How the Social Justice Sewing Academy Is Inspiring Quilters to Craft with a Purpose

MAR 17, 2021 updated May 11, 2021
Quilt design of Breonna Taylor

Quilt made in honor of Breonna Taylor

As we celebrate National Quilt Month, have you ever thought about the impact your art could make on the community around you? For Sara Trail, this question is something she asks herself daily. After the murder of Trayvon Martin, Sara created a quilt in his honor and she has been intertwining her love for sewing and passion for social justice ever since then through the Social Justice Sewing Academy.

Since its creation in 2017, SJSA has created a platform to help youth artists and the sewing community explore meaningful conversations centered around social justice.

Today we are honored to welcome Sara to the blog to share more about the work SJSA is doing, and how the Spoonflower community can support programs like the Quilts of Remembrance Project.

Weaving Community into Your Quilting with Social Justice Sewing Academy

For those new to Social Justice Sewing Academy, can you share more about your mission and what you do? 

Sara: Founded in 2017, Social Justice Sewing Academy (SJSA) empowers individuals to use textile art as a framework for activism. Through a series of hands-on workshops in schools, prisons and community centers across the country, SJSA empowers youth to use textile art as a vehicle for personal transformation and community cohesion and become agents of social change.

Many of our young artists make art that explores issues such as gender discrimination, mass incarceration, gun violence and gentrification. The powerful imagery they create tells their stories. These quilt blocks are then sent to volunteers around the world to embellish and embroider before being sewn together into quilts to be displayed in museums, galleries and quilt shows across the country. This visual dialogue bridges differences in race, age and socioeconomics and sparks conversations and action in households across the country.

Social justice quilt blocks made by students

Quilt blocks from Social Justice Sewing Academy

What does it mean to craft with a purpose?  

Sara: Crafting with a purpose not only connects us to community, but it allows us to express ourselves in a medium we are comfortable working in—it is a visual language that can transcend written language. At times, it can help work through emotions like helplessness and feeling overwhelmed.

The Remembrance Project or Remembrance Quilts, for example, is not only a volunteer sewing opportunity but also connects us to others in a way to help or honor. People who say craft is apolitical are typically telling us to stop talking about whatever we are talking about.

Craft is Art. Craft is Therapy. Craft is an interaction with the world. 

No one should get to say what that looks like for someone else. We can create a visual narrative with art that tells a story and/or inspires conversation, learning, teaching and more. Engaging in craft is working with our hands—and with SJSA’s workshop programming it creates a space for sensorial learning and activity.

Some SJSA volunteers may not feel comfortable protesting, but they can have their voice heard through their talents. Art and Quilting (Craft) can be used as a way to convey big ideas—emotions, anger, celebration, etc. It’s a constructive way to bring your voice to the conversation as well as highlight problems at hand.

How is SJSA empowering young people to use sewing to express themselves and create opportunities for growth and change? 

Sara: SJSA is empowering young people to use sewing as a way to share their opinions, views and hopes they have for the world. Art can often inspire the heart—and with that inspiration often change can follow. Art can cause people to learn and then care about issues – and mobilize communities to fight for social change.

Person cutting pieces for their quilt block
Child painting details onto fabric

Young quilters working on their projects

Why has the Social Justice Sewing Academy chosen to work with quilts?

Sara: Quilting is an age-old process, practiced in many cultures throughout the world. The word quilt is defined as a warm bed covering made of padding enclosed between layers of fabric and kept in place by lines of stitching. Historically, this process might draw together a community to create and complete a quilt. Such is the origin of the Social Justice Sewing Academy’s process.

Throughout the creation of our quilts, we are focused on community. The creation of a SJSA quilt is the living definition of the quilt itself, layers of community that come together to create.

Group working on a quilt block together

Group working together on a quilt project

The quilt top is the students and young people across the country using their voice and personal expression to create the message we all see. The quilt back is the collection of organizers, sponsors and volunteers that support the community outreach and stand behind the organization providing foundation. The stuffing consists of donations and materials from fellow artists and vendors, collected to create the quilts. The stitching is the international community of volunteers that embroider and embellish our work, echoing and amplifying our artists’ messages and bringing it all together. Finally, the piecing and binding is the volunteer sewers and longarm quilters that provide the final assembly and finishing touches to complete the quilt.

How can quilters in the Spoonflower community support the work Social Justice Sewing Academy is doing? 

Sara: SJSA Quilts of Remembrance is a textile memorial for families who have lost a loved one to violence. They are intended to reflect the life of the person by creating a quilt using textiles or photos given to us by their family. As a volunteer quilter, you make it possible for the families of the honoree to receive a quilt that celebrates the life of their loved one and that brings our community together in support of a shared mission of social justice.

We are honoring the loss of human life and ensuring that families who receive a quilt know that they are supported and their loved one will never be forgotten.​

There is not a prescribed pattern for individual quilts. Instead, quilters use the family’s fabric mementos (photos or clothes) to inspire their design along with information shared by the family including their favorite color, likes and dislikes. This is an opportunity to participate in a project that not only raises awareness, but also turns your condolences into action!

An old mailer, graduation robe, and pair of jeans

Textile mementos to use for a Quilt of Remembrance

If a quilter isn’t ready to make an entire quilt, are there additional ways to volunteer?

Sara: Yes! SJSA’s Remembrance Project is a quilt block community art project that provides activist art banners for local and national activist organizations who have requested creative statements to be publicly displayed that represent solidarity as well as remembrance. As a volunteer, you will design and create an unquilted 22″ x 26″ (56 x 66 cm) memorial block. 

This partnership creates a visual statement to memorialize those who have been unjustly murdered by community violence (e.g. gun violence, domestic violence, child abuse, etc.) race-based violence, law enforcement, and gender or sexuality based violence. These artivism blocks honor the lives of individuals through symbolism and portrait. Their names and identities will be displayed during community activism events reminding the world that their lives mattered. 

Participating in this project involves sitting with your feelings and holding this person close as well as educating yourself to the injustices systemically and individually that impacted this person’s life. 

Further, it is highlighting the fact that their life mattered. People should educate themselves to understand their life beyond the name, the circumstances of their death, and be active in sharing that. Thus the intent of the project is multifaceted.

On one level there is a personal awareness—this is a human being with family, friends, who had dreams and goals. Their life is and was important. There’s also an overall acknowledgement of the magnitude of this issue.

When you take a step back and look at the sheer size of the exhibit you realize the tragic fact that you will run out of volunteers long before you run out of names. Therefore our audience is everyone.

From activists, politicians and educators to neighbors, family, and police. We all play a role in this complex problem and until we recognize these people as valued individuals we are complicit in the injustices that continue to be perpetuated that resulted in the end of their lives.

Quilt remembering Ahmaud Arbery
Quilt remembering Oluwatayin Salau

Quilts made in honor of Amaud Arbery and Oluwatoyin Salau

If Sara’s interview has left you feeling inspired, be sure to visit the Quilts of Remembrance page where you can learn more about how to become a volunteer quilter.

Headshot of Sara

Meet Sara

While attending UC Berkeley, Sara created a quilt in memory of Trayvon Martin and her love for sewing and passion for social justice intertwined. After graduating from the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, she founded the Social Justice Sewing Academy (SJSA) to be a platform where youth create art that engages and educates communities.

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  • Marianne Torres

    So happy to see this, to see such awesome work. Best to you all, always.

    I wish I could show you my “political t-shirt” quilt, made from the t-shirts my husband and I wore over 35 years of social justice/anti-war activism.

    Hugs to you all!!!!!!

    Marianne Torres – 76 years old and still in the struggle!

  • Susanne Rosenkranz

    Wow! I’m so impressed by the intent of this organization. It’s one thing to make a quilt dedicated to someone’s life but to ask volunteers to hold that person close; learn about them and go deep into their story is just so amazing!!
    I don’t quilt, but I do sew – I’d like to be involved. Thank you! Thank you Sara.
    Susanne Rosenkranz

  • Katelyn Conway

    If we don’t have this caliber of quilting skills is there a way we can donate fabric or funds to go towards the project?