By Fern Gillespie
Hekima Hapa always loved sewing. She is the daughter of a seamstress and inherited her mother’s love of fabric by becoming a fashion designer and a business owner of Harriet’s by Hekima (HbyH) in Bed Stuy. In 2013, she purchased a sewing machine for her 8-year-old daughter attempting to expose the girl to the fashion world. “I wanted to teach her how to sew. I wanted to give her visual aids to go with it,” Hapa told Our Time Press. However, she was frustrated with the lack of Black representation in the fashion field. “I wanted to pass on those traditions to my daughter.”
So, she started a sewing camp for her daughter and her friends at Stuyvesant Mansion in 2013. The popular summer camp became Black Girls Sew, a nonprofit that has inspired hundreds of Black girls in Brooklyn from ages 7 to 16 to stitch items for themselves and even create small businesses. “I was really heavy on the kids creating and extending a wardrobe,” she said. “Because children are constantly growing, it was important to me as a parent that they are able to use things from year to year.”
Every summer, Black Girls Sew hosts the Sew Green Fashion Camp. “We expanded it to include everybody. We have boys in the camp. We have people who are not of color in the camp,” said Hapa. “It’s all about sustainability. It is sewing green.”
The camp is run by donations for scholarships and fabric. Highlights of the camp include Fashion Fridays where they go to fashion museums, shops, and photo studios. “Anywhere with his people of color doing amazing things, I like to visit and take the children on tour,” she said. At Sew Green Fashion Camp, the kids sew
shorts, shirts, tote bags, head wraps, tie-dyes, and a no-waste waist bag, which is a tote bag pouch made by attaching scraps of fabric. They create two projects every day.
There’s the popular $5 Fabric Project. “For fashion field trips on Fridays, I take the children to a local fabric store on Fulton. It’s important to keep our money inside the community. They have a budget of five dollars. We help them understand that a little goes a long way,” she said. “There are $1.99 a yard fabrics. They learn how to budget that retail math. Do I have enough money to get a zipper? Can I get a ribbon for the garment? Then, they design it and provide the notions and attachments for it.”
Quilting projects have become popular at Black Girls Sew. She created a Quilt Bar with 5-inch squares and scraps so the kids can create quilts at will. Boys are even members of Black Girls Sew. Her 10-year-old son is thrilled with quilting. “I tell them that some of the best tailors and fashion designers are men are men,” she explained. The kids even bring in their own clothing that might need repairs and parents request that clothing be restyled and refitted.
Black Girls Sew has a lot of repeat students who have grown with the organization. “Some started at seven at seven years old and now are teenagers. The teenagers are paid a little stipend to help the younger children,” she said. “Every child in the program gets a sewing machine. Grants from the Brooklyn Arts Council and Emmanuel Baptist Church have allowed for the children to take the sewing machines home.”
Entrepreneurialism is an important part of Black Girls Sew. “At the end of the year is a fashion show and the girls sell items that they’ve made,” she said. “They’ve learned how they can make something for 25 cents like a headband and turn around and sell it for seven dollars.” On Saturdays in October, there’s a class to create fashions for a major show during Brooklyn Fashion Week. The kids will model clothing they designed and sewed at the Kings Plaza event.
For adults who like to sew, on the first Friday of each month, Hapa holds Sip and Sew at the Brooklyn Friends School. Hapa is an artist-in-residence at the Textile Arts Center in Park Slope. Her work in the exhibit Way In//Way Out is on view through September 19. Hapa and co-author Lesley Ware wrote the popular photo craft book Black Girls Sew: Projects and Patterns to Stitch and Make Your Own.
“At Black Girls Sew we tend to lean towards tradition. We understand that we are of African descent, so then we talk about where the fabric comes from. The patterns, the mud cloth from Mali,” said Hapa. “We explore based on culture.”