Lisa Woolfork and her ‘Stitch Please’ podcast has gained more than 110,000 downloads and is a show that “supports, celebrates, and inspires Black women sewists around the world.” Dr. Woolfork says that although, “I didn’t start sewing until I was in graduate school. My mother sewed. My grandmother sewed. My great-grandmother also apparently sewed, and I didn’t want anything to do with it.” She didn’t want anything to do with it until, well—until she did.
For those who don’t know, Dr. Woolfork is a professor of African-American Literature and Culture at the University of Virginia. Born and raised in West Palm Beach, Florida, she came to Charlottesville through what she calls ‘a pretty circuitous route.’ “I went essentially right from college. I went to undergrad in Boston. I went to graduate school right after college at the University of Wisconsin at Madison for my Ph.D.” After many years of settling into the grind of being a professor, mother, and active community member, Dr. Woolfork just needed something different. She said she needed something that wasn’t connected to work. Something for her.
“I needed something that was just going to be a stress relief. I started sewing and I fell in love with sewing and it just became a wonderful, creative outlet, a creative release.”
The Ancestral Craft
West Palm Beach is the place where Dr. Woolfork first witnessed what she describes as the ‘ancestral craft’ of sewing. “Sewing is an ancestral craft, not just in my family, but also in Black families all over in a variety of communities. You think about the work that black women did during the times of slavery—quilting, sewing, and making clothes. This was how you acquired the garments in your life.”
At this time, I wanted to slow down a little and have Dr. Woolfork really unpack this concept of sewing being an ancestral craft. “I really feel like the past and the present are separated by a very fine line.” It is to say that the past, present, and the future are much more connected than we may think. What is more, the implication for Black people is that one of the ways to reestablish a connection with our ancestral past is to do things that our ancestors did such as sewing.
Dr. Woolfork is adamant about the legacy that we individually and collectively share when she says, “When you look back at your parents and their parents and their parents as far back as you imagine, that’s a long line of people who lived and worked and loved and fought and struggled and created and did all of these things and lived full lives to the best of their ability in remarkably difficult circumstances. That is something of which to be proud.”
Wholistic Black Safety
When Dr. Woolfork initially got back into sewing and stitching, there was a community built around the craft, but it was observably White. This of course wasn’t an issue for Dr. Woolfork who, like many others, managed the double-consciousness of being Black in America with mastery. “Something that I had been able to just kind of tolerate was their casual racism, the microaggressions, just some of the things that happen when you are the only Black person in an all-White space.”
Although this sewing group certainly provided a space where Dr. Woolfork could continue to detach and explore the ancestral craft; it proved to be an inadequate space at a most consequential time. “I was working with a lot of the anti-racist organizing in 2017,” said Dr. Woolfork. She then begins to sequence what lead to the inflection point. “We had that first torch rally back in May of 2017. Then in June, it was a smaller group that came to the statue. In July, it was the Klan rally. Then in August, there was the largest white supremacist gathering in modern history.”
During the Unite the Right rally, Dr. Woolfork was among the group of counter-protesters opposing the rally. “We were just really involved and we were marching on Water Street.” Dr. Woolfork recalls being just steps away from the impact when James Alex Fields drove his car through a crowd of counter-protesters that day, killing Heather Heyer. She went on, “I think it was an inflection point, not just for Charlottesville but for the nation and it ended up echoing around the world.”
In the days and weeks after that tragic day, Dr. Woolfork recalls, “We woke up screaming for weeks. It just radically changed so much in our lives. It’s hard to summarize other than to say it was a lot of terror and fear and chaos.” It is in this backdrop that Dr. Woolfork was actively seeking healing. She sought a place of refuge—a community that could provide safety from the terrors of that day.
What she found was that the predominately White sewing community that she had, for years, been giving her time to was incapable of being what she needed—and honestly had no desire to. “It was so disappointing—the reactions from those people in the sewing community were just racist. They cared more about their own comfort than they did my survival, my feelings, and at the end of the day, my actual life.” Evidence of this reality was when the group banned all talk about the Charlottesville attack, and also refunded Dr. Woolfork’s attendance fee, and uninvited her to an upcoming retreat. Yes, uninvited even though Dr. Woolfork did not initiate the ancillary conversations about Charlottesville in the group.
This was actually the point where ‘Black Women Stitch’ and the ‘Stitch Please’ podcast was birthed. “It’s bizarre,” said Dr. Woolfork, But yeah, so I built what I needed and it turns out that lots of other people needed it too.” Where she couldn’t find empathy and psychological safety in other communities, Dr. Woolfork, at this moment, decides out of necessity to create her own not knowing that there were others who were hungry and thirsty for it also.
Dr. Woolfork indicates the Black Women Stitch community is a space that was designed with Black women in mind. “This is not a place where you need to accept reasonable debate about your humanity,” said Dr. Woolfork. She went on to indicate that Black people need spaces that simply allow them to be their Black selves. “There are tons of opportunities for us to be in the minority,” she reminds. Through these ideas, Dr. Woolfork disrupts the idea that there is something fundamentally wrong with Black people and Black women in particular. The purpose of ‘Black Women Stitch’ as an organization, is to be the one group where Black Lives really Matter. Where they know that we do not tolerate fat-phobia, transphobia, homophobia, racist bullshit, or microaggressions. You know, we are very clear that this is a space of love. This is a space of care.”
It seems that Black women all over America are stitching things back together from Latasha Brown to Stacey Abrams in the interest of American Democracy. However, Dr. Woolfork forcefully states that communities like Black Women Stitch and the Stitch Please podcast are not in the interest of saving democracy but she says what Black women are really up to in this and all episodes of American history “is doing our best ‘to mitigate harm.”
Dr. Woolfork argues that we spend far too much time thinking about ‘Black-work and Black labor and there is not enough time thinking about Black leisure, Black recreation, Black joy, and Black fun.’ She wanted to make certain that the public knows that this community has nothing to do with her role as a professor at the university or her work. Through this podcast, she is able to combine the knowledge of African-American literature and culture, of questions of social justice, having an understanding of Black history and Black liberation struggles in a quest for social justice as well as radical self-love.