US’s first refugee-owned sewing group launches

A new kind of fashion company is coming to Chicago.
Above: Mercy is one of four women behind Blue Tin Production Co-operative located in the American Islamic College in Chicago, Ill. Photo by Sehar Sufi.

A new kind of sewing company is coming to town.

Blue Tin Production Co-operative is America’s first refugee and immigrant-run sewing and clothing production co-operative. They are now raising seed funding through a Launchgood.com campaign to purchase materials, machines and other supplies.

The co-operative takes its name from the iconic and beloved blue Danish cookie tin that serves as a staple for storing sewing supplies in immigrant mothers’ homes. Co-op organizer Hoda Katebi, a Muslim Iranian-American author and voice behind the online radical political fashion publication JooJoo Azad, crowd sourced the name through social media suggestions. The co-operative model means that its members own, direct and manage the group.

Based out of American Islamic College in the Buena Park neighborhood, Blue Tin intends to provide refugee and low-income women with full-time work producing clothing for designers and brands. These highly-skilled seamstresses were selected after a two-month testing process with over 100 candidates from domestic violence shelters, refugee resettlement agencies and more. The aim is to be an alternative to domestic sweatshop-based fashion production that values the people behind the product as well as the environment.

“Made in America doesn’t always mean ethical,” says Katebi.

The Blue Tin’s goal isn’t just providing a living wage, but also health and well being services tailored to the women participating. This includes mental and physical health services, like trauma-informed yoga, legal and social services, free child care, transportation and language translation. Blue Tin members are able to learn new technical skills from fashion designers such as Jamie Hayes of Production Mode, a well-known purveyor of “slow fashion.”

Once it is fully up and running, Blue Tin will produce clothing for designers and major department stores. They also hope to create their own line of clothing designed and made by the women working at the co-op.

Members of the Blue Tin Cooperative prepare canvas totes for a Soho House Chicago launch event on Thursday, January 24. Photo by Sehar Sufi.

In addition to Katebi, who handles client relations and organizing for the co-op, three immigrant women run the co-op. Hailing from Kurdistan, Syria and Nigeria, these women have decades of experience in sewing and tailoring and are helping shape the co-op’s mission.

Mercy, who asked us not to use her last name, first learned how to sew in her hometown of Lagos, Nigeria. Sewing, she says, was her way to stay connected to the outside world while surviving domestic violence and abuse. Mercy says hearing about this co-operative and the chance to work with other women while sewing was like an answer to a prayer.

“I’m talking from experience when I say that sewing saved my life,” says Mercy. She hopes the co-operative expands to help others as well. “A lot of women are going through a lot of things. Sometimes they don’t have help. But with a co-op like this, they learn how to sew and they learn how to do something for themselves.”

Blue Tin Production Co-op plans on opening its doors in mid-March. In the meantime, they hope to raise $25,000 to purchase industrial sewing machines, ironing boards and other professional equipment to launch the business.