A beloved member of the Sew Powerful family, Irene Davidson Thomas joins us in today's episode. Irene talks about her many Sew Powerful experiences, including three trips to Zambia and travels to Renton to help with unboxing the purses. We get a glimpse into her very interesting life and her fondness for not so typical pets. Irene explains why her heart is so drawn to Sew Powerful and offers some sewing advice along the way.
Get to Know Sew Powerful Icon Irene Davidson Thomas
IN THIS EPISODE
Bird ornaments, guinea pig, Zambia trip, purses, home, Sew Powerful, San Francisco, sewing, zippers, mother, Shirley Utz, gusset, dress, retired, nurse, themes
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.
Pixie Faire: https://www.pixiefaire.com/
LA Guinea Pig Rescue: https://www.laguineapigrescue.com/
Pacific International Quilt Festival, Santa Clara, CA: https://www.quiltfest.com/upcoming-shows-and-events/pacific-international-quilt-festival/
Sewing and Stitchery Expo, Puyallup, WA: https://sewexpo.com/
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.
Host: Jan Cancila
Guest: Irene Davidson Thomas
Jan Cancila, Host 00:04
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.
Hello, Sew Powerful podcast listeners. Today we are talking with a Sew Powerful icon. Irene Davidson Thomas has traveled with Sew Powerful, supported Sew Powerful, makes purses, and so much more. We'll learn about her unusual pets and glamorous life all the time that she's supporting Sew Powerful. So welcome Irene. How are you today?
Irene Davidson Thomas, Guest 00:43
I'm doing very well. Thank you. How are you?
I am fantastic. Tell me where are we talking to you from? Where do you live?
I am in San Francisco. Today I'm in my living room at my house, at one of my two houses. But this is the house mostly I live in and sleep in. And it's a dreary day. It rained this morning, no sun, but we're supposed to have sun at the end of the week. So, it's okay.
All right. Well, and our listeners, of course can't see but I can see behind you. You have a very interesting collection. Can you tell our listeners what that's all about?
Yes, I collect bird ornaments. And they are hanging in the space between my dining room and living room. My house was built in 1910. So, it's got old, old stuff in it and big moldings and it hangs up there. And several of the birds are things that I brought back from Zambia. They do beaded ornaments there. And they do some wooden carved birds there. So, they're all hanging out up there. And I leave them up all year. Yeah. And they're dusty.
Well, take my word for it, listeners, they're beautiful. They're great. Irene, where did you grow up? Tell us a little bit about your childhood.
Okay, I was born and raised in San Francisco. I still live here. I've lived here basically the whole time. I did take three years when I went to school in Oakland, and I lived in Oakland, but I still came home every weekend. The house I grew up in was taken by eminent domain in 1968 to build BART, which is the mass transit movers. And we moved literally a block away. And we moved everything. We moved dirt; we moved trees; we move plants; we moved everything. And that is the house that today, since I don't have siblings, I kept the house it was paid for. My father paid cash in 1968, and that is the house which I have all my sewing things. So, when I want to sew I go over there. It's 12 minutes away driving. I park, I go in, I have one switch that turns on all the machines. And I stay many times till 11 or 12 at night, sometimes two in the morning. My husband, you know will say, "Ah, where were you last night?" "Oh, I was at Cayuga." I love it there and when I leave, I can leave the mess. I don't have to clean up until I'm done with the project. So, it's it's very convenient. I feel very blessed to have that. Truthfully, owning two homes in San Francisco that are paid for is kind of nice.
I bet so. You have your main residence and then
your basically your childhood home.
That's now your Sewing Studio. Deluxe.
Right? Right, right. Yes. Well, then I leave all the machines out and I have everything out and I have people that come and stay. I have a couple of friends from Sacramento who come down and stay and then we'll have sew days and stuff like that. And friends in the city as well.
Wow. Well, Irene I take it that you're retired now. Tell us about your career.
I am retired. I was a nurse for Kaiser for 38 years. I started my career as an ICU CCU nurse, did that for eight years, decided I needed to find something at the other end of the spectrum. So, I went to Mother-Baby-Labor-Delivery, and I finished out my career there. When my mother had dementia and died in 2007 after four years in care home, then my father got ill, and he died in 2008. But while he was ill, he was also in the care home that I would go every day. I was on family leave. I would go every day and we'd go for a drive, or we'd go back to the house until he couldn't make it up the stairs anymore. We would go to the house and he you know go in on his bed take a nap and hang out. And that's when I kind of started sewing there because I wanted something to do while he was napping. So, one machine showed up. And then there were two, and then three. And then there was a couple of sergers and it kind of grew.
Well, what a blessing for your father that he could return to the place that he called home and have a little respite from the care home. That's wonder, right?
Exactly. When I was supposed to go back to work in 2008. I said, I'm not working anymore. So, I retired.
Okay. All right. So, you are married. You've mentioned your husband. Tell us a little bit about your husband, Steven.
We met in 1968, at City College in San Francisco, through a bunch of friends, you know, and we did things like go camping together, bicycle together in the city, that kind of thing. And then he went off to school in San Luis Obispo, and I went to nursing school. And we never really dated in those days, it was just always a group of people that went and did stuff. And then in the late 80s, we kind of got together, then did things together. We did a couple trips together. And he had never been married. I had never been married. And so, in 1991, we got married. I was 40. I think he had just turned 41 when we got married. So, kids were pretty much out of the picture because of age. So, he was an engineer at NASA. But when the Twin Towers hit, they cancelled all the NASA money. Every program was cancelled. And so, he was out of a job. So, they retrained him for stuff, but he could never really find a job. And so, he became a security screener at San Francisco airport. He was one of the first people they hired. And it wasn't a federal job. In San Francisco, and I think there's one other airport, it's a, it's Covenant Aviation. So, he worked for them. And he worked for them until he retired at age 70. Oh, in between, he was a beekeeper. He had bees. And so, we always had a lot of honey, but he can't do it anymore because he was diagnosed in November with acute leukemia. So, he's undergoing some treatment for that. Haven't had great success. But you know, we keep trying different things. And so we'll see but for now he's doing okay.
Okay. Well, we'll keep Steven and you in our prayers for his health. Now, you have other members of your immediate family.
That are small and furry. Tell us about your pets.
Well, you know, as a child, I had guinea pigs. Well, I had one guinea pig. And then all of a sudden, we had three; came from the pet store like that. And the boy guinea pig went to a friend of mine and lived a nice long life. And my mama and her baby lived a nice long life. I think they were probably six or seven when they died, which is good for a guinea pig. They don't always make it that far. So in between, I had a rabbit for 14 years. And then when my mother went to the boarding care, they had guinea pigs and they kept leaving them together. And they kept having babies. And I said, come on, guys, we can't be doing this. So, I just start every time they had a litter, I take all the boys. So, for a long time I had boys. The most I've had is 12.
But at this point, I have eight. I have four girls and four boys, but not together. And then in 2019, a friend of mine said, Oh I know somebody with guinea pig rescue. So, in January of 2019, I started working at the guinea pig rescue one day week and cleaning cages and doing water bottles and cuddling piggies. And from that situation, I've gotten several you know, as my guinea pigs have passed away, I've gotten other guinea pigs. So, I don't do that anymore. Eventually, I would like to go back and do that because I really enjoy them. You know, if you're going to get a guinea pig go to a rescue where you know what you're probably getting, although, you know, some of them that were turned in at the rescue we weren't, you know, sure. And if you live in the LA area, I'll tell you the best guinea pig rescue have ever been to is to La Guinea Pig Rescue. They do a fabulous job. They have something like 400 guinea pigs, and they do clinics, and they do Saturday checks, and they have a wealth of information on YouTube about guinea pig care. So, I've learned a lot from her.
And the lady that runs it and I've also learned a lot just by being around guinea pigs
I'm sure you have.
Yeah, but let's move on. Let's talk about sewing. When did you learn to sew? How did you learn to sew?
I learned so at age six. My mother had a featherweight. And she made hand braided wool rugs. And you had to make the three sections that you braided together. And so, she said, Here, you can help me by sewing all this spaghetti stuff together. So that's where I started on a featherweight, which I still own. And then she was making all my dresses because, God forbid, you never wore pants to school. You had to wear a dress. I mean, it was 1956-57. You didn't wear pants.
And so, she was making my dresses. And she was putting buttonholes down the back. And when you would sit against the chair at school, the buttons would dig into the back of your back,
Yes. And so I said to her, I want a zipper down the back. She was I don't know how to do zippers. And I said, well, can I learn? Well sure. So, I learned how to put in zippers before she knew how to do zippers.
And I was in second grade when I made my first dress with a zipper. And after that I made a lot of my clothes. My mother still sewed for me, but I made a lot of clothes. And today, I would not sew for myself at all, because I just don't wear that kind of stuff. You know? I mean, my friend makes Chanel jacket. She goes, oh, you should make one of those. They're lovely. I said, where would I wear it? Well, your husband could take you out to dinner. I said, what, in his blue jeans? Come on. You know. It's not gonna happen.
Well, your your story sounds like a lot of ours. When did you first hear about Sew Powerful? How did you hear about it?
Oh, how I did. A friend of mine in my sew group in Sacramento, I travel once a month to Sacramento, and we have a sew, a doll sew group. She said, oh, there's this wonderful site you have check it out. It's called Pixie Faire. And every Friday they give away a free pattern. And we were making doll clothes because what we did is we bought dolls. We dressed them and we gave them away [to] Toys for Tots for Christmas. So, we were trying a lot of different stuff. And so, I would download the thing every week. And we tried different stuff. And then all of a sudden, one day this thing popped up about Zambia. And I thought 'Hmm.' That was probably like 20, late 2014, early 2015, somewhere in there. And they were talking about a trip. Oh, I thought, I always wanted to go to Africa. I mean, I was actually almost born in Durban. But because my father's company was being transferred there but then at the last minute, they didn't transfer it, so we stayed here. So, I really, really want to go to Africa. So, I inquired. And that's where I met Cinnamon and Jason. And I said, oh, this is great. And so, I thought, well, if I'm going to go on this trip, I better be making purses. Because at that point, I only made like one or two and the first one I ever made is somewhere in my sew house. I have it. I cannot find it. But I know it's there because I never turned it in because I didn't like it. But I started making purses. And I thought, this was kind of fun. And then that was when you put the flap on the front with a little pocket, you know, and I did things like embroidery and buttons and all that kind of thing. So, then I went on the trip and I took all the purses that had done, I took on the trip with me and gave them away, which was really fun. Because the joy and the happiness of those girls faces when when you are there is unbelievable. So, then I came home and I said well, they talked about well, we'll probably go next year and I thought well if I'm going next year I better start making purses. And then we also did, not not that trip I don't think, but the next trip we did projects with the ladies, you know, little sewing things for them that they got to keep. So that was fun. We made those, as I remember being zip bags, and we made a thing that goes under your sewing machine that has little pockets in the front. We did those. We did fun things with the ladies because at that time there were somewhere between like 14-16 ladies maybe, max. Now I think there's like 50, but that was when there were just a few ladies. And I'll tell you those women are lovely. They are so much fun. And they're very, very, very proud to be doing something with that they have learned and that they can contribute to the community because they sewed the children's uniforms for school.
You've have made three trips to Zambia with Sew Powerful, right? 2016, 17, and 19.
Yes, we did not go in 18. And we did not go in 2021 because of COVID.
Right, right. Now your 2016 trip, we've interviewed several people that went on that trip, including Shirley Utz and Shirley talked very fondly about being your roommate on that trip.
Oh my. I had not heard that.
Yeah, we had a great time together. She was so much fun. I tell you, Sew Powerful lost a real advocate when she passed away, I have to say. Torey was also on that trip. She lives in San Jose, not that far from me, about an hour away. Once in a while we see one another but not very often. On that trip, I had taken empty suitcases because we had brought stuff, you know, to leave. And I had brought fabric to give away. And so, I had an empty suitcase. And it was big; the international kind, and she'd bought this metal flat metal elephant. And she says, how am I going to get this thing home? I said Well, just stick it in my big suitcase and ship it home. And by then I didn't really need that suitcase, so that's what we did. We had to turn his elephant nose up a little bit to get him in the suitcase. But that's how he got home.
Yeah, she has him out on her fence. He lives out outdoors on her fence. But that was really funny.
And so besides your trips to Zambia, I know that you have made several drives up to Seattle for the unboxing parties.
I have. I think it was about 2016 in the fall, that's when they only had it once a year and did all the counts. Met wonderful people: Toby and Dana and Janarie and all the church people because it was, we did it at their church. Cinnamon and Jason, saw them again. And it's a wonderful group of people and very, very dedicated, and smart as far as like what to do to make things better and smart enough to realize that they're not running the show. Esther's running the show, and they're helping her get to where she needs to be with children, the moms, the people that work there, the soap makers now. And these people don't have money. They're living on $45 a month, maybe. I mean, our seamstresses are doing better than that, because we do have the ability to pay them more. But the average people there, they don't make any money.
Right. Well you know I'm glad you brought up the salaries for the seamstresses, because everywhere besides Zambia, everybody that does anything for Sew Powerful, does it as an unpaid volunteer, so that we can take all of the donations we have to pay the staff and you shared with me that you are a recurring donor, that every month you make a donation to Sew Powerful. Why is that important to you to do that?
I am so incredibly blessed in my life and also financially. I inherited my godmothers' estate as well as my parents'. And I have the wherewithal to do that. And these people are so grateful. And so joyous and so happy to have anything and to be able to give them a purse, a simple little purse with items that will get them to come to school and give them an education and give them a chance in life is to me the most wonderful thing. And I support that. I really, really do, and I want to help them. I feel good. I sew for other charities as well. I like to sew, and I don't need anything I sew, believe me. It's much more fun to sew it and give it away. And I do have a very huge stash of fabric because I am a fabri-holic.
I think we believe you. Irene, there are people that you know they've heard of Sew Powerful, but maybe they haven't taken that first step. They haven't made a purse, you know, they're still sort of thinking about it. What advice would you give to somebody who is thinking about joining us, thinking about making a purse, but they haven't done it?
Well, you know, it all starts with downloading that pattern and getting the sizes right and reading how to put it together. It's not difficult. I specifically do the Shirley version. She and I used to do the same thing. It's very creative. You can, you know, let your creativity go. I mean, it goes everywhere. You can get as simple or as crazy as you want. I mean, these ladies with these embroidery machines, I just love it. I don't have one. But I'd like oh, maybe you should buy any border machine so I could do that. But I did work on them. I do piecing on my purses, go back through and see on the pictures, what people have done, give you ideas. There's the theme, if you want to try doing a theme that if that's what kind of gets you going. If you're in an area where there is going to be a quilt show and see what people are doing and talk to people. That's why I really like doing the quilt show stuff. I've done Puyallup and I've done Santa Clara Pacific International Quilts. And spent four days talking to people and trying to get them interested. So, it was really fun. So just, you know, just decide to do one. You don't have to decide I'm going to do 35 or 50 or 100. Just do one and see how you do. I specifically like to do the original purse with the gusset. Because I like to do fancy stitching down the gusset and back up the other side. I do webbing because I don't like making straps. And I use the one-piece flap because it gives you a lot of creativity ability. And it's not working so small as the pocket was before. And I also add a pocket on the back.
This is the Shirley version, isn't it?
It is the Shirley version. Yeah. And then I always put some sort of charm sewn on the inside of the purse. And I started doing that. And I think there's other people who do that now too. I don't know.
I think some people have. Yeah, well, Irene, I want to thank you for your time. It's been a pleasure to talk to you. I've never had the opportunity to meet you in person. And I look
forward to doing that someday. But we will talk again soon. And again. Thank you so much.
All right, we'll talk soon. 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 SEWPOWERFUL 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, as the Region 8 Chapter Manger. 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 email@example.com