Hannah Shuker, 16, has a severe form of epilepsy and has been in and out of hospitals her entire life, says her mom, Heather.
Over the years, Heather has watched, her heart breaking, while her daughter endured difficult hospital procedures — like the days when Hannah’s head was covered in gauze with numerous electrodes taped all over, sprouting wiry leads that connected to an EEG machine. It was the thing Hannah dreaded the most.
“The process is extremely scary for kids,” says Heather, who was inspired to make it less so.
One day when her daughter was in the hospital with respiratory failure, she knew she had to act. Her first move? To design and create a cheerful, colorful stocking cap that slipped comfortably over Hannah’s head and hid the unsightly medical equipment.
It made a big difference to her daughter, who looked and felt better while wearing it.
As of February of this year, the caps — which Heather dubbed NillyNoggins — are available on a wider basis, thanks to her partnership with Sew Forward at East End Cooperative Ministry.
Sew Forward is working with numerous maker businesses in Pittsburgh, from well-known brands such as moop, with its hip and sturdy canvas bags, to Pup Cycled, a new business launched by a Carnegie Mellon student that stitches together salvaged sweaters from Goodwill to create recycled sweaters for dogs.
The group recently made 450 NilliNoggins for Heather’s company, Hannahtopia, which features quite a few products for medically fragile kids, Heather is now working to get them distributed to hospitals to help kids — just like hers — with medical needs.
Sew Forward also handles a range of other projects: They help create customized t-shirts for PennDOT workers for Lark, a social enterprise company in New Castle, Pa. They also produce the skins (the exteriors) for an interactive learning tool robot for a California robotics company. When they were approached by an out-of-town company with an idea for a stuffed penguin iPad holder, they took the concept, designed the product and now produce it in bulk. They can do the same for any local maker or company.
Wendy Downs of moop is happy to support the initiative. “Their ambition is huge and the portion of the population they’re working with is challenging. So what they’ve accomplished is truly remarkable,” she says.
With their mission of employing people with employment barriers, “they help to move forward a whole community,” she adds.
Heather Shuker agrees. “It’s been wonderful,” Sukar says of her experience at Sew Forward. “They’re doing really good things.”
The sewing initiative started two years ago when EECM took over a sewing project from the Pittsburgh Opera. It was a small venture in a single room at first, but it grew quickly — to the point where they knocked down a wall and took over the adjacent room at the nonprofit’s East Liberty location.
The space is now large, filled with daylight and lined with work stations where a white Juki sewing machine is the focal point, surrounded by colorful spools of thread and bright fabric swatches. Women, mostly immigrants in need of jobs, work part-time at these stations making products for local makers and others.
Many immigrant women know how to sew, says EECM President and CEO Carole Bailey. Language skills are often a barrier in hiring, but with sewing it’s not as critical, she notes.
It’s a win-win for all, says Tony Cortese, EECM’s business development director, who is eager to get the word out to more local makers.
Sew Forward can make life easier for many makers, he says. Instead of expanding their workforce or taking on extra hours to do it themselves, they can outsource to the program which pays off for everyone involved.
For years, says Cortese, EECM has helped people with employment barriers find work through training programs in landscaping, office cleaning and even snow removal.
“We had our first sewing class a few years ago,” says Cortese, “with an instructor with a design and retail background.” The goal was to create a sewing studio that is educational and functional, producing items for makers far and wide.
“We discovered there’s a big need for small-batch product,” he explains. “And we now have a full-fledged finishing house here in Pittsburgh.”
That’s a big plus for local makers who now have an option beyond outsourcing to China and other countries. They can get the work done in Pittsburgh instead, saving time and money on shipping while supporting their own local maker community.
In addition to sewing classes and a sewing apprenticeship, EECM offers classes for makers and workers on skills like resume writing and how to ace an interview. There’s even a class on understanding banking.
“It’s the whole package,” says Bailey.
All photos by Tracy Certo.