Designing Women: Nonprofit Peace of Thread provides jobs and stylish handbags

Nestled behind a cluster of homes in Clarkston is a crafters’ cottage with a little red door that Peace of Thread has transformed into its headquarters. Here, purses are designed, patterns made and cut, and kits are prepared for seamstresses. Fabric may be flying, but the cottage always has a sense of calm. The artisans working at the cottage are making much more than pretty bags: they are crafting community.

Peace of Thread employs refugee women to sew one-of a-kind handbags and accessories. Since 2012, the sewing sisterhood has trained women seeking refuge in Atlanta from countries including Iraq, Afghanistan, Burma, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Through the years, their purses, clutches and totes have sold online, at select boutiques and at craft shows such as the Yellow Daisy Festival and Piedmont Park Arts Festival.

Denise Smith

The aforementioned calmness at the cottage is kept by a simple work ethic. “Our dialogue here is that we keep everything at peace. We are women of peace. We do not bring any politics into this area. We respect each other with dignity and honor women with dignity no matter what,” said founder and CEO Denise Smith, who operates the nonprofit with teammates Hilary Cheeseman, Stephanie Marbut and Najah.

Smith believes the best way to spark change in the Clarkston community is to support it residents every day, from learning English to navigating healthcare. She learned the importance of trusting neighbors as an expat in Lebanon for nearly seven years. “We, as American women, need to be better advocates and embrace our diverse community in a different way, rather than being activists loudly through demonstrating. That’s when the woman who has no voice and no education can be empowered,” she said.

Smith said the women trust her friendship and support, but seek out the counsel of Najah, a refugee from Mosel, Iraq who has been with Peace of Thread for four years. If Smith is the friendly neighbor and a bridge to American culture, Najah is the older sister and confidant. The seamstresses in training see Najah’s success, from her sewing skills to her driving skills, and aspire to reach her level of self-sufficiency.

Peace of Thread started with support from Atlanta Decorative Arts Center (ADAC) and their donations of fabric for handbags. The interior design showroom sends baskets full of fabrics coming in many textures and tapestries, patterns and embroidery and the tags boast popular textile designers such as Pindler and Robert Allen. Peace of Thread designers then pair together these many fabrics for handbags that are more masterpieces than patchwork.

Susan Lightcap, an artist who works out of her studio in Pine Lake, volunteers as a designer at Peace of Thread. She loved the mission of the organization, but also the fabrics. “I’ve been a textile artist my entire adult life but getting to put my hands on these amazing fabrics just blew my mind,” she said.

Susan Lightcap cuts kits for each purse.

Lightcap stops by the cottage regularly to cut fabric, gather materials and assemble a handbag kit. The kits are then distributed to seamstresses who work out of their homes.
Sewing may be a predominately solitary activity for the seamstresses, but the sewing circle stays connected virtually. Since each seamstress is given a smartphone, they can contact the designer of the bag they are working on through an app called Viber if they hit a snag.

The network of Peace of Thread extends to what Smiths calls “freedom circles” where women around the southeast design and cut patterns, including one friend in Memphis. Another designer in Canton has opened up a room in her home and has turned it into a small workshop to train and teach women how to sew.

For more information, visit peaceofthread.com.

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