Every Tuesday afternoon, about two dozen women and girls gather near Avondale to sew. They work on quilts and other textile projects, but they gather for so much more. They come together to laugh, eat lunch and talk about life and love. And they’re not afraid to broach topics like religion and politics. While most of the women in the room are retirees over 65, ages range from 6 to 85. And the group boasts plenty of ethnic diversity, too.
This is Bib & Tucker Sew-Op – or one part of it, at least. Bib & Tucker is Birmingham’s hub for all things sewing. With a host of activities and programs that promote empowerment, education and economic opportunity, Bib & Tucker is committed to cultivating skills and a community for anyone who wants to sew.
“One of the magical things about this organization is that all of our programming is sewing related, but we really look at the fabric of what makes a community stay together,” says Lillis Taylor, executive director and co-founder of Bib & Tucker. “And it’s accepting all of the differences that are around us and acknowledging it and not being afraid of it.”
Lillis and co-founder Annie Bryant founded Bib & Tucker in 2014 when the organization got its 501(c)(3) status. But Lillis and Annie began building this community long before. After meeting at a Birmingham Quilters Guild gathering in 2010, the two kept in touch and started meeting on their own at a local library to sew. Soon after, more and more people started to join them.
“We got too rowdy for the library,” Lillis says with a laugh. At the time, she was working as a programming manager at Desert Island Supply Co., so she moved the group there.
Today the Bib & Tucker Sew-Op has a place to call home at the convergence of Avondale, Crestwood and Woodlawn. In addition to the Tuesday meetups, Bib & Tucker offers workshops, hosts fashion shows and provides opportunities for those who want to make money with their sewing skills. The group has done several community service and outreach projects, too.
Annie says the work she does with Bib & Tucker is rewarding, and the 74-year-old Birmingham native is eager to pass on her knowledge to younger generations. “I can teach girls something that they don’t know how to do,” she says. “They can pick up ideas, and it teaches you how to understand other people. It gives you the opportunity to meet other people.”
Annie says that for her, sewing is also a form of self-care. “It calms me down,” she says. “When I’m nervous about something, I can get my quilt and work on it and concentrate on what I’m doing, and as I’m concentrating, I’m forgetting the problem that’s going on. It just relaxes me.”
For Lillis, Bib & Tucker is a labor of love. By day, she serves as an artist in residence with the Arts in Medicine program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
“One of the things that Arts in Medicine has taught me is that you can extend a person’s life by addressing their needs holistically,” Lillis says, and she believes Bib & Tucker has the power to do this for its members.
Emily Levitan, an associate professor in the Department of Epidemiology at UAB, has been studying Bib & Tucker’s Tuesday group, and she agrees that the meetings are about more than sewing. “Scientists are learning more about how important social connections and community are for health, both mental and physical,” she says. “The Bib & Tucker Tuesday group is organized around sewing, but when I asked the members why they participate, they talked about community, fellowship and relationships with a diverse group of people. One woman told me that Bib & Tucker was a soft place to land during a difficult period in her life.”
When a member’s husband died recently, others in the Tuesday group were there to give her the support she needed. Annie says this is one of the things that makes Bib & Tucker unique. “We care and are concerned about each other,” she says. “You know how people say they love you? Our group shows it. If you’re out sick, somebody is going to call. We’re like sisters.”
“Another important reason members participated in the Tuesday group was artistic expression and the opportunity to make beautiful and practical things for their communities and themselves,” Emily says. “Having meaning and purpose is so important for a healthy life. Older adults, in particular, may find meaning and purpose in Bib & Tucker that they no longer get from the work they did when they were younger.”
Bib & Tucker also works to give back to its community. The organization has made bed quilts for the YWCA shelter in Woodlawn. Members also make baby blankets for UAB’s Nurse-Family Partnership, and each year through The March Quilts community art project, members celebrate and memorialize civil rights and human rights movements through quilting and conversations.
Bib & Tucker offers a number of youth programs, too. It has developed a Quilting Activity Resource Kit (or QUARK), which is used by schools and summer enrichment programs to teach kids math skills and more.
Bib & Tucker’s Recycled Runway is an annual fashion show and fundraiser that gives participating designers the chance to show off what they can create with upcycled fabrics. Spearheaded by Bib & Tucker’s Program Manager Viola Ratcliffe, Recycled Runway is one of the ways Bib & Tucker is striving to reach younger crowds and demonstrate how sewing skills can be profitable.
“I think the core of Recycled Runway is for it to be a calling card for who we are in town and what kind of programming we have available for people who are looking for income opportunities,” Lillis says. “It’s about showing people what’s possible – the possibility of not using new resources but recycling resources and turning them into something new that’s completely your own. We know that for young people creating an identity and a uniqueness is important, and Bib & Tucker is encouraging people to do that.”
The vision of Bib & Tucker is to help create a sewing-based cottage industry that provides income and flexible work conditions for women. Through Bib & Tucker’s Magic City Seams program, participants not only learn how to sew but also get the opportunity to take on small-batch manufacturing jobs to earn extra income.
But as Bib & Tucker continues to grow, the Tuesday group will continue to be a vital part of the Sew-Op. “Quilting is just the activity,” Lillis says, “but having this place where they can come and build these bonds has made this long-lasting.”
Bib & Tucker Sew-Op is located at 4915B 5th Avenue South, Birmingham, AL 35222. Learn more at bibandtuckersewop.org.
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