Every Monday since the beginning of April, a unique group of women have transformed piles of slightly damaged tablecloths into handmade totes with the hopes that their needlework and stitchery could create a sense of entrepreneurial independence when they are released from the San Francisco County Jail.
The Pilot Sewing Project is a six-week program created through the collaboration of SF State professor of consumer and family studies Connie Ulasewicz, lecturer Gail Baugh, the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department and its Women’s Resource Center. The class is taught by five SF State graduate students and is part of a geometry course female inmates are required to take during their time at the jail to receive their GED.
Russell Esmus is one the five graduate students who has been going to the county jail every Monday to teach the nine to 12 inmates how to operate the sewing machines and ultimately become sewing machine operators after their release form incarceration.
“The idea through my specific lens is that if we give (inmates) a skill set and they’re able to take that skill set and go get work and they’ll have a place that they need to be everyday and they’ll have an income,” Esmus said. “They won’t have to rely on their participation in the black market economy.”
Ulasewicz said she and the student teachers initially focused on female inmates because the Women’s Resource Center was located across the street from the county jail where the women are serving their time. The center was already equipped with the sewing machines that could make this program possible.
“We got involved with the sheriff’s department because we were working with them to try to determine how we could eliminate waste and create workforce development,” Ulasewicz said. “Four percent of San Francisco’s waste is textile and no one was really looking at that idea.”
Through the Pilot Sewing Project, the women are learning how to operate sewing machines, utilize textile fabrics and make different seams and stitches with the bags, according to Ulasewicz.
“The idea is that the city would be supporting reuse, so we’re teaching a skill on a product that would otherwise be going to landfill,” Ulasewicz said. “It’s a bag and if this is something that works, we could create more bags out of this textile waste.”
Baugh and Ulasewicz said that through this opportunity, the students, in addition to the inmates, have benefitted.
“(The graduate students) have learned how to inspire others and be open to be inspired by a person who has made poor choices in their life, yet are resilient as they rebuild their lives,” Baugh said.
Esmus, whose degree has an emphasis in apparel, said that through this program they hope to reduce the San Francisco County Jail #2’s recidivism rates, which are the rates of inmates returning to jail after they were released for a similar offense.
“The purpose of the project is workforce development and the reason we’re focusing on sewing and people that are currently in the county jail is because there is a lack of skilled workforce,” Esmus said.
Each tote bag that the women make will go into a manila envelope and will be kept at the Women’s Resource Center. When the women finish serving their time at the jail, which is an average of four weeks, they are able to go pick up their designs to keep or sell.
“There have been women that leave the program and take the bags (they created) with them,” Ulasewicz said. “It’s very exciting. They feel very positive about it.”