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Chris Rosenblum | Sew what? ‘Secret Seamstresses’ make superhero capes for Rwandan youngsters

Sewing instructor Amy Frank shows students Maya Thomas, left, and Aubrey Chilton, center, stitching techniques Wednesday at a Secret Seamstress Society sewing party at the Studio at Contempo in Boalsburg. Organized by Frank for girls in the studio’s sewing classes, the club made capes for children in Rwanda.
Sewing instructor Amy Frank shows students Maya Thomas, left, and Aubrey Chilton, center, stitching techniques Wednesday at a Secret Seamstress Society sewing party at the Studio at Contempo in Boalsburg. Organized by Frank for girls in the studio’s sewing classes, the club made capes for children in Rwanda. Photo provided

This secret society wasn’t exactly maintaining a low profile.

Eighteen girls, ages 8 to 14 and dressed as princesses, cats and other characters, filled the upstairs Studio at Contempo in Boalsburg. Pop music competed with a din of high-pitched chatter and laughter — and the rattle of sewing machines.

Secret Seamstress Society members were working as well as playing.

Guided by society founder Amy Frank and another sewing instructor, Kristin Nasal, the girls made “superhero” costume capes for children halfway across the globe. Their creations are bound for the Urukundo Home for Children and Learning Center in rural central Rwanda.

“Oh, beautiful!” Frank said, bedecked in a black witch’s hat and holding up a yellow and purple cape tied with braided gold cords that a girl presented to her. “I love it!”

This spring, Frank launched the society to promote sewing among the students from five classes and bring them together, regardless of age and skill level, to have fun. At the first meeting, girls made fish-shaped pillows with magnets for a fishing game and sent them to Urukundo.

Frank envisions the society meeting once a semester, For the fall gathering, she again consulted her friend, Carol Falke, a Park Forest resident who raises money and support for the Rwandan school.

They decided on the capes for the Urukundo teachers to use for role-playing during lessons or just for playtime dress-up.

And so, for a bustling 90 minutes on a Wednesday night, the girls enjoyed a festive sewing session.

“It’s a blast,” Frank said. “It’s a little crazy. It gets a little loud.”

Frank and her colleagues prepped the night by cutting out capes and doing preliminary stitching. Then the girls, taking turns at stations, cut stars, lightning bolts, hearts, flowers and other shapes from fabric and pinned them to brightly patterned capes.

Finally, the capes went to the last station: six sewing machines, where budding seamstresses carefully stitched the decorations as well as ribbons to finish the job.

Midway through the party, one girl announced her output to a beaming Frank.

“You made four capes?” Frank said. “I’m so proud of you.”

Evidence of the collaborative hard work, fabric scraps large and small, lay scattered everywhere. Did that bother Frank? Not at all: In fact, for the benefit of a visitor, she asked a group of girls what happens to excess material.

“We throw it on the floor!” they chanted.

“Do fabric designers have time to put it in the garbage?”

“No!”

The society even has a name for the mess.

“We call it the hair salon,” Frank said. “At the end of the night, we sweep everything up and call it a day.”

Within an hour, Rebecca Barker, 10, of State College, had sewn several hearts and different shapes. Some day, she wants to be proficient enough to sew her own doll clothes. She liked getting a little practice for the benefit of other children.

“It’s really nice to help people,” Rebecca said.

Grayson Ruble, 9, of Spring Mills, concentrated on cutting out a fabric star around a stencil she had deftly pinned in place, all the while explaining the techniques like a seasoned pro. Her edges wavered a little, but she wasn’t concerned.

“It doesn’t have to be perfect,” she said.

Besides, perfection wasn’t the point of the night.

“I’m sure it will make the kids in Rwanda happy because they don’t have stores like we do and it’s hard to get this stuff for their school,” Grayson said.

Boalsburg residents Maya Thomas and Aubrey Chilton, both 10, said they appreciated being part of a good cause.

“It’s good to help the people in Africa because we’re kind of spoiled here,” Maya said.

“I like to know I’m helping people who can’t afford this,” Aubrey said.

Falke said the fish pillows were a hit. She’s sure the capes will be, too, among the Urukondo students.

“They’ll be flying around in them,” she said.

She might ask other local children to write stories that Rwandan children could act out while wearing the capes. But then again, she’s curious to see what teachers and students from a different culture will come up with on their own.

“That’s what’s so much fun,” she said. “You never know that they’ll do when they take them into their classrooms and what they’ll call them.”

In Emma Herman’s imagination, she’s making her own dress, still in love with sewing. But at the end of the party, while munching on a chocolate chip cookie, the 10-year-old from State College settled for successfully stitching a lightning bolt to a cape, a tricky bit of work on the sewing machine.

“I like to sew and make things and have the thrill of it,” she said. “It’s really cool.”

In the end, the secret was out: These girls knew their way around pins, needles and thread. They left behind 20 capes of various hues, but not before posing for group photos to commemorate the occasion.

“Can everybody say, ‘The Secret Seamstress Society?’ ” Frank said, seconds from a shot.

Their reply rang out loud and clear, if a little shrill, letting the world know without a doubt of their existence.

“Oh my gosh, you make me want to cry,” Frank told them. “It’s so much fun.”

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