Skip to main content
Bright interior of a store chock full of art and craft items on blonde wood shelving.

The Bronzeville Collective showcases Milwaukee’s creativity and supports makers both creatively and financially. Photo courtesy of Bronzeville Collective

  • In Craft Collectives, Black Artists Find Community and Sanctuary

    For centuries, African American sewists have created their own fabrics, hosted their own shows, and trained the next generation of makers. Out of necessity, they crafted their own spaces.

    “In the sewing world, we always felt excluded,” says Tisha Thorne, maker and certified sewing instructor. “We didn’t see ourselves on fabrics, at industry shows, or teaching. Across the whole gamut, we didn’t see ourselves, but we are here.”

    Thorne and Cecily Habimana, maker and fashion designer, continue this legacy of self-determination as co-owners of Sew Creative Lounge, a Black-owned sewing studio and fabric store in Mount Rainer, Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C. Habimana, who started making her own garments at the age of eleven, is also founder and owner of Simply Cecily, a contemporary women’s clothing line that combines an American aesthetic with African fabrics. Thorne, born and raised in D.C., has taught across the city for more than twenty years. In addition to her contract work with several museums, her sewing projects line the halls of spaces such as the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. Together, Thorne and Habimana built a space that welcomes Black makers.

    The pair met in the hallway of their apartment building in 2006. Habimana says that when she saw Thorne’s sewing room—filled with piles of fabrics and garments, home and professional-grade sewing machines—she knew Thorne “really, really sews.”  

    Six years later, they partnered with Anika Hobbs, owner of Nubian Hueman, a prime source for fashion and art created by designers in the global diaspora, and created Sip and Sew DC, a series of pop-up social workshops. They began at Nubian Hueman’s boutique in the Anacostia Arts Center and traveled across the city, attracting up to seventy students a day, learners seeking guidance and community in sewing. Today, Sew Creative Lounge has become a studio and community, offering children and adult sewing classes, sew-alongs, fabrics, sewing parties, and more.

    Young Black woman with long locs, posing on a residential street, wearing a black Sew Creative Lounge T-shirt.
    Cecily Habimana
    Photo courtesy of Sew Creative Lounge
    Black woman, posing in front of a brightly colored quilt, wearing a black Sew Creative Lounge T-shirt.
    Tisha Thorne
    Photo courtesy of Sew Creative Lounge

    Sew Creative Lounge welcomes all learners. Yet, like-mindedness and trust hold their sewing community together. “We’re very clear that we’re here to serve the African American community,” Habimana says confidently, leaning forward. “Although we have members from various backgrounds, in terms of the fabric that we sell and the history that we talk about, it’s all rooted in either African or African American history.”

    In Sew Creative’s fabric store, customers gaze up at floor-to-ceiling rows of African prints, neatly displayed in quantities not found at retail fabric stores. On shelves (and online), there is fabric celebrating Black love and fabric stamped with the statement “Black Lives Matter,” designed by Habimana. 

    “Here, we don’t need to have an explanation for Black Lives Matter fabric,” Habimana says. She pauses and then smiles slightly. “Everything we do is rooted in our culture and community.” This allows Sew Creative Lounge to teach students both the basics of sewing and the ancestral beginnings of fabric such as kente cloth, adinkra cloth, or mud cloth, a handmade textile from Mali, Africa.    

    In addition to gathering fabric at Sew Creative Lounge, African American makers congregate at Sew Creative’s studio, a sunny room stocked with forty Brother sewing machines and four industrial-sized machines. At eight-foot tables, sewists lay out their tools: thread, neatly folded patterns, pencils, scissors, pins. Side by side, they carefully feed African print fabric through their machines—their chatter and laughter mixing with a chorus of mechanical humming. Instructors, always nearby, step in when needed, deftly undoing stitches or answering questions. Sew Creative Lounge interns, fashion design majors from Bowie State and Howard University, bustle to and fro, lending a helping hand.

    “We have a community where we connect with one another, on the same stories, finding that same path and the love of sewing,” Thorne says. From her voice, you can hear her bright and excited energy.


    Two Black women smile, posing outside a storefront window with the name Bronzeville Collective.
    Tiffany Miller and Lilo Allen, founders of Bronzeville Collective
    Photo courtesy of Bronzeville Collective

    About 800 miles away in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Tiffany Miller and Lilo Allen have forged another creative community space. The pair established a Black-owned business and “collaborative storefront” that showcases Milwaukee’s creativity and supports makers both creatively and financially; its space is home to over twenty-five local brands led by Black, Brown, LGBTQIA+, and ally creatives. Allen and Miller named their business the Bronzeville Collective MKE, after the neighborhood their storefront resides in: Milwaukee’s historic Bronzeville Cultural and Entertainment District.

    “We are intentional about paying homage to the folks that came before us,” Allen says. “Bronzeville was the economic heartbeat of Milwaukee at one point in time.”

    During the Great Migration, thousands of African Americans traveled north to Bronzeville in Milwaukee (“Bronzeville” was a name often used to refer to Black neighborhoods during segregation). Despite continuous racist policies, Bronzeville residents created a thriving community. “It was a place of culture, a place of care,” Allen says passionately. “A place where you could go and find people that look like you.”

    Yet, in the 1950s, the city of Milwaukee, using Congress’s Housing Act of 1949, aimed their “urban renewal” plan at Bronzeville. Soon, Interstate 43 cut through the community, eliminating the neighborhood and displacing residents.

    Today, the Bronzeville Collective, along with other businesses downtown, contribute to the neighborhood’s revitalization plans by actively collaborating with and promoting local Black businesses and creatives. From the Bronzeville Collective’s storefront, once a Black-owned dentist’s office, they care for their neighbors, organizing coat drives, backpack drives, and fundraisers.

    “We’ve chosen ourselves,” says Miller, maker and co-owner. “And our community has chosen us to be out here, a space of creative flow and goodness.”

    For years, Miller and Allen shared vending space at showcases and marketplaces, before teaming up to lessen expenses. In 2019, they pitched their Bronzeville Collective business model at RISE MKE, a small-business incubator sponsored by Milwaukee’s African American Chamber of Commerce. They won fan favorite and the entire competition, securing $3,000 to establish their new collaborative space.

    The Bronzeville Collective is a paradise of art and craft. As Miller says with a big smile, it’s a place with “dope vibes and apparel.” Bright and airy, every inch radiates pattern and color. Countless rows of shelves are stacked with jewelry, scarves, purses, hats, candles, and more. Each display features local established and new businesses like Distinctive Designs by Tomira, Beelegant, and Alice’s Garden Urban Farm.  

    And as Allen says enthusiastically, “I know I’m going to get some Black girl magic love when I walk through these doors!” Makers and community members regularly stop by to chat or discuss business. Outside, visitors are greeted by murals honoring Vel Phillips, an African American Milwaukee politician, judge, attorney, and civil rights activist. The phrase “Dream Big Dreams” is painted above Phillips’s head. On the storefront door, a sign reads, “If you have symptoms of Covid, homophobia, transphobia or racism, you are not welcome in the Bronzeville Collective.” Inside, you’ll find T-shirts that say “Black Moms Rock,” Black-authored books, and more.  

    Store interior selling clothing, jewelry, and artwork.
    Photo courtesy of Bronzeville Collective

    On the left side of the store, Miller, owner of FlyBlooms, sells handcrafted adornments that encourage wearers to adorn their own unique “blooms”—from skirts and clutches to headwraps and handmade flowers. Most of Miller’s pieces are colorful, a mix of patterns and hues, because, as she says, “There’s beauty in color, and we are Black. I’m not making an all-black anything because color bounces off our skin in such a beautiful way.” She adds, a yellow flower adorning her own hair, “I want to highlight the melanin.”

    Miller’s vibrant collection also features six-foot-tall embroidered banners that read “Trust Black Women.” Miller says that her banners, composed of a mix of African wax print and denim, are not only statements. They call to the wearer, and those who see its message, to practice trust.

    On the right side of the store, customers find a display for Papyrus & Charms, Allen’s culturally conscious wearable art company. Papyrus & Charms has become Allen and her father’s passion for self-care, making, and Afro-Caribbean culture. Allen’s father, a maker as well, lives in Jamaica.

    “He would send me things, and I would deconstruct it, like, okay how did he make this?” Through this diasporic, father-daughter exchange, Allen learned sewing, crocheting, weaving, and knotting techniques. She taught herself wood burnishing, wood burning, and metal stamping. Allen’s wearable art ranges from earrings, necklaces, and waist beads to jeweled glasses frames, candles, and handmade balms and bath bars. Allen and her father use natural materials like coconut shells, palm seeds, crystals, cowrie shells, mahogany, and semiprecious stones.

    For Allen, it’s important for “folks to see themselves represented in the things they adorn themselves with.” Her spring 2022 collection included new styles of handmade headpieces, called Crystal Crown Charms. Each crown is carefully wire-wrapped with gems like rose quartz, emerald, and amber. The bottom of each headpiece is covered with satin as not to damage natural hair.

    “There’s not too many retail places, especially so close to downtown Milwaukee, where you can say, ‘This is my store. This is where you can see us celebrated,’” Allen says. “Milwaukee is one of the most segregated cities in the country.” On her website, she writes, “What are you waiting for? Crown yourself.”


    Person working on a Brother sewing machine.
    Photo courtesy of Sew Creative Lounge

    The Bronzeville Collective and Sew Creative Lounge are sanctuaries for Black artists, filled with Black joy, healing, and creativity; places to gather the pieces of yourself and to gather with other makers; to be unapologetically Black and see yourself in the materials you craft with, the products you use, and art you adorn yourself with.

    Importantly, both businesses have grown out of and respond to their communities. At Sew Creative Lounge, makers walk into the bright studio with a story. “I always hear from our students: ‘my mom sewed, but I didn’t learn,’” Habimana says. “’My grandma sewed, but I didn’t learn from her.’ ‘I learned how to sew in home economics, but I haven’t sewn in thirty years.’”

    “We are inserting ourselves inside our community and serving as that liaison so that the people who would have maybe learned to sew in past generations are able to continue that tradition in their families and at home,” Habimana says.  In addition to attending Q&A sessions, students can call or email Sew Creative Lounge with questions. Sew Creative Lounge is a trusted culture keeper and lifeline, serving as sewing experts to guide learners through a stitch or pattern, just as their mothers or grandmothers once might have done.

    Moreover, Sew Creative Lounge actively convenes makers from around the world, like at their popular Sew Much Soul Conference. Many of their classes are virtual now, hosting about 300 participants across the country; they also host virtual sewing parties, conferences, and bi-monthly sew-alongs and established a scholarship fund for young makers. With the pandemic, their community expanded geographically. Through Facebook groups, their students share their latest projects, seek advice, give encouragement, and tackle new techniques.

    Store interior with racks of fabrics, sewing patterns, and African print pillows on a couch.
    Photo courtesy of Sew Creative Lounge

    Both Sew Creative Lounge and the Bronzeville Collective assist makers in sustaining their craft. As Allen says, “The goal is to not only to impact these creatives in a creative way but also financially.” The Bronzeville Collective offers an innovative, financially accessible model for its vendors: creatives grow their brands while paying affordable monthly vendor fees and commission rates no higher than twenty percent. Vendor rates are on a sliding scale, depending on how much space the vendor wants. The collective values transparency (vendors receive weekly payouts with detailed sales reports) and offers brand visibility for makers (makers can participate in free pop-up shopping events and external events like festivals).

    However, as Miller and Allen iterate, this collaborative business model is built on intention and must honor the trust that creatives put into the collective by creating a viable revenue stream for makers, without them needing to be there all the time. “It’s a beautiful thing to have the trust of other creatives,” Miller says. “Most of our creatives are women, Black women, Brown women, queer women, allies. It’s continued trust of the community to be a place of rest, of healing.”

    In cultivating trust, the Bronzeville Collective becomes “more than just having a store to sell some things out of,” Miller says. “To be trusted in that way, to hold people up when they can’t, it’s a beautiful thing because they hold us up when we’re unable.” And this community, Allen and Miller discussed, steadied them through the pandemic. Community members donated to the collective’s Covid-19 Collaboration Fund. Through this support, they was able to pay their rent. As they moved their store online during the pandemic, their nearly thirty vendors did not have to pay rent either.

    “We took care of our community, and they took care of us right back,” Allen says. “That was honestly, probably one of the best feelings in the world.”

    A Message for the Craft Community

    The Bronzeville Collective and Sew Creative Lounge are agents of change—crafting communities, inhabiting their own spaces, and celebrating Black creativity.   

    When asked what the craft world could do to support Black makers, Allen says, “The biggest thing is a lack of opportunity. It’s about impact. I wish that we had more opportunities, and I would love to see more people go into—not just craft—the world of business with the intention of making an impactful, positive change and bringing more visibility to all the talent we have.”

    Miller adds, “I want organizations to move away from guilt. Be intentional. How are you going to sustain this after? There’s some permanency that needs to happen. Correct the wrongdoing. And the longevity of this visibility needs to be there.”

    Ebony Bailey is a writer, educator, artist, researcher, and a former intern of the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage’s African American Craft Initiative. She holds a PhD in African American literature, folklore, and narrative theory from The Ohio State University.

  • Support the Folklife Festival, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, Cultural Vitality Program, educational outreach, and more.