Grand Forks sewing group is stitching a community together

Sarah Beniek, a native of Korea, listens as Dawn Pearson (right), a teacher volunteer, describes how to operate the sewing machine at a sewing class sponsored by Global Friends Coalition. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Seated close to the sewing machine, Tilla Biswa concentrated on making her first stitches as Jeannie Sollom, a volunteer teacher, coached her.

“That’s good,” Sollom said, as the young woman from Nepal slowly advanced the edge of two layers of fabric under the needle, stitching a seam in what would become a pillow cover.

With each stitch, Biswa appeared to grow more confident and at ease operating the machine.


Sollom has been involved in the sewing classes, sponsored by Global Friends Coalition, for four years.

“They are so excited, so happy to do this,” she said of those who attend the class. “And when we tell them they can take their thing home, they’re all smiles.”

Beginning sewers can start with a pillow cover or small bag; those with more experience may work on more challenging items -- such as a blouse, skirt or children’s clothes.

The group meets from 1 to 3 p.m. Tuesdays through March 24 at Sharon Lutheran Church.

The class “is open to anyone -- immigrants and others who came as refugees but are also immigrants,” said Cynthia Shabb, executive director of Global Friends Coalition.

At a recent class, smiles and laughter permeated the atmosphere in the church’s dining room where women from China, Nepal and South Korea each teamed up with the volunteers to work on sewing projects.

“You see the camaraderie that occurs,” Shabb said, noting that refugee integration is at the core of Global Friends’ mission.

Louise Zhou, who is from China and has attended three sewing classes, is the mother of four young boys, she said. “I’m interested in making things for myself and for my kids.”


“I tried to make a car seat cover -- it’s not very pretty, but it works,” she said with a smile. “I’m thinking about making a comforter for the kids.”

Holding up her 14-inch-square pillow, Sarah Beniek, a native of South Korea, said, “I feel like I want to make 90 of these now.”

A UND student, Beniek said, “The class is really good, and I feel not enough people know about it.

“Maybe when I’m more financially stable, I’ll make clothes for myself,” she added.

Doing something, like sewing, that they may have done in their former country brings familiarity to their new home, Shabb said.

Anita Kalikote moved here three years ago, she said. Growing up in Nepal, she learned to sew using a treadle machine, a fact she conveyed more by body language than verbally, mimicking the action with her feet and hands.

She wants to sew more for her family in the household she shares with seven relatives, she said.

The ability to speak English “is not a necessity when you sew,” said Karen Axvig, retired home economics teacher who launched the class. “There’s a lot of pointing and body language.”


“Often there’s one in the group who speaks the (English) language,” she said. “Because of our smiles and our ways with them, they know we want them to be successful.”

Besides learning a new skill, class participants further benefit.

“It’s a wonderful outlet for them,” Axvig said. “They go to a different place in their heads. It’s relaxed, safe and creative -- it’s a really good outlet for them.”

Axvig recalled working with a mature woman from Nigeria.

“She finished a really lovely lined bag, and she was so proud. It was the first time she sewed, and she was so excited,” she said. The ability “to create something and finish something they can take with them is so fulfilling for them -- and for us.”

“I’ve done a lot of fun things in retirement,” Axvig said, “but this has been a real highlight in my life.”

Volunteers make it work

Although the classes have been held at other locations, most of the time it’s been at Sharon Lutheran, where a large dining room with numerous round tables allows space for volunteers to work with people at the sewing machines, to iron fabrics, and for fabric to be spread out and cut.

The volunteers receive donated fabrics and can purchase fabrics and other supplies with a $250 annual grant from Thrivent, Sollom said.


They also benefit from the generosity of Darin Buri, who has volunteered to repair sewing machines for the class at no cost.

Volunteers recruit others to join the class as teachers -- so much so, that the teacher-student ratio is nearly 1-1.

“I think I enjoy this as much as they do -- to learn their cultures,” said Donette Arndt, a volunteer teacher. “I’m so glad they got me involved.”

Sollom receives positive feedback from volunteers, too.

“We have a good time, lots of fun,” she said. “They keep coming back, so I guess they’ve enjoyed it.”

Men also interested

And the class is not only populated by women.

“In the Butanese and Somali culture, men are tailors,” said Shabb. “We have had good male participation.”

“Men have made outfits for themselves, like bigger tops,” she said. “Bags are really popular.”


Arndt said, “I had to tell the Somali guys they weren’t riding a racing machine. They wanted to go fast.”

Some who have attended the classes have posted online pictures of the items they’ve sewn for themselves or their children, Shabb said.

Because there’s an end product derived from the class, it gives participants “a sense of accomplishment,” she said.

“When you’re sewing your mind is completely immersed in what you’re doing -- not on your next meal or paying a bill,” she said.

“I think people appreciate the chance to relax a little bit -- and be creative. It’s a fun outing.”

Pamela Knudson is a features and arts/entertainment writer for the Grand Forks Herald.

She has worked for the Herald since 2011 and has covered a wide variety of topics, including the latest performances in the region and health topics.

Pamela can be reached at or (701) 780-1107.
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