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Esperanza Threads offers organic handmade goods in Detroit Shoreway

Esperanza Threads storefront in Detroit Shoreway


Refugees learn the art of industrial sewing in Esperanza’s training program

Refugees learn the art of industrial sewing in Esperanza’s training program


Last month, a small business with a big heart opened a storefront in the Gordon Square Arts District. Founded in 2000 by Sister Mary Eileen Boyle, Esperanza Threads sells 100 percent organic cotton clothing, baby items, towels and blankets that are handcrafted right across the street. Esperanza had heretofore offered their goods online and at local craft and fair trade events.
 
"We use the funding we get from that to fund our real mission," says Lucretia Bohnsack, Esperanza's executive director, "which is to train people in the art of industrial sewing and help them get jobs."
 
Stepping into Esperanza's retail shop at 6515 Detroit (formerly Retropolitan) is like stepping back in time. The superlative quality of the fabrics and handcrafted composition is unlike anything lining the shelves of Target or Macy's. The lush cotton begs to be touched. Pricing is surprisingly reasonable. Washcloths are just $5.50. An adult tee shirt featuring a design by Cleveland artist Kevin Fernandez or Chuck Wimmer (among others) goes for $24. Considering the irresistible hooded baby bath blanket will last long enough to swaddle three generations (or more) of clean wet babies, the $28 price tag is a bargain. Other offerings include a catnip cat toy, scarves, robes and a few items made by different suppliers such as socks.
 
Shop hours are 4 to 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, although Bohnsack is happy to accommodate other time slots by appointment (call 216-961-9009 between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. Monday through Friday). The storefront venture, which is a collaborative effort between Esperanza and the Detroit Shoreway Community Development Corporation, will be open through October, after which plans are tentative.
 
"We'll see what happens," says Bohnsack. "We'll see if we're able to stay."
 
All of Esperanza's items are made by a staff of four sewers in a shop adjacent to the Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish. Three of them are graduates of Esperanza's unique training program, which gives a leg up to the most vulnerable among us: international refugees and locals in need of a helping hand. Approximately 75 percent of the trainees are refugees from other parts of the world and 25 percent are from Northeast Ohio.
 
The program gives Sister Mary Eileen and Bohnsack a different perspective on the horrors unfolding in countries such as Syria or Afghanistan or Sudan, which so many of us watch from the comfort of our living rooms.
 
"We get those people here," says Bohnsack, recalling the day one trainee learned that his entire village had been destroyed and his family killed. Sister Mary Eileen describes another woman from the West African nation of Benin.
 
"She came here on her own seeking asylum because she had been in a very abusive situation all her life," she says, adding that the woman is scheduled for an interview at National Safety Apparel this week. "Hopefully she'll get the job."
 
The program takes in six people every six weeks for a three-week training course.
 
"In 2014, we had a 72 percent hiring rate," reports Sister Mary Eileen.
 
Esperanza works with a network of organizations to identify candidates for the program, including Catholic Charities Migration and Refugee Services, Building Hope in the City, US Together, Asian Services in Action and West Bethel Baptist Church. They also take referrals from satisfied clients.
 
It all culminates with the honorable ideologies driving Esperanza: fair wages, a safe and welcoming working environment, sustainability, hard work, products and practices that respect the earth and, most importantly, people helping people.
 
"If every one of us did something little to make a difference," says Bohnsack, "the world would be a better place."

Read more articles by Erin O'Brien.

Erin O'Brien's eclectic features and essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and others. The sixth generation northeast Ohioan is also author of The Irish Hungarian Guide to the Domestic Arts. Visit erinobrien.us for complete profile information.
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