewing and quilting as an art form but also serves as a source of empowerment.
Talaya Champion—who works with Bib & Tucker through the Magic City Seams program, which equips participants with skills and provides economic opportunity—can work on her leather-accessories line and still take care of her 2-year-old daughter.
“[Bib & Tucker] teaches a skill and then [helps] women find jobs and employment opportunities because [people] don’t think of sewing as something [that can help them] make money. It feels good to be in a room that fosters creativity,” said Champion, who started her leather line, Champion Limited for men, about four years ago, and a women’s line, Ever Irene, last August.
Muhammad said Champion is an example of how inspirational the sew-op can be.
“When I used to sit down at a sewing machine, I would’ve never thought that I would be working with somebody who can actually design and create and look at [material] and go, ‘Hey, I can make this out of that.’… To me, it just looks like some stuff. [Champion] sees a bag and some accessories.”
Muhammad said she enjoys working with people who see things differently.
“We put our gifts together, and it’s a really good experience. I’ve never had an opportunity to do things like this,” she said. “To me, Bib & Tucker and the things and the people they bring together are pretty amazing—and it’s right here in Birmingham. You think about [things like this in] places like New York. But, no, it’s here in Birmingham.”
A Closer Look
The Bib & Tucker Sew-Op has several programs designed to promote sewing activities that encourage education, empowerment, and economic opportunities. Here’s a closer look at a few of them.
Quilting Activity Resource Kit (QUARK)
QUARK is a quilting-activity resource kit developed by Bib & Tucker co-founder Lillis Taylor; it teaches the fundamentals of quilting paired with the principles of math.
“The kit itself uses a curriculum geared to 4th through 6th graders, and it can be used by teachers in the classroom. Our kits include felt and blocks, and students can follow the instructions to break down the blocks into smaller pieces, which can then be sewn onto a piece of muslin, so they can have their own quilt block,” said Bib & Tucker Program Manager Viola Ratcliffe.
“This past summer, we did a week of QUARK, during which we went to 10 different sites in Birmingham that were holding summer camp programs. We worked with about 200 children and did those QUARK workshops for free or at an extreme discount. Due to donations, we’re working on growing that program for next year.”
QUARK kits can be purchased at www.bibandtuckersewop.org for $20; for every kit sold, one is donated to a Birmingham City Schools student.
With Bib & Tucker’s other youth programs, the primary focus is making sure the arts of sewing and quilting are taught to young people through Jr. Membership. Participants meet one Saturday a month during the school year to learn new skills. The sew-op also conducts a week-long summer camp and hosts birthday parties.
Ratcliffe said young people have a connection with quilting whether they know it or not: “They may have slept under a quilt most of their life, but they never thought of it as an art form because it is the quilt their grandmother made. To really learn the history of it gives it a new meaning.”
Ratcliffe believes one way to teach is by making a connection with something to which young people can relate.
“With sewing, I think it is kind of a lost skill because it is not taught to the younger generation like it may have been taught 20 or 30 years ago,” she said. “Even though young people may not understand sewing, they do understand fashion, and that is something we are really trying to connect with. … If they can connect with that, and we can teach them the skill of sewing, then that together can launch all types of things with their ideas and creativity.”
Magic City Seams
This program, one of the sew-ops biggest, runs through October.
“The idea behind [Magic City Seams] is to provide sewing skills and instruction to people in Birmingham who may be interested in doing sewing for small-batch manufacturing,” Ratcliffe said. “[It’s also] for any businessperson, artist, or designer who wants to have something made locally. They can hire a seamstress working with us in the sew-op to work with them, and we’ll facilitate the workspace, so if they want to come in and use our sewing machines or create their own workspace, they can do that.”
Business owners or designers can work on not only their own products through the program but also Bib & Tucker’s line of home-good items, which consist of pillows and quilts, and learn how to sew those items.
Recycled Runway Fashion Show
This fundraiser is held every year; this year’s will be held on November 15 at the Saturn event venue in Avondale.
“We get teams of friends or coworkers together to compete and create outfits using donated or repurposed fabrics and materials. They’ll have a seamstress to sew the outfits and models to walk [their fashions] down the runway,” said Ratcliffe. “The runway show itself is free, but sponsorship packets are available. Everything we raise during this goes to Bib & Tucker and helps to fund all of our programs.”