Faces of Nashville: Erin Smithey & Frances Nichols

The well known quote, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime” so aptly describes the mission of The International Sewing Club. Begun by Erin Smithey and Frances Nichols, this non-profit organization serves immigrant and refugee women by teaching them the art of sewing in order to provide them with an economic skill. Embracing the teachings of Christ, The International Sewing Club goes a step further enhancing the women’s lives they serve by helping them with day care, reading, writing and mathematics. Both Erin and Frances consider themselves the true winners, as they have made lifelong friends and now understand how one sewing machine can dramatically change lives and build a community.

Where did you grow up?

ES: A small southern town in Arkansas – Pine Bluff.

FN: I grew up in rural Idaho on a small farm and then moved on to a service station/motel. My dad was a sharecropper and we did not have electricity until I was almost 7.

What brought you to Nashville?

ES: I left Pine Bluff to go to New York City. When I realized how much I missed Southern warmth and warmer weather, I came to Nashville. My sister was already living here.

FN: In my adult life, I’ve lived in 5 states, had 7 big moves back and forth across the country. I am living in my 10th house. My husband died when we lived in Memphis, and I then moved to Bend,Oregon. In 2001 I moved to Nashville.

What did you do early in your life to prepare you for the work you do now?

ES: My first dream was to be a fashion designer – that is why I went to NYC to study at FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology). I have always loved to sew. My mother began to teach me when I was young, and that love has always stayed with me. I have been inspired by reading books about the trials and triumphs of women around the world, in particular a book called Half the Sky by Nicholos D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn.

FN: My mother taught me to sew on a peddle sewing machine. I went to college in Pocatello, Idaho, where I took business classes to be a secretary and home economics classes for fun. I received a degree in Business Education and Home Economics.

Because of my many moves, I could not find a job in a traditional school system, so I turned to teaching in business colleges and adult education centers. One of my more memorable jobs was teaching GED classes in the Idaho State Penitentiary. When I was not working, I volunteered in the inner cities of Oakland, California, and Memphis teaching reading.

Six and a half years ago I saw an ad in my church bulletin asking for volunteers to teach reading, and I have taught in the Woodbine area since.

From my understanding you work with women to empower them to become financially independent by providing them a sewing machine. How did you come up with this idea?

ES: I have embraced Fran’s vision and have come alongside her to help her see it happen.

FN: One summer my church offered short session classes, where members of the church taught the refugee cooking or crafts. I taught sewing. I taught one refugee woman who wanted to learn to sew on a sewing machine. I went back to English class and found a Somali Bantu woman who also wanted to learn to sew. I started with these two women in May and by September I had 6 students. I would like to thank Louise, a member of my church, for all of her help during those first few months. My sister-in-law says that it sounds like the Field of Dreams movie. You build it and they come.

Erin was at a refuge meeting and she told them she would like to have a sewing circle of cross cultural women.  They gave her my number. With Erin’s enthusiasm, kind heart, excellent design and sewing skills, we have taken our sewing group to a whole new level. We have worked together very well. Erin has taken on all of the responsibilities associated with our non-profit club.

My initial goal was to teach these refugee women to sew for their families, and then their communities. We now want to provide them with a skill that will help them provide financially for themselves and their families. When I gave my first Sudanese student her machine, she hugged it and said, “When I go home, I can teach my people to sew.”

What lesson have you learned from the women you work with?

ES: Most of the time, I learn far more from these women then I could every teach them. First, I have learned to appreciate their strength and determination. I am inspired by their determination to triumph over adversity, and they teach me the value of families and honor, true friendship, loyalty and to broaden my world view.

FN: The Somali refugee women have been forced to leave their families and live in camps in Kenya. Most of these women live in these camps for 12-14 years until they are granted asylum in a country. The majority of the Sudanese women go to Cairo to live while they await asylum.

I don’t think any of us can even imagine what these women have had to do to survive. They are strong, resilient women.

In terms of assisting women to become independent, what have been the biggest obstacles?

ES: The most significant obstacle these women face is the language barrier. Learning to speak, read and write English gives them a great confidence boost and helps them take further steps, like applying for jobs, helping their children with school work, and going back to school for themselves. This is why we keep tutoring opportunities as a part of our class time. Women can receive a 45 minute session each week helping them with reading, speaking and writing English, as well as basic math help.

FN: We have done a excellent job of teaching these women to be seamstresses.We have some students who are now so skilled that they can sew a wool-lined jacket, which is very difficult. We need help helping these women find a way to sell their products. We ideally would like someone to help develop a marketing plan as well as find markets for their products.

What does Nashville as a city offer to the women you serve?

ES: Nashville is known for being one of the the friendliest and most welcoming cities in the US. This counts for the refugees who come here from all over the world. There are a number of faith-based organizations like World Relief, Catholic Charities, and the Nashville International Center for Empowerment to help them get settled and adjust to the Western culture. Nashville is known as a good place for people from other places. For example, the largest community of Kurdish people is here in Nashville, and a local elementary school has a student population representing 84 different languages. I think this is because all of us here in Nashville are working at welcoming others and building the resources that immigrants and refugees need to succeed. We also have large South Sudanese and Somali communities, just to name a few.

FN: Nashville has a large immigrant community. When I was teaching English, my best classes were diverse, in terms of race, religion and country. One English class had a Burundi Christian, an El Salvador Christian, a Laos Buddhist and 3 Somali Muslims. That inspired me to have a diverse sewing class. My greatest joy has been seeing relationships develop between these tribes of African women. I had a Sudanese Christian and a Somali Bantu Muslim who lived in the same complex, come to Sewing club together. Now their college-age daughters ride to college together, and their 2 high school students study together.

In terms of help from the Nashville community, what do you need?

ES: We need help in 3 areas. First, we need women to volunteer as sewing instructors. This doesn’t mean you have to be an expert seamstress, rather, you just need a basic working knowledge of sewing and the desire to share that with a woman on a 1 to 1 basis. We provide the process, we just need  more hands. Second, we need women who would like to help tutor women in basic English and Math. What this means is sitting with a women from another country and helping guide her through her English Language Learners workbook or a basic math problem. Last, we really need help with child care. Our friends have young children they bring with them to class. We need some ladies who will play with the most adorable children around. This lets the mothers focus on the sewing they are learning without being distracted. Anyone can visit our website to learn more and to contact us in order to volunteer: www.internationalsewingclub.org  We also accept portable sewing machines, fabric, and sewing notion donations, as well as tax deductible financial contributions.

FN: We now offer our sewing students individual tutoring in English, citizenship,and math. We are looking for volunteers to help teach one on one English, citizenship and math. Our volunteers do not need to have any teaching experience we are able to train. We have between 2 and 8 students every Friday morning. If we had more volunteer teachers we could provide services to more women. Right now we have a waiting list that includes 10 woman. We would also like to have babysitters, most of these women have young children and babies and can not afford child care.

What is the best advice you have been given?

ES: I have been taught to follow my dreams and that hard work and perseverance always pays off. At ISC we help women realize their dreams and we never let them give up on a project.

FN: The best advice I have received is from my daughter when she said “Let Elizabeth Fox interview you for her fabulous blog, StyleBlueprint.”

What do you do in Nashville to relax?

ES: My husband is a music promoter here in Nashville and we love visiting the many fabulous music venues in town and enjoying the great live music that the city offers.

FN: I enjoy quilting, knitting and taking water color classes.

Is there an event coming up in Nashville that you are looking forward to attending?

ES: Morrissey is coming to the Ryman Auditorium. Can’t wait to be there!

FN: I enjoy traveling. I am looking forward to visiting my son, Mark, in China where he lives. My favorite travels have been in my motor home. I have driven across America and Canada, into Alaska and back! 60,000 miles!

Name three things you can live without (excluding God, Family and Friends).

ES: I could not live without my JUKI or Industrial Sewing Machine, Lightning 100 radio station, and my husband’s gourmet cooking for nourishment!

FN: I’ve found out that I can live without watching news! It just raises my blood pressure! I can’t live without Isobel Hall, Emma Hall and Kathy Hall. I still miss the Belle Meade Cafeteria.

Thanks, Erin and Frances! To learn more about the International Sewing Club, click here:  And thanks, also, to Ashley Hylbert for today’s beautiful photographs.