The Seattle Muses program is an evolving project to prepare students, primarily immigrants and refugees, for jobs in the sewing industry.
The hum of a sewing machine filled the room as Mursal Alime’s steady hands fed more of the white cloth into the machine. The material came out on the other end with a long, straight stitch.
“She’s very talented. Look how she pushes it all the way through,” said her teacher, Camille Steen. “See, she’s not stopping and starting every few stitches.”
Alime’s eyes were trained on her work, as she picked up another fabric and fed it through the machine. Only occasionally was the mechanical hum in the Sodo-area classroom interrupted by someone to talk about techniques, sewing projects or family.
During a quick break, Alime smiled as she showed pictures of her two daughters, swiping through pictures of them in frilly dresses. She said she recently sewed the outfits for the 4-year-old twins.
“My mom’s a twin,” classmate Leland Gipson chimed in, pointing out a new connection between the two. Gipson, a Seattle native, has been sewing since he was a teenager and now sews clothes for his children and friends, and makes messenger bags as a business. Gipson appreciates learning the proper techniques to be more employable in the industry.
Alime sewed for six years in Afghanistan before she recently moved to the United States with her daughters and husband.
Together, Alime and Gipson form the latest class of the Seattle Muses program, an evolving project to prepare students, primarily immigrants and refugees, for jobs in the sewing industry. Eligible low-income members of the community can also take the class if they already have sewing skills.
Much like this pair, students coming through the free program often grew up worlds apart. Recent participants have been from Afghanistan, Mexico, Vietnam, Somalia, Russia and the Congo. The program has trained about 70 students since 2013.
“They are from all different countries, but have the experience of moving to a new place. They’re new, sometimes don’t speak English well,” said Muses co-founder Sandrine Espie. “What connects them is sewing.”
Espie and Muses’ other founder, Esther Hong, launched a pilot program in the University District in 2013, teaching their first group of immigrants and refugees sewing-industry basics.
Muses has the capacity to teach 10 people at a time, but some sessions are smaller. The classes can at times be a challenge to fill because students need some baseline skills before they can learn industry-level sewing.
“Seven is best,” Espie said, looking over at Steen, who stood between the two students, explaining a technique. “Then they can still get individual attention.”
After the first round in 2013, Muses took a break and began to redesign the class, hunt for a more suitable space and raise funds. Muses relaunched in 2015 in its current location, with factory-grade machines and plenty of classroom space.
The classes, which are constantly adjusting to fit needs, include advocacy workshops on workers’ rights, as well as language skills and job-placement connections.
The instructors, who are paid, have to learn to teach people with varying needs. Some students come in with high-level sewing skills, but very little English. Some come in with less sewing experience but can speak more English.
Espie, originally from France, is familiar with the challenge of settling into an unfamiliar place, with new communities and cultures and a change in language that can be difficult.
“You have to become someone else,” Espie said. “You build yourself again.”
With Muses, the hope is not only to give the students new skills, but a community.
Sewing often provides something familiar, for some, even a passion. Many immigrants and refugees worked in or learned sewing traditionally in their home countries. Muses helps make their skills transferable to the workforce.
Espie said locally there is a demand for this kind of work, as people look for local merchandise and less mass-market design.
It takes a village
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During class, Steen lined up strips of materials, prepared so the students could practice different techniques. This class, she had students work with different varieties of unfamiliar materials to get them used to and comfortable with sewing them. She said that being able to see students progress is one of her favorite parts of teaching.
Steen showed Gipson a new, more efficient knot technique for threading. “So cool. I can’t believe I didn’t know how to do that before,” he said.
The classes focus heavily on technique — like sewing on zippers — as well as English and navigating the industry.
The program is made possible by fundraising, volunteers and donations of money, time and materials.
For one student to be funded for one set of classes, it’s about $2,500 for a variety of costs, including machines, materials, equipment maintenance, space and curriculum development. Each class runs eight weeks, four days a week, for a total of 192 hours. A variety of partnerships and networks helps raise money and resources for the program.
One such supporter is Outdoor Research, which makes outdoor gear and apparel. For one Muses cohort, the company donated supplies and paid workers to create products, said Joseph Wadden, its director of operations. He said the company never intended to sell those items; it was just “to give them a sense of a real-world product.”
“Muses is a real good program for us to stay close to,” Wadden said, calling it a good investment for local manufacturers.
While Outdoor Reseach hasn’t hired from Muses yet, he would like to eventually — skilled sewers are hard to come by in the industry.
Espie said Muses is working to expand the class and include a certification program that would show skill levels and abilities, giving participants a leg up in entering the workforce.
Immigrants and refugees often have a hard time breaking into the job market without a U.S. job history. With its network, Muses also connects its students with resources and skills to compete in the job market.
The training on fair wages and worker rights, as well as practice with English, can make a world of difference for students like Alime, who may be unfamiliar with the U.S. industry but want to use their skills to secure a livelihood.
“I like sewing. I want a job in sewing. I want to help my family, my husband,” Alime said.
That’s exactly what Espie hopes people learn from Muses — how to say who they are, why they’re here and where they want to go.