SPRINGDALE -- Gina Jener sat Thursday in front of a sewing machine in a light-filled former church on Holcomb Street, sewing together pieces of blue and white tropical print fabric.
Jener was taking advantage of free sewing classes and studio time offered by Interform, a nonprofit organization working to build a fashion and art industry in Northwest Arkansas. The agency got its start in 2o16 as the Northwest Arkansas Fashion Week and Arkansas Arts & Fashion Forum. Those programs were combined, expanded and renamed in 2021.
Jener learned to sew during Sunday school in the Marshall Islands, using just a needle and thread, but did not know how to sew with a machine until she took the class, she said.
Jener said she sells the dresses she makes and donates the money to her church. But the money also helps her buy potato chips -- which she loves -- and she gives money to her grandchildren.
The sewing classes offered by Interform start with the basics but can lead students into jobs sewing and careers in fashion design, said Basana Chhetri, director of sewing operations and one of the teachers.
Interform is funded by the Walton Family Foundation, Walmart and the Tyson Family Foundation. The organization also relies on donations and fundrasiers such as the Northwest Arkansas Fashion Week, which brought in $200,000 this year.
Interform, with offices on Emma Avenue, works to inspire creativity through fashion. The organization supports beginning clothing designers with residency programs and free classes in sewing and fashion design, according to its website. Interform also hopes to provide jobs for newly skilled sewers through a small manufacturing business, the website states.
"We envision a self-sustaining design-led fashion and art industry in Northwest Arkansas," the website states. "We foster greater levels of creativity and provide the right education and resources needed to support our designers and artists."
During the covid-19 pandemic, students and staff were essential in making 15,000 masks that were given away.
The sewing classes, restarted after a pandemic shutdown, teach about 45 students in four levels of classes, and the school will teach about 125 students over the year, Chhetri said.
The Interform website says the organization particularly wants to showcase "creative works of those who are underrepresented," it reads. The organization wants to encourage others to do the same.
Class rosters include immigrants from the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Federal Republic of Nigeria, the Hmong ethnic group, the Republic of the Marshall Islands and some Latin American countries.
Class member Karen Campbell of Fayetteville complimented the group on its creativity and added she appreciates the diversity.
The diversity of the Interform students has sown "a beautiful garden," Chhetri said.
The students also represent various ages and gender identities, Chhetri continued.
"We have students from 13 to 71," Chhetria said.
Two-week sewing boot camps for teens start July 18 and Aug. 1, she noted.
ALL SKILL LEVELS WELCOME
Chhetri was born and raised in Nepal, she said. She studied fashion design during college in Japan, and also studied in Nepal and London. She started multiple businesses and boutiques, along with the first Fashion School in Nepal. Her husband's job brought the family to Bentonville 14 years ago.
The sewing classes in four levels of skill can begin with threading a needle and ultimately help students learn to design in their own fashions.
"There's a lot of patience and hidden trials, but they dream of being fashion designers," Chhetri said.
The program each Friday opens its bright sewing studio for any and all students to work on their projects.
"They might need some extra time or some extra help," Chhetri said. "Or they might not have a sewing machine at home."
As part of the free classes, Interform provides the tools for sewing -- like scissors and pins -- and all the fabric, Chhetri said.
"Even snacks," she added, offering bottled water.
Rolling racks are stuffed with various fabrics, including the bright, tropical prints popular with the Marshallese and the fancier silks and laces, baubles and other embellishments, preferred by those from the Congo.
The stash even includes vibrant Ankara and Bazin fabrics traditional for African countries. Chhetri said the cotton fabrics carry wax coatings that keep the fabric from sticking to a body in the heat.
Chhetri, who is assisted by Jessica McClendon, said even if students have experience sewing, they should start with the basic class.
"If you know how to make a dress, you might still want to take our class because you don't know how to make a jacket," Chherti said.
Jairo Portilla, a member of the beginners class, agreed. "Little things you learn can help so many other things," he said.
After a student makes a piece, he can "wear it, keep it or gift it," Chhetri said.
Some of the projects will be featured and sold in a two-week pop-up shop starting July 13 at the Interform storefront on Emma.
Additionally, 28 students' projects were shown in the spring Northwest Arkansas Fashion Week, Chhetri said.
And Interform has hired four students from the sewing classes to staff the manufacturing business. Interform makes products for lingerie companies and repairs for Livsn, a Bentonville-based company that makes outdoor clothing and guarantees lifetime repair of any damage.
"And lots of designers in the U.S. are having trouble getting their dresses made," Chhetri said. "So we will make them."
Abweg Abedi from the Democratic Republic of Congo is one of those former students. He now serves Interform as coordinator of sewing operations and leads classes in Swahili for immigrants. Chhetri said the teachers hope to merge the classes in the fall as many of the Congolese are becoming more comfortable with English.
Because of war in his country, Abedi and his family fled to a refugee camp in Tanzania, where he spent 22 years and learned to sew. He said the family was chosen to come to the United States so two of his seven children who suffer from sickle-cell disease could receive treatment.
The whole reason the Marshallese study sewing is their "uniform," Chhetri said. For important birthdays and other celebrations, in various Marshallese communities, women wear dresses, and men wear shirts or vests made from matching tropical fabric.
The traditional dresses must have sleeves and fall below the knees, Chhetri has learned. They might use an old design, but add something.
The uniforms are always very expensive, and the Marshallese have them shipped to Arkansas, Chhetri said. But now they are made in the Philippines.
"They've lost the skill," Chhetri said. "So if you can sew and design, it's very huge. You could sell the dresses for $80.
"We teach them to make them faster and more economically."
SO MANY REASONS TO SEW
Portilla, 19, has lived in Springdale his entire life, but his parents are from Mexico. His interest in fashion started at age 3 and he began sewing at about age 7, mostly self-taught.
"Friends liked the clothes I made," he said. "It's not like anything you'll see at the mall."
He wants to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City and become a fashion designer.
Portilla was working Tuesday at a mannequin to add darts to make the bodice fitted, but he didn't like what he saw.
"Multiple darts will make it really stand out," Chherti suggested.
Ethan Bell, 21, a tall Black man with bleached blond hair from New Jersey, came to Springdale for the Interform classes. He, too, wants to become a fashion designer. His grandmother sewed and taught him. And she found him the class in Arkansas.
Bell was working to hem a shirt, but didn't like the way it looked. Chhetri pointed out the slight imperfections wouldn't be seen when someone wore the top.
Alicia Rojas, whose parents also came from Mexico, drives four hours one way from Nashville once a week for the class and maybe for the open sessions. Tuesday, she had finished making a dress.
"One thought: If you want to wear this, you could make it into your size right here," Chhetri said. "If you do that, you'll also learn how to alter."
Rojas decided to keep the sleeveless shift dress with blue accents. Soon it had chalk lines and pins to mark the seams she would sew to make the dress smaller.
Campbell pressed fusible interfacing onto curved strips of fabric that would become lining for the arm and neck holes of a dress. She said it had been years since she had sewn, and she has recovered the joy it brought her.
"I love fabric and sewing," Campbell said. "I'm proud of myself that I'm here doing this.
"This is my happy place."