- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 23, 2008

Antanae Horton is making lavender walking shorts from a Simplicity Lizzie McGuire pattern. For the 12-year-old, big plans have come from a couple of yards of fabric and the know-how to baste-stitch around a zipper.

“You can use your creativity,” she says. “You can make stuff you would like to wear or to play dress-up. You can make your own dress for prom or graduation one day.”

Antanae can be found among the row of sewing machines at the Southeast Tennis and Learning Center most weekdays after school. All around her, children ages 7 to 17 are creating, sketching, measuring, cutting and sewing as part of the Sew ‘N Know Entrepreneurship Program. The program started 12 years ago, when Hollywood costume designer Janice Rankins relocated to the District.

Ms. Rankins, who worked on television shows such as “227,” “Gimme a Break!” and “Good Times,” was pressed into duty when her cousin, Cora Masters Barry, called to say that her then-husband, former District Mayor Marion Barry, appeared likely to be elected back into office in 1994.

“She said to me, ‘He’s going to win; you better look for a fabric and make me an inaugural suit,’ ” Ms. Rankins recalled. “I was tired of Hollywood. I thought, if I could give back just some of what I have learned, I will be blessed.”

Since then, hundreds of children have learned from Ms. Rankins.

“We start with threading the needle,” she says. “This is a valuable life skill. They might not all be designers like they want to be, but they will know how to take a hem up or put in a zipper. It is a lost art — people are out there spending thousands at the cleaners and tailors.”

The program is sponsored by the District’s Recreation Wish List Committee, a community nonprofit that provides the program with an annual budget of less than $5,000. Other money is raised by the children, who model and sell their creations at several events throughout the year.

The annual holiday bazaar in December, for instance, raised more than $1,000, which was put back into the program. The students even make their own business cards with catchy names for their companies (Te’Cola’s Couture and Galaxy Skateboard Gear, among them).

“When Janice came up with the idea of the sewing class, I honestly thought it was genius,” says Mrs. Barry, founder and CEO of the Recreation Wish List. “I didn’t expect the entrepreneurial aspect. The kids are really fully invested in the program. We are really creating magic.

“You would not know these are kids from underserved communities. This is really raising kids’ self-esteem when you think you can do something. Here they are creating something from scratch, and then you have the nerve to think you can sell it? That is something to be proud of. I have about 12 of the hats kids have made.”

Theprogram recently received some media attention, and Ms. Rankins says she was surprised and touched by the response. A local woman called to offer money and to pick up fabric during her world travels. Another call was from Earl Powell, a 37-year-old government printing specialist from Clinton who has been an avid sewer for years though he resembles a professional athlete more than a tailor.

He came to the sewing room with boxes of patterns and fabric, “stuff I had just lying around,” he says.

“I have a sewing and craft room in my basement,” Mr. Powell says. “I make my own suits. I’ve made coats. Sewing relaxes me, teaches me patience.”

Mr. Powell volunteers with Sew ‘N Know two or three times a week. Ms. Rankins says she likes having a male role model helping the students, particularly the boys, who make up an enthusiastic portion of the program participants.

Take Javian Bryant, 13. He comes to Sew ‘N Know almost every day after class is dismissed at St. Thomas Moore Catholic School. He says he was drawn to learn how to sew when he didn’t see anything in the stores that “fit my style.”

What kind of style is that? “Rock-star-ish,” Javian says with a shrug. On a recent Thursday he measures and cuts a brown-and-white print to make a scarf.

The hip-hop culture has made fashion design cool. Singers such as Jay Z and Sean “Diddy” Combs have made forays into the fashion business. Shows such as Bravo’s “Project Runway” have glamorized the often tedious process of conceptualizing, pinning, ironing and stitching with precision.

Aaron Gerald, 10, is hunched over a machine, working a bold black-and-white fabric into shorts. This will be the day he finally and proudly sews in the zipper fly correctly, a big milestone in this sewing room.

“I really wear the stuff,” Aaron says. “I have made pants and shirts. I made my mom a hat.”

One recent program participant has used his sewing knowledge as a foundation for a career goal. Nathaniel Wilkes, a recent graduate of Largo High School and of Sew ‘N Know, is attending the Art Institute of New York with the hope of becoming a fashion designer.

Most of the students, however, are taking things stitch by stitch, day by day.

“At thebeginning, I ask them to write a letter about why they want to be in the class,” Ms. Rankins says. “ThenI have them do a sketch of what they would like to make. Then we look at fabric. This all comes from their heads, and it is the most wonderful thing when it comes to fruition.”

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