Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

Seamstress for Social Justice

November 5, 2021 Think THF
A group of young people write on paper around a table, with other groups working at other tables in the background
Sara Trail oversees a workshop at a Memphis high school. / Photo courtesy Social Justice Sewing Academy


In 2017, at age 22, Sara Trail launched the Social Justice Sewing Academy (SJSA) to empower youth to advocate for social justice through textile making. Though she was notably young to found a nonprofit, she was not new to sewing. She took needle to cloth for the first time at age 4, under the guidance of her mother and grandmother, and quickly showed a propensity for it. Within a few years, she had gained mastery and could sew clothing, quilts, and upholstery. A wunderkind, by age 15, she had written a book for other kids, Sew with Sara, about how to sew and sell one’s work, and licensed her own pattern and fabric collections.

She was, for all intents and purposes, content with her sewing practice. “I liked the freedom and independence it gave me,” she recalled. “I liked the idea that I could make something that was going to last and that I could do something that a lot of other kids my age couldn’t do.”

And then her attitude—and self-expectation—changed profoundly in 2012, when Trayvon Martin, a Black teenager in Florida, was shot by a white man for no apparent reason other than he thought Martin looked suspicious. “I went from wanting to learn skills, make gifts, master something to knowing I needed to take the skills my mentors had given me and use them for a purpose,” Trail said. She made a fabric portrait of Martin wearing the hoodie he had on the night he was shot, and that quilt became the seed of SJSA.

Quilt with background of black and gray blocks of various sizes and face and shoulders of dark-skinned man in a gray hoodie
Sara Trail’s handmade quilt, Rest in Power, commemorates the life of murdered Black teenager Trayvon Martin and marks her first experience combining her lifelong interest in sewing with social activism. / Photo courtesy Social Justice Sewing Academy

Today, Trail describes the volunteer-run organization she founded as a 21st-century sewing circle that bridges social, racial, ethnic, generational, and geographic lines. The quilts begin in workshops in schools, community centers, and prisons across the United States. Participants, typically aged 12 and up, create art blocks to express their concerns, thoughts, and beliefs, gluing fabric in place if they are not inclined to sew.

Quilt with gray background on which there are 20 blocks, each depicting a woman's face and containing text with the woman's name
Herstory, a 2018 SJSA community quilt, was created by students from the Alliance Gertz-Ressler High School in Los Angeles. / Photo courtesy Social Justice Sewing Academy

The blocks are forwarded to volunteers around the world to finish the necessary stitching and join them together into a patchwork. Hundreds of SJSA quilts have gone on to be exhibited at quilt shows, museums, and galleries nationwide.

Three people sew at a table full of drawings, plates, soda cans, and paper bags in a large, airy workspace
An SJSA embroidery volunteer sews along high school students during an embroidery workshop at the nonprofit Girls Garage in Berkeley, California. / Photo courtesy Social Justice Sewing Academy

Trail often thinks back to the time in middle school when she was teaching sewing to kids in her neighborhood. “My class was $75 and my students were rich white kids. Low-income kids couldn’t pay that much to learn how to make something they may or may not have even liked in the end or end up using. Through conversations, especially with my parents, I realized what a privilege it was to make.”

Red, shield-shaped patch with text and images of two crossed sewing needles, an upraised brown fist, and a pair of scissors, on the sleeve of a jean jacket
SJSA students can proudly display their participation on their clothing. / Photo courtesy Social Justice Sewing Academy

She now seeks to pass on that privilege, an understanding of the power that resides in our hands, to make textiles—and to make change.

Fabric block depicting a figure wearing feathers on head in water, while three figures in black with bandoliers or sashes look on from a flame-topped hill
This block, made by SJSA participant Autumn Roberts during a workshop on the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota, is a statement about culture and tribe. Her artist statement: “…I created this as an image of what had happened at the DAPL [Dakota Access Pipeline protest] camp. I shall be the change the reservation will wish to see. / Photo courtesy Social Justice Sewing Academy

“I want to make sewing accessible and equitable,” Trail said. “I want to make quilts that matter.”

Dig Deeper
Visit these links to learn more about the modern quilt movement and a quilt from our collection with a racial equity message. You can also check out all of our blog posts on quilts, and browse images of hundreds of quilts from our collections.



Melanie Falick is an independent writer, editor, and creative director. This post was adapted from “Keeping in Touch,” an article in the June–December 2021 issue of The Henry Ford Magazine on Issuu.

childhood, education, African American history, women's history, quilts, making, by Melanie Falick, The Henry Ford Magazine

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