By Mandy Moe Pwint Tu
It is 1:30 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, and Carlos Zayas-Pons (C’20) is explaining the roles of saints and angels in Catholic theology to Associate Professor of Art Jessica Wohl. They are seated at the row of three picnic tables at Stirling’s Coffee House with an eclectic group of students and community members, all working on their individual sewing projects. Now and then, someone will ask for help, and Katie Ray (C’21), who is sitting besides Zayas-Pons, will jump up and demonstrate how to thread a needle.
Ray found the Slow Down Sewcial Club earlier in the semester entirely by accident. Running into Briana Wheeler (C’20) and Zayas-Pons at the picnic tables one fateful Friday evening, she decided to sit down and sew.
“It’s one of my favorite hobbies,” she said. “I do it outside of sewing club. I look forward to it each week, because I know, no matter how stressful my week is, I have sewing club to look forward to and to calm me down.”
For Wohl, having the club meet on Friday afternoons was intentional. By situating it on the tail end of the academic workweek, she hopes that the club will lay the foundation for the individuals who gather to do something else afterwards, whether it is getting dinner at McClurg Dining Hall or something else entirely.
So far, it seems to have worked. Since their first meeting on the first Friday since classes started, the Sewcial Club has had “a solid group of people who keep coming.”
“I don’t believe that they all knew each other before,” said Wohl. “I think three of them happened to be passing by, and they sat down and sewed with us. They’ve come every week.”
Given Sewanee’s go-go-go culture, the Sewcial Club invites people to slow down from the chaotic rigidity of their workweek and connect with one another. Wohl’s goal was to create a space and time that was “free from coursework, committees, meetings, [and] appointments,” noting that as a community there is a tendency to refrain from doing things that are not already assigned.
“When people get together, just casually talking to one another, they find things that they have in common,” said Wohl. “Maybe with enough time spent together, some meaningful issues on campus might come up and maybe things would be put in place to take action.”
Conversations range from week to week. During their first meeting, there was a discussion on tattoos and piercings. On a different week, one of Wohl’s students from her Intergroup Dialogues class this semester stopped by and participated in a conversation about race.
Later in the year, Wohl hopes to bring in a few guests for conversations that are slightly more targeted, but not completely structured. On the Thursday before Thanksgiving break, Cassie Meyer, the director for dialogue across difference in the Office of Civic Engagement, will come to Sewcial Club to talk about how to have conversations with family members at Thanksgiving dinner.
Since a fair number of the Sewcial Club participants are first-year students who are unfamiliar with these conversations, Wohl believes that it is “helpful” for the students to talk to her in a setting where she is not their academic advisor or their professor.
For herself, too, she has found that the club is a way for her to connect to the Sewanee community. With an office in the Nabit Art Building, Wohl finds that when students come by her office, they need help with either advising or coursework. Through the club, she has an opportunity to connect to the student body, particularly students who are not arts majors, “to know what’s going on or what they’re concerned about.”
Despite the club’s current success, Wohl is concerned about what will happen when the weather changes. Because of the visibility that the picnic tables at Stirling’s affords, students, faculty, staff, and community members alike are able to stop by, ask about what they are doing, and to join them, should the fancy take them.
However, as Sewanee transitions to the colder and wetter months, Wohl worries about the future visibility of the club. While she has the back room at Stirling’s reserved, they will be somewhat removed from the rest of the community.
“On this campus, we don’t have another space for this to happen,” said Wohl. “I hope that as the administration continues to develop places and spaces on campus, to think about the way our buildings are being used, that they create physical space for these interactions to happen because we’re all passing by each other. We don’t have a space to connect.”
Sarah Signorino (C’23) and Rebecca Dorward (C’23) have certainly reaped the benefits of being a part of the Sewcial Club. Both Arts Fellows who assist Wohl with her projects, they regularly attend club meetings, and cite the club as the place that they met and became friends.
“It’s just a really good way to get a bunch of people to talk because you don’t ever tell people, ‘hey, let’s just come and sit together at a table and talk for an hour straight,’” said Signorino, “but if you’re doing something with your hands, conversations comes more naturally.”
“There’s good camaraderie,” added Dorward. “It’s been interesting, seeing who you can get to come to sewing club. From week to week, people [come] who have never been here, and hopefully they’ll come back.”
Wohl hopes that the club will continue on well into the future. Currently it has its own Instagram page @slowdownsewcialclub, but once Wohl accrues enough content, it will have its own website. Ultimately, she hopes that it becomes something that pops up in other galleries when she has exhibitions in different places, where the conversations that occur could be chronicled on the website.
“I think conceptually it’s really relevant to sewing,” she said. “You’re taking different pieces of things and you’re putting them together, oftentimes for a purpose. You’re harmonizing or you’re unifying.”
“We talk about the fabric of our community or the fabric of our society,” she continued. “I don’t think that metaphor is coincidental. That’s what I do with my quilting. I take these fabrics that are taken from different homes across the country, and I put them together into an object that’s comforting and provides warmth and is tender. It’s really a gesture that I wish that we could do more of when we’re all torn apart. That’s the heart of it, really.”