Sew Powerful co-founder, Cinnamon Miles shares how a purse became a symbol of hope and love. Cinnamon has firsthand experience witnessing the joy the recipients feel when receiving this treasured gift. Cinnamon will take us on a journey from the very first purse design to the latest versions that is larger and easier to make. She even hints at what might be on the purse horizon at Sew Powerful.
Why A Purse with Cinnamon Miles
IN THIS EPISODE
We are Sew Powerful, How a Global Community of Seamstresses Is Changing Zambia One Girl at A Time, 2nd edition. By Jason G. Miles and Cinnamon, © 2016 & 2020 Jason G. Miles and Cinnamon, all rights reserved.
ABOUT THE SEW POWERFUL PODCAST
The Sew Powerful Podcast shines a light on the people behind the mission to keep girls in school and create purposeful products in Zambia. Join us every week for a new 30-minute episode to meet new people, hear inspiring stories, and learn how you can join us in this global movement. Whether you sew or not, make purses or not, you will find something to enjoy in every episode. Listen today.
Jan Cancila, Host 00:05
Welcome to the Sew Powerful podcast. This is your host, Jan Cancila. You know the sound of my sewing machine means it's time for another episode. So let's get started.
Welcome. Today we are speaking with co-founder and chief designer for Sew Powerful, Cinnamon Miles. Cinnamon, how are you today?
Cinnamon Miles, Guest 00:30
Hi Jan. I'm good. Yeah, this is a lot of fun.
Oh, good. Good. I am fascinated by your background and what led you to become this expert on doll clothes? And how did you become a pattern maker? How did all this start?
Sure. Yeah, you know, it's funny. I think it amazes me when I think back on the same things or even hearing you say "expert on doll clothes." It's not something I think I ever thought, Oh, that's what I want to be when I grow up. That's what I want to do. It just kind of evolved over time. I will say I learned to sew when I was young, I think maybe eight years old, probably is like formally trained. My mom sewed, she taught sewing classes. She sewed all our clothes, she made me bathing suits and underwear. And, you know, everything. I looked like Laura Ingalls Wilder from Little House on the Prairie, with the dresses. So I was sewing at a young age. I had Barbies, and I had dolls. And I would try to sew and just, you know, make things and kind of learned, I guess, the art of sewing over time as I grew up.
And did you ever take any classes on pattern making?
No, not formally, which I think is one of the things that's probably the most surprising as far as just my background. I didn't do like college level classes for pattern making or design, it was just something that I, like, naturally just gravitated towards. I would just look at things and then just go figure out how to make them and in sewing and in other you know, like, some piece of furniture I liked, I would just be like, Oh, you know, kind of try to figure it out and make it and this is kind of the way my head works, I think, and I would just research and figure it out and work through the process, roughly. And then I think as things evolved, and as we really started to do it professionally, and I got surrounded by other people that actually did have formal training and I was able to, just, you know, kind of glean a bunch off of them and learn more professional level skill set to go along with it. Yeah.
Wow, that's cool. And did you like your geometry courses in school? I mean, were you mathematically inclined?
You know, as a kid, yeah, like math, I think that like the subjects that have straight answers, not creative writing, that kind of stuff, but I was really good at math growing up. If you ask me now it's not my strength, which is funny. And it's funny that so much of what I do is considered creative. I think, I don't know, like, how they kind of work together and pattern making is more you know, like geometry math and grading and all of that kind of stuff. But also creative and I think I, you know, I like to kind of just mix both things together just trying to figure it out. But then also, like in the display and the production and the appearance of the finished product, the photography, all that kind of stuff is what I think, you know, I enjoy as much as the creative process. It's kind of just the whole thing and bringing it all together at the end.
Left brain, right brain, both.
How great. In the book We Are Sew Powerful you had designed a purse previously and you came up with the idea of using the purse as the delivery vehicle. If you will, for the feminine hygiene pads and soap and underwear for the girls, what lightbulb moment happened?
Yeah, you know it's funny because like with a lot of things, it evolved into what it is now and originally we had the purse that was pretty small. I actually have a couple right here so I can show you, but the original purse was very small. But the idea of what was going to go inside it wasn't fully cooked yet so this was a great purse, a little thing, you know, we had talked as a group, we have this pattern, you know, what can we do and we had gone through different ideas, you know, should have a Bible in it, like what is our end goal, you know, with, with trying to just make the whole thing happen. You know, with our kids, growing up, we always did Samaritan's Purse. And so if you're familiar with Samaritan's Purse shoe box idea, you know, once a year they do the shoe box; you fill it with stuff. It's very engaging for the donors, just, and you can easily involve your kids and other people, and then it's great, on the other side, it's it's a, you know, kind of a win-win in all ways. And so as we had the purse pattern, then, you know, we were just trying to figure out what is the biggest need, you know, what do the the kids and the girls there in that community need? What's going to change their life? And how do we get people to care? And how do we get people engaged? And then how do we pull it all together so that everybody's doing it together in a way that complements everybody? And it isn't, there's no competition, there isn't, you know, somebody taking away something from somebody else. It's more of a partnership kind of project for all of it, which led to the feminine hygiene.
So when we, you know, heard about the need with the girls missing school, they didn't have hygiene supplies, we were aware of the reusable products that people could make, and then just kind of trying to figure out sort of like this pie. And how do you get all the pieces to fit in. And we have seamstresses all around the world that have huge fabric stash of fabrics, and they can use their creative talent to make the purse. We have the pattern for free and they make the purse and then we, you know, use the seamstresses in Zambia to make hygiene products that go inside the purse, and the girl receives both. And so we've provided jobs, we've provided a way for the women around the world to really just feel like they're a part of something and are contributing meaningfully into the girls lives for the whole entire thing, for how it fits together.
So that first year, you put out a call in the newsletter, you had a 50,000 person newsletter. And so what, what happened when you said would you help us by making a purse?
Yeah, you know, the response was great. I think we had people downloading the purse pattern immediately. Our customer base was sewers, or seamstresses. And so getting the idea to click and really just, you know, on our side, like, will people make a person actually mail it back to us was sort of the biggest, like, hurdle, you know, is that, well, is that too expensive? Just to try to send something back, do they understand what we're trying to explain? And it, looking back, now, it was a pretty slow beginning, you know, with the momentum that we have now. But at the time was amazing when the purses started to show up. And we were collecting and, and they were beautiful. You know, like I said, I had the one that was brown with top stitching. And, you know, I designed it and kind of like had this idea in mind. But to see, so many people have such a different take on the same pattern, and different colors and fabrics, and not just fabric and color combination, but even embellishing or, you know, kind of just changing it up a little but keeping the overall design the same, was amazing. It's still amazing to see how creative people can be with that same pattern.
Well, we call it unboxing, now, but so that first year, when you unboxed or opened all these boxes and envelopes, I mean, sort of take us to that, that moment, the very first time you started seeing all those purses pile up.
It's one of those things where I think, you know, when you think you have an idea, will this work? Does this make sense? And then they start coming in and we're reading the notes, seeing it come together, seeing the response, I think the idea of the unboxing party, you know, really gave life to the whole thing, because then we're connecting back with people, I think.
From a long history of just being a part of different charitable projects and organizations and I think it was really important for both Jason and I at the beginning to really make sure that people knew what was happening, and could see the impact of what they weren't giving. And so, you know, to see the purses come in, and then be able to show them, that we actually received them. And then, you know, the next phase out where we actually showed them the purses in the hands of the girls, and then see the girls react, you know, which was more touching, then you think, Okay, this is gonna be really cool. And then you get there and you know, your heart's breaking, it's just like everything, every part of it so much more meaningful than I think we even thought it would be.
So what are some of the reactions when a girl receives a purse? What, what do they typically do?
Well, they're girls. You know, I think in the moment, kind of on the, not really shy, but reserved, but immediately, the first thing they do is pull out the card, and they're reading it and they're looking for a name and, you know, a location, if the location is on there, it's great. It just kind of makes it more real for them. And they, you know, are talking quietly with their friends and, you know, looking and just touching and the details and all of it. And I think, you know, when we're, when we're doing the distribution, and they're all kind of sitting, it's a little more formal. There's maybe less going on, but then once it sort of lets out, and the girls kind of go off in their little groups, and they're, you know, just giggling and excited and showing each other, you know, the different details of the purses that they have. It's all, it's really fun to watch.
So how does it work? The purses are on a table? And how do the girls get to go? Do they pick, what happened?
I think, you know, the very first year, we handed them out, we had a bunch of them spread out on a table. And we handed them out to a girl as she came up. But we quickly realized after that first one, it was a small group of girls. And noticed kind of afterwards, some of them talking or, or they saw we had a different box behind the table. And then just really realizing that these are girls just like our girls, and they have favorite colors. And they, you know, are drawn to specific things, and we really, like, it was our mistake on that first one to not let them actually take the time to walk through slowly and pick what they wanted. And we let them at that point do that; they switched it up. So now every time we do it, it is that way. We do have a bunch of them spread out. But they can come up and they can pick what they want. I think sometimes some of the leaders from the schools are trying to rush them through to make you know to keep it going faster, but we're all, you know, just slow down, let them pick what they want. And it's fun. I think it's more meaningful to them when they have something that they really love.
Well, I've taken my granddaughters purse shopping, and I can: it's not a fast process. I can appreciate that. Okay, so 2014, you had that that cute little purse? I did make that 2014 purse. That was not the easiest purse to make.
Yes, yes, yes.
So, so what led to what we now call the intermediate purse pattern?
Yeah, I'm not sure off the top of my head, now even remembering how many years it took us to switch the purse, if we did it right away after that first trip, or if we had two years. A couple years ago, before we really just kind of bit the bullet and resize the pattern because it was so hard to get everything inside. And so the first time where, you know, we had this purse that was small like this, and we tried to put in, when we got there and realized we also needed soap and underwear. It really added to everything we were trying to stuff in. So the second purse, which here they are side by side, well, you can see is quite a bit bigger. So we evolved from this littler one with this intricate patch pocket kind of cargo pocket on the front to this one, which, this is Option B right here on the front, which just has the small pocket without the flat, but there's also a flap pocket that goes on the intermediate level pattern, much bigger. And then we could easily fit everything inside. And so size wise, that was great. And I think, you know, we felt like we had streamlined it, we had removed that pocket that was kind of complicated to sew on with an easier inserted, flat pocket.
But all the detail, you know, I don't know, I think for myself, all the details are important and really kind of helped with the overall construction. But I, but then with time and feedback from people who were involved in the project, it did slow down not just their ability to sew more purses, but also their ability to invite their friends. So if they had groups that they would sew in, but people were not at the same level or just more of a beginner or just don't have the patience for that, you know, involved of a project. Then we took it from that point after a couple years, which evolved into the beginner purse, which is what, what, yeah, what we have out 2015 (you'll probably correct me now) is it 20... 18
beginner purse... 2018.
Yes, yeah. So then. Yeah. So I'm probably now that was going to be your next question. How did that evolve into the beginner?
Well, I guess I want to know, are you still accepting what we call the intermediate and the beginner? I mean, can you do either or?
Sure. Yes. And the nice thing is, with the new beginner pattern, they are designed with the same flap construction, so the flaps from either version can be used so you can sew the beginner body, which is much faster to sew because it doesn't have the gusset. Then that intermediate flap, if you like the extra pockets and detail on the front you can use that was the beginner level pattern. And you could do the opposite. If you like the other body you can use the simpler, the plain front flap, which lets you do embroidery or any other type of like pieced together fabrics, embroideries, embellishment. That's actually been really fun to see how much even more creative people are when you give them a blank canvas than if you kind of, you know, have this all designed as a specific plan.
Why don't we take a break here and when we come back we're going to talk about some of the creative ways that people have dressed up the purses.
Have you gotten the second edition of the We Are Sew Powerful book? This updated version of the original bestseller (4.9 out of five stars, by the way) is again authored by Sew Powerful co-founders, Jason and Cinnamon. It is available on Amazon in paperback or for your Kindle reader. This latest edition is packed full of moving stories about how Sew Powerful came to be, the volunteers who make it happen, and the way this small movement has grown into a global mission to break the cycle of poverty through education and the dignity of work. And don't forget, when you place your order, if you use smile.amazon.com and designate Sew Powerful as your preferred charity, Amazon will donate a portion of your purchase right back to Sew Powerful. And now back to our podcast.
So we started talking about the new pattern which we call the beginner pattern. Have you have you seen some of the really creative things that people have been doing with those purses? Can you can you tell us some of the ones you like?
Yeah, it's been a lot of fun, I think to see, not, well, we've seen a lot of embroidery we have where people have just done embroidered designs to kind of give texture to that plain, rectangular shaped front. But I think the ones that stand out to me the most are probably the ones that have pieced together sections or applique, or sort of a combination of applique and embroidered edges, and, you know, or just added details. It's also really fun to see when you open the purse, and somebody has taken advantage of the fact that there's lining or there's extra little pieces that show and they've added ribbon, or they've added little things even on the inside. Sometimes they've seen on that interior pocket, somebody's taken the time to embroider or include a little charm that says, that says, you know, something meaningful or a scripture or something like that's like a secret note tucked inside. Yeah, so that part, that's a lot of fun to see.
Yeah, I can I can just imagine the excitement of the girls being able to receive a purse like that. Are there any plans on the horizon to swap out the current design or change it up? What are you thinking?
We've talked about it up a little bit, I think as a team. It's always hard to change things, but looking back, you know, we have changed the existing pattern a couple of times, and it's been a really positive outcome. I think if we do change anything, and evolve into something else, we'll still try to keep with the same overall size. We like the way that, you know, they can interchange and work together. There's always opportunity though, I think, you know, if we can work with people in the industry, maybe like a purse brand, a purse making company, somebody that, you know, might want to join us in a way that's interesting in that regard. And we have somebody, you know, I'm, off the top of my head, like Kate Spade or somebody who does purse making, you know, and they want to come in and do something, you know, then I could see us maybe having like a, you know, purse pattern of the year or something like that, but these are all just sort of whatever, you know, random ideas, you never know.
That's exciting. I've seen purses at the quilt shows. Can you talk about some of the different fabrics that people have used?
Yeah, all types, I think, you know, from like, a suede type or leather or fake leather types work really well. There's a lot of denim, especially upcycle denim. It's fun to see when people take parts like back pockets and they kind of work those into their designs and mixed in with colorful quilting cottons using, you know, the right kind of interfacing so that they still have good structure on the purse itself. But adding in, you know, the heavier weight fabrics. I think there's there was one that was like the whole front flap was this like white feather thick type of fabric so like it had long like, you know, kind of almost flowing feathers but you know, definitely stood out. It was definitely something very different. That one was fun, but you know, so textures I think if they're soft, like velvety or the or there's, you know, that kind of fabric that has the sequins that if you rub one way or rub the other, you know, something like that on the flap, which really, you know, it's just fun. It's a surprise, I think on this on the side of the girl who receives the purse.
Sounds like it's only limited by your imagination, really.
I know one of the ways that people get inspiration, because if you're making more than one purse, you can start to get, I guess the equivalent of writer's block, maybe purse making block. But in the purse project group on Facebook, there's a weekly challenge.
What do you think about that?
I think it's amazing. So yeah, Sue, who's, who's putting that on in the group, she's done a great job. You know, it's fun to see, I think the one that stands out, in my mind the most was like chicken theme or something, you know, and it's just kind of, like, really? Will that work? And then you see, all these purses come in, it just, I think it really helps keep people engaged, you know, because it is kind of, I think everybody gets kind of stuck in their rut, especially if you are used to sewing with the same fabrics, so you're looking at the same fabrics all the time. And, you know, you're just like, Okay, I guess I'll just switch these colors or something. But I think the energy in that group, seeing the ideas, and then seeing people execute on those ideas, also, you know, kind of just gives you more motivation and, I think, then more ideas for your own projects,
I want to talk a little bit more, we've sort of covered the mechanics of the of the purse here, but Sew Powerful has a program oath. And I think it's really important to understand that oath, and then why we're making purses sort of fits in there better. And let me just read the first sentence of the oath, and I'll be interested to hear your comments on that. "We won't do for others, what they have the capacity to do for themselves." Talk a little bit about that, Cinnamon.
Yeah, I think, I think that's great. You know, I think, early on, from the first experience with this group, and, you know, Jason went and was, was there with a trip that I wasn't on, and experienced what was going on and came back. And, you know, as we talked through the best way that we could help them and like I said, we've been involved in a lot of different types of missions or nonprofit projects. And in our own lives, I think at that time, had just gone through a time where we were struggling and trying to figure out how we were going to make ends meet financially. And we were able to actually use the skills that I had in sewing, and we turned that into a business. And that was, you know, a good partnership, I think, between both Jason and myself because of the sewing and he had the marketing and it worked really well.
So then I think in this instance, it's a good example of, you know, how can we empower them to, to have it be sustainable in some way, and also give them a sense of pride in what they're doing. And we're coming alongside them. And we're helping them in ways with, like, education as far as, you know, helping them get the skills they need, and empowering them to really be able to be proud of what they're doing, change their community, change their life, but it is a partnership. And so we have our part, but we're not just trying to meet those needs for them, I think is kind of the core of that, that statement.
Right, and the following sentence is "We are not bosses, and we are not workers. We are partners."
Yeah, yeah, exactly.
Another part of this that really is so meaningful to me is "We will work to listen and carefully assess both the spoken and unspoken needs of our partners." Are there cultural differences that you had to learn to work through there?
Yeah, for sure. I think, you know, watching Jason: Jason really will implement most everything that's happening with the direct conversation with Esther on the ground. And, you know, I think, him on his own, or us as a group or a team, you know, we have ideas all the time, from the things that we're, we think will work or we have a, you know, a way to fix something. But he's been really good at always working with Esther, asking, you know, letting her know what we're thinking and then they kind of brainstorm together. And she, you know, she really is the one who is on the ground, knows the culture, and the dynamic of the group and everything, and then, you know, has no issue on her side of, you know, speaking back and saying, well, this is how we have to do this and that happened immediately.
I think we already talked in a prior episode about the purse is the very first time, you know, after it was, we had the one purse and she brought up the issue of needing to have two so that the girl, the purse didn't get taken away from the girl, you know, is this is a good example of just sort of like, here's our fix, here's our idea, oh, this is going to be amazing. And then she's like, wait, wait, wait, you know, this might be a little bit of a different issue. But we're able to work through that pretty quickly with her in the moment, even.
Yeah, that's a great example. And then the oath concludes with "Above all, we will work to the best of our ability to do no harm.' Why is that in there? Why is that important?
Well, I think that, you know, and in my thinking the harm would be to take control, and try to fix a problem and in our own way, and not working with them. So I think as the whole, all the parts of what you just read together, you know, I think the importance of partnership, and coming alongside and really listening and looking at the issues there and really sensing you know, how, what is God saying? And how does the whole thing fit together, so that we could participate when we can participate. And when it's time for us to not participate and we, or we leave or we, you know, we evolve out of being there, if that's what's going to happen next. It's all better. And you know, we haven't left something worse off, hurt them in some way where, you know, it only works if we're there. So I think you know, as it as it all kind of circles around that, I think that that's where that comes down to.
Let's leave it there, Cinnamon; thank you so much for your time. It was fascinating to hear about how the purse evolved, and it might be an ever evolving instrument. So thank you for tying the role of the purse into the the mission of Sew Powerful. Thank you very much.
Yeah, you're welcome. Thank you.
All right, bye bye.
If what you've heard today inspires you to want to make a difference, I urge you to explore the Sew Powerful website at www.sewpowerful.org. That's SEW POWERFUL dot ORG. The website has great information about the organization. It's where you can download the free purse patterns, or even make a donation. We hope you will join us again next week when we bring you another Sew Powerful story. Thanks for listening. Now, go out and have a Sew Powerful day.
ABOUT THE HOST
Jan Cancila has been making purses for Sew Powerful since 2014. She serves the organization as Director, Global Volunteerism, the Area Manager for Shows and Events-Mid/South USA and as the Houston Regional Coordinator. She was a public speaking major at Hanover College and holds an MBA from Our Lady of the Lake University. Jan had a 25-year career with The Coca-Cola Company before owning and operating a linen and party rental business in Houston. She is married with two grown sons, a lovely daughter-in-law and two remarkable granddaughters. Jan’s published work includes more than 100 online articles for Examiner.com. Reach Jan with comments or suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.