SEATTLE — If this week's frigid temperatures have you in the market for a new pair of mittens, look no further!
A local non-profit is re-creating the ones worn by Sen. Bernie Sanders at the inauguration, and each pair you buy supports a greater purpose.
Refugee Artisan Initiative in Seattle’s Lake City neighborhood employs refugee and immigrant women to help them transition into their new lives. They’re paid a livable wage as they receive training in small batch manufacturing, specifically as seamstresses.
"Sewing is a skill many of them already have,” said Ming-Ming Tung-Edelman, Exec. Dir. of RAI. “Especially if you grew up in a refugee camp, you have to make your own clothes."
Born from necessity, that skill becomes empowerment through RAI’s program. The artisans – who’ve come from nations such as Burma, Afghanistan, and Ethiopia - also learn how to speak English and apply for business licenses. The ultimate goal is entrepreneurship or employment at a larger company.
"They're so proud! I have one artisan, two months later she never cashed her check, because she framed it!” Tung-Edelman said, laughing. “It was her first paycheck in America. I said, 'Make a copy and cash your check!'"
The non-profit's inspiration comes from Tung-Edelman’s own life - her grandmother was a single parent who supported her family as home seamstress and she knew mastery of a craft could change lives.
But when R-A-I's maker's space opened in December of 2019, no one could have imagined how many lives it would impact.
In the early days of the pandemic when masks were scarce, R-A-I turned hundreds of donated, unused bedsheets into more than 80,000 face masks. They were donated and distributed across the country, worn by everyone from front line workers to bus drivers and postal service employees.
Brittany Forney, a designer who owns/operates Seattle-based Bartle B. Clothing Co., is also RAI’s sewing coordinator. She helps train the artisans and prep their materials.
"I'm amazed by their tenacity and motivation and attention to detail,” she said. "I get to batch up all of the work we've done for the week, and when I'm done I get to see all of the names on all of the bags, it just makes me so proud."
The new year brought a new project, inspired by the inauguration image of Sen. Bernie Sanders wearing his casual but cozy mittens.
"Just something about the moment of him being so relatable and human,” Tung-Edelman said. "After a year of making these masks, dealing with the very severe issue of COVID, how fun to turn to making something more fun and useful and bring some joy."
Two days after Sanders wore them, R-A-I started making their own version - using donated sweaters and upcycled fleece.
Bernie's Big & Cozy (En)viral-mittens cost $35 and for each pair sold, RAI donates a handmade pair of fleece gloves to a person experiencing homelessness.
"They make me warm and fuzzy,” Forney said. "It's really incredible, the skill set these women have brought to us, and the fact that we just get to help them hone it."
As mask production tapers off, the artisans are also hard at work making an array of other products like medical scrubs, warm hats and blankets, pieces of art, jewelry, and hand-poured candles - using upcycled fabrics and materials.
Every single stitch is doing something good for the artisans, the earth, and the community.
"The notion that refugees and immigrants only come here to take away what we have - it is not true,” Tung-Edelman said. “They love our country and want to contribute just as much as anyone. It's a win-win for everyone."