The Sewing Machine as Power Tool

Christian Bryant, 9; Nathaniel Wilkes, 18; Aaron Gerlald, 10; and Javian Bryant, 13, have benefited from the Sew 'N Know.
Christian Bryant, 9; Nathaniel Wilkes, 18; Aaron Gerlald, 10; and Javian Bryant, 13, have benefited from the Sew 'N Know. (By Courtland Milloy -- The Washington Post)
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By Courtland Mill0y
Wednesday, December 26, 2007

When Janice Rankins began offering sewing classes in the District 10 years ago, it was mostly a girl thing.

"Initially, boys were a little skeptical," Rankins said. "But once they started seeing rappers like Puff Daddy and Jay Z getting into the fashion business, their attitudes began to change."

So far, Rankins has taught about 50 boys (along with hundreds of girls) how to make clothes through her Sew 'N Know Entrepreneurship Program.

At the group's annual holiday bazaar, held last week at the John A. Wilson Building, five boys were among the 15 students who set a sales record: earning more than $1,200 for their custom-made hats, scarves and pillows.

Students used some proceeds for Christmas shopping and invested the rest in the sewing program. Far from being ridiculed, the boys find themselves being the toast of the playground.

"People come up to us and say, 'Hey, where did you get those pants or that shirt?' " said Aaron Gerald, 10. "They look surprised when we say we made them. People are always asking us if we can make stuff for them."

But there is more to sewing than just making clothes, money and new best friends.

According to the winter issue of Sewing Today, a 1997 study of 100 grade-school children found that sewing not only increases creativity but also helps develop patience, perseverance and problem-solving skills. Watching TV, on the other hand, was found to decrease those abilities.

Rankins can see all kinds of benefits.

"Because they are working with sewing machines, razors, pins and scissors, there is no tolerance for clowning around in class," Rankins said. "You have to be seriously focused. Parents say this is the only class they can't get their children to come out of when it's time to go. You hear a lot of, 'Mom, wait. I've got to finish this seam.' "

Rankins, 57, began sewing when she was 7. A native of Los Angeles, she worked in the wardrobe department at several Hollywood studios and helped make clothes for such television shows as "Good Times," "Gimme a Break" and "Room 222." She moved to the District in 1994 and began designing clothes for a select clientele before starting the sewing program for children.

Sewing classes are now held after school three days a week at the Southeast Tennis and Learning Center, 701 Mississippi Ave. During summers, students attend classes all day. The program is sponsored by the Recreation Wish List Committee, which provides sewing machines, fabric and notions.

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