In June of 2019, Nina Harris, a then-rising senior at Tulane University, had an idea to up-cycle thrifted shirts.
She had been a fan of thrifting for a while. Like many before her, Harris grew up shopping at Forever 21 but converted to “thriftdom” after learning about the horrors of fast fashion—from its mistreatment of workers to staggering environmental costs.
In high school, she bought a shirt at a thrift store printed the words “You are sexy.” The shirt always received lots of compliments and even sparked conversations—so the thought occurred to Harris: “What if the shirt had said ‘Voting is sexy?’”
On a whim, she taught herself how to embroider, thrifted a bunch of plain tee-shirts and embroidered them with a variety of words she believed were sexy and should be normalized. This first batch of shirts included now-popular phrases like: “Voting is sexy,” “Sustainability is sexy” and “Kindness is sexy.”
Over a year later, Stitch it to the Patriarchy is a thriving business made up of over seventy women advocating, change-making and, of course, embroidering. (While they are not a closed group for women, at the moment all members are woman-identifying.)
The first shirt put up for sale on their Instagram was a $20 tee with the words, “Honesty is sexy,” embroidered by Harris. Flash forward to the present—the account has nearly 4,000 followers and over 130 posts.
Stitch It—which Harris casually refers to as her “baby”—was never designed to be a major profit-making company.
“I literally had no vision,” she told Ms., “I was like, ‘It would be really cool to start the conversation about fast fashion.’”
For almost a year, Stitch It was simply a pastime for a driven undergraduate with a passion for social justice; Harris double majored in political science, and social policy and practice—and if there is one thing that comes across in a conversation with her, it’s her deep passion for voting. Stitch It was a way to bring that passion to action.
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It was only during this past semester—her last semester at Tulane—that she realized she could be doing more.
“This is kind of a passive way to be doing activism,” she said, “Like yes, maybe these shirts are gonna be creating conversations and maybe people will take action because they saw some shirt that said ‘voting is sexy’ or, ‘consent is retractable’ or whatever. But I kind of wanted to step up my level of engagement.”
With the help of a fellow student, Harris decided to open up what she called an “ambassador program” this past February. Importantly, her goal with the expansion was not to have a bunch of typical Instagram models flouncing around in her clothes.
She specified that her ambassadors are ambassadors “not in the sense of, ‘oh you wear Stitch It clothes and you promote the clothing aspect,’ but [more in the sense of] ‘you promote the ideals of sustainability and progressive social change through a grassroots one-on-one mission.’”
Almost immediately after she had accepted other Tulane students into her growing organization, the coronavirus pandemic hit and Harris was tasked with living up to her vision. Schools shut down, businesses closed their doors and millions fell ill. In that moment, most of us were engulfed in our own personal problems as the chaos unfolded.
But Harris saw a chance to do some good.
“Obviously COVID has not been a good opportunity for anything,” she said, “But it was a good opportunity for Stitch It to just to get involved in its community in New Orleans.”
Working quickly, as droves of students fled campus, Harris set up a food drive for those leaving to donate items they were unable to take home.
By the end of the drive, Harris and her fellow Stitch It activists had collected 1,700 pounds of food. They donated it to Second Harvest—New Orleans’s largest food bank. They also collected clothing and toiletries for Operation Restoration, an organization that supports formerly incarcerated women in New Orleans.
Later in March, Stitch It used its growing Instagram following to raise over 7,000 dollars for Second Harvest, and collected over 1,000 more pounds of food when upperclassmen left campus in May.
In a moment of absolute chaos and fear, Stitch It to the Patriarchy calmly set an example of leadership. And, even in that moment of absolute uncertainty and fear, Harris found a silver lining:
“That was … the perfect project to start off having Stitch It representatives,” she said, “That is the kind of thing that I want Stitch It ambassadors and representatives to be doing—doing work that always relates to its mission.”
And she didn’t stop there: As the organization grew, so did the reach of its mission. Harris decided that Stitch It’s work could be impactful beyond New Orleans.
In June, the application for ambassadors opened up to other colleges. After sifting through an onslaught of applications from over 50 campuses across the country, Harris and her team welcomed 18 new ambassadors from across the country to the Stitch It family. Now, those ambassadors are working on recruiting people on their respective campuses to help organize actions in the fall.
While Harris and Stitch It definitely have a special love for voting and sustainability issues, ambassadors are given freedom to organize events and programs they feel are important specifically for their campus. For example, one ambassador is planning to bring contraceptives to her religious university that does not provide or promote birth control.
“Obviously [that] doesn’t relate to voting at all,” said Harris, “But it’s also important. It’s not just [that] Stitch It has to be some one binary thing. It can be whatever you make of it, as long as it’s … rooted in progressive change.”
Beyond the ambassadors, Stitch It also employs 17 embroiderers, who are each paid $25 an hour—”which is, you know, definitely not a sustainable business practice for me, personally,” Harris said, laughing, “But that’s the message that I want to be sending to other people. You should be paid a livable wage, you should be able to make clothes that are cool, that people will buy, and it doesn’t need to be harming the environment and it doesn’t need to be harming yourself.”
Stitch It’s business philosophy also includes donating 10 percent of its profits each month to a charity chosen by its Instagram followers. Since its beginning, Stitch It has donated to the Innocence Project, New Orleans Planned Parenthood, the New Orleans Abortion Fund, the March For Our Lives Movement, the New Orleans Family Justice Center and more.
Take notes big business! If you make positive change a priority, it becomes reality—Stitch It proves that.
Perhaps even more so, Stitch It sets an example for how to own up to mistakes. In the interview with Ms., Harris shared that when she originally started expanding Stitch It at Tulane, she did not make an active effort to create a diverse cohort.
“It was a complete fuckup on my part,” she said, “Very much, [I] have made it abundantly clear to the new members of Stitch It that that will not be happening … It’s not allowed to just be some random group of white girls. I insist that they have diversity on their campuses.”
“Stitch It is always growing and always improving and is obviously not a perfect organization,” Harris said, “We’re always open for growth. If people do see our organization and see something that they think should be changed … I’m an open door. I read all those messages. I respond to all of them. I want Stitch It to be the best it could be.”
From donating to charities to working tirelessly to register voters for the 2020 election (Harris wants Stitch It to help register 90 percent of the Tulane student body), Stitch It is making real change. Harris says:
“It is really important to show other young people—and just the world at large—that, ‘wow, like, it is completely possible and feasible for young people, and especially young woman, to be able to create meaningful change.”
Nina Harris wears her heart on her sleeve, and quite literally so. If all businesses were as driven by progressive change as this one, the world would undoubtedly be in a much better place.
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