Sewing the Seeds of Independence

Irma holds her Chihuahua, Comino, in her tailor shop in Oakland.

On Precita Avenue in Oakland, California, nestled between the N&S Super Discount store and the Bancroft Wash laundromat, stands Irma’s tidy tailor shop and sewing school. Behind the mannequins modeling beaded dresses and made-to-measure jackets, a beige Chihuahua named Comino darts back and forth beneath hundreds of colorful spools of thread hanging on the wall.

Irma, 40, was born in Nayarit, on Mexico’s west coast. She moved to the United States in 2003, after spending a decade working as a seamstress in the clothing factories of Tijuana. Bent over a sewing machine for 15 hours a day, she dreamed of one day opening a sewing school and designing her own line of clothing.

By the time she turned 18, she began having severe back pain. Doctors ordered her to stop working in the factory and to get a job where she could walk around regularly, but finding alternative employment wasn’t easy. Instead, Irma began wearing a back brace full time, removing it only long enough to bathe in the evening. That allowed her to continue working for a time, but before long the pain forced her to make a drastic change.

In 2003, she moved with her husband and son to the United States, where she was able to find work at a tailor shop that allowed for much more movement than the factories in Mexico. At the shop, she could stand and walk to gather supplies, measure and cut cloth, and speak to customers. Her pain decreased, and eventually she felt that she had learned enough to strike out on her own.

At first, she went door-to-door in her neighborhood to get clients. She didn’t have so much as a business card, but, as she puts it, she had her mouth and her two feet, and she could knock on doors. Customers were skeptical at first, but gradually they began to bring her work and send their friends her way. By 2007, she had enough business to open her own small tailor shop in Oakland.

Five years later, with the help of a microloan from Grameen America, she was able to move into a space large enough to accommodate sewing classes for community members. Now, in addition to running her own social enterprise, she has finally realized another childhood dream: designing and selling clothing under her own label. Funded in part by micro-loans from Grameen, Irma is working to get accreditation for her sewing school and has applied to the IRS for 501(c)3 nonprofit status. Once her school gains those, her students will be able to apply for scholarships and graduate with an official diploma issued by the State of California.

Despite her many accomplishments, Irma hasn’t stopped dreaming. She plans to launch a program that teaches sewing skills to two high-need groups: young mothers who have dropped out of high school, and formerly incarcerated young men. She already has a sample diploma she keeps in a manila folder at her shop. “I can see what I’m going to accomplish,” Irma says. “And I know that I can do it.”


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