Teaching Refugees to Sew

WTB’s sewing program for refugees is so popular that as many as 54 people have been on the waiting list!  This program, led by a small group of WTB volunteers, is one of our most successful programs and makes a big difference for the persons who attend.

The schedule follows the city school district calendar. Students meet one day a week for eight weeks, noon to 2:30, in the basement of the Northside Learning Center, 501 Park Street, which is in the heart of the refugee community on Syracuse’s Northside.  Students come from Bhutan, Burma, Somalia, Iraq and Sudan. While almost all students are women, one man has also taken the class.

The space is bright, with large windows for natural light and large tables for sewing machines and fabric layout.  The students begin by learning to sew a small pillow stuffed with fiberfil, and then they progress in steps making a potholder, apron,  shoulder bag, and elastic-waist pants. They conclude with a final project of a tunic or blouse pattern of their own choice.  Each of these projects  is designed to introduce a new technique, from straight stitching, to curves, to using a pattern, to fitting the pattern to the individual body.

Women who complete the sessions get a donated sewing machine, so they can use their new skills at home and make items for their family or to sell. Each student receives a lesson on the use of the machine, either in the last class or at the student’s home.

Graduates of previous class are sewing at home, having learned the basics in the class and received a donated sewing machine of their own. They also get some basic materials (thread, pins, needles and bobbins) to start them off.


Supplies and volunteers are always needed. Many of those who’ve been doing this several years are retired and travel, so they need substitutes. Also the teachers would like to add a scissors to the “graduation gifts” as many can’t afford a good quality one. Contact Jennifer Crittenden at 633-2817 or info@WTB.org if you’re interested.

This class does not prepare the students for sewing employment, but the job placement experts say that having experience with a sewing machine on their resumes is a plus when seeking other kinds of jobs.

WTB volunteers have been meeting with refugee women since 2004, and the sewing classes began in 2010. The program’s initial funding came from a grant from the Presbytery of Cayuga/Syracuse. A grant from a Lutheran organization enables it to continue. Our program has received valuable donations from Feminine Touch Fabrics, Singer Service Center, Joann Fabrics, and many individuals who have donated fabric, notions, and sewing machines.

You can read more about the 2014 classes here. Click here for an article in the Post Standard in February, 2012, about our work with these refugee women (scroll to the middle).