Thursday, May 07, 2009

This Place Rocks

Sue Rock welcomes me through her door with a smile that could give you a sunburn and immediately grabs a pile of fabric. "Look at all of this!" she exclaims, marveling herself, "we have more than you could possibly believe, and we get more every day. We can't do anything BUT work with it." The basement space, a former after-hours night club with its disco ball still hanging proudly, is stocked to the rafters with textiles of all varieties, arranged on shelves, in boxes, and in piles on tables. In the middle of the main room, a square of tables holds the sewing machines, at which her husband Babafemi and daughter P.J. are working on their latest projects, while on the wall above them hangs thread and yarn of every color. Towards the front, a few mannequins and several more shelves and racks hold finished clothing, which Ms. Rock pulls out with abandon. "This piece was done for us by a woman from Denmark. Her friend told her about us when she moved here," she says, displaying a hand-knit sweater that could easily fetch $50 at a boutique. "This one is from a woman in Maryland." She darts to the rack by the door and pulls off a shimmering, gauzy 3/4 length collared piece that looks straight off the runway. "Fantastic, right? Now dig this," she says, pulling a gauzy curtain of the same design from a box on the floor.

I've found my way to Sue Rock Originals, a Crown Heights non-profit whose remarkable mission could best be summarized as the bringing of joy, healing, and community through textile arts. To be more clear: Sue Rock founded her non-profit over four years ago to reach out to survivors of domestic violence. They do so in two ways: most of the clothing and accessories they produce are donated to survivors, and many of the volunteers who make their products are themselves survivors. Sue speaks passionately theraputic value of working with fabric, not just for domestic violence survivors but for anyone. "Everyone's stressed out these days, but it's even worse to be stressed out and not know how to do anything," she says. "This is a way for people to repair and revitalize our lives." It's also a handy skill, one that can bring people together and bring in money (or at least save it). "There was a time when everyone could do this--everyone's great-grandparents could sew, or knit, or crochet. We could stand to get back to that," Sue notes, and indeed, her shop feels in many ways like an old-time tailor's, with mother, father, and daughter happily at work together.

Donated fabric is what holds the whole operation together--stacks and stacks of it, culled from cast-offs from interior design firms and fashion houses. As Sue explained to me, a big firm will order up ten times what they need for each season (a "send us one of everything" approach) and then dump the unused fabrics as soon as they've made their decisions for that season's line. When Sue Rock Originals started up nearly five years ago, they made calls through the Craigslist Free Fabrics listings and happened upon 13 huge garbage bags of vintage Italian interior design fabric. A pile of discarded curtains might not strike most people as a good omen, but Sue Rock knew better. "You can't lose," she says. "We have so much now, and it was all for the sake of asking. I would just call people and say "Hi, dig, I've got this idea, would you mind donating?" They now have a series of relationships they can count on, with new donorations coming in all the time.

While approaching five years of good work, Sue Rock Originals just opened their Crown Heights shop this winter. The building was owned by Sue's father, George C. Hargett, a local resident since his 1930s boyhood who passed on in February (Read about him in Sue Rock's words here) and left the store to Ms. Rock and her brother. The building itself, which Mr. Hargett bought 25 years ago for a pittance from the city at auction, had been a rooming house before he converted it to one-bedroom apartments, and was still a night club. However, the lessee of the latter establishment packed his bags the same week Mr. Hargett died, and Sue Rock Originals moved in.

From their new home, they are reaching out to the neighborhood with a series of events and classes to bring more people into their circle of volunteers and textile enthusiasts. The sign out front advertises knitting classes from 3-5 on Tuesdays, and they are now hosting a bi-monthly make-your-own lingerie party, complete with drinks and materials, on Friday nights. For the whole family, there will be a Mother's Day Crafts event this Saturday, May 9, from 1-4pm. Out back, they have a garden which they plan to make liberal use of this summer. Anyone who wants to hone their craft or learn from scratch is welcome, and if you donate your work, the materials are free. "There are people all over doing this, knitting and crocheting" says Sue, "so we just supply the yarn and let them work."

Sue Rock Originals is open Tuesday - Saturday from 10am-5pm at 1069 Bergen Street. Swing by!

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