South Bend teacher keeps art of traditional weaving alive

Staff Writer

By HOWARD DUKES South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — Melvenea Hodges knows that many African-Americans who migrated to northern cities like South Bend did so to get away from the cotton boll and what it represented.

Generations of our ancestors were forced to cultivate those fluffy white orbs in the fields of southern states during slavery. Many of our grandparents and parents picked cotton under the oppressive and exploitative Jim Crow system that existed from the end of slavery until the late 1960s.

But Hodges, an educator and owner of the craft business Traditions in Cloth, said that tragic history tells only part of the story. Hodges uses traditional textile techniques to make clothing such as shirts, dresses and scarves from cotton that she grows at her house.

"I (plant) it in June, and have to bring it by the third week in October," she said. 

The plant is hearty and while the growing season isn't as long in the north as it is in the south, Hodges doesn't have to worry about her plants being decimated by the boll weevil, the insect that is the bane of southern cotton farmers.

Hodges dries and processes the cotton at home.

"Cotton is a fiber that before we ever touched down in America we were working in," she said. "(In Africa) We were very skilled in working in cotton and we created our traditional garments."

Hodges said those African artisans used raw materials to make garments and jewelry that were often used in ceremonies. It's a skill that people no longer possess because most buy clothes off racks from brick-and-mortar retailers or online.

And Hodges understands why many African-Americans don't want anything to do with cotton cultivation.

"We were forced to cultivate cotton for industrial purposes and we wanted to get away from that," she said. "And in the last two generations, we fought and fought to get away from that."

Hodges herself "got away from that." She earned a degree in the apparel, textile and merchandising program at Eastern Michigan University, but most of the people in her family were teachers. Eventually, she returned to school and completed a transition-to-teaching program and became an educator herself, and is currently working as a substitute teacher for fifth-graders at Marshall Traditional School.

Her grandmother was a retired seamstress who taught her older sister how to crochet. Her sister struggled, but eventually she caught on.

"I was kind of put to the side as being too young," Hodges recalled. However, she found her grandmother's crochet hook and taught herself. Hodges started going to fabric stores to buy yarn and crochet books and had become skilled enough to win a prize at the Berrien County Youth Fair for an afghan that she made.

Hodges always liked the bold colors and geometric shapes she saw in African clothing, but her classes at Eastern Michigan focused on teaching students how to be a buyer in the fashion industry. And that meant Hodges learned mostly about European fashion.

"They were showing me French fashion and they were showing me English and Spanish," Hodges recalled. "But they were not showing me what African-Americans were creating to wear.

"The more I dug, I found that we were weaving cotton and we were weaving beautiful garments. We had our own style and aesthetic."

Hodges continued weaving clothes and making jewelry even as she took a job at Kroger, where she held a variety positions. However, she quickly realized that she was ill-fitted for the corporate world.

"I had this whole house filled with looms, fabrics, spindles and all this textile equipment and I was creating but none of that was welcome in the workplace," she said. "In that workplace we were all penguins who were gonna wear the polyester slacks and button-down shirts."

Hodges also wanted to teach, and she left the corporate world to begin working in schools — first as a volunteer and then as a teacher.

Her clothes and jewelry are embraced at the school, and especially by the students. Hodges takes her weaving equipment to school and works during down times or at lunch.

"I had a canister of wool and a spinner sitting on my desk and the kids kept walking up to my desk and asking, 'What is this?'" Hodges said.

Hodges said she would always promise to show them later, sure that the kids would forget. But they never did.

"I'd have 24 kids at my desk saying, 'Show us this,'" Hodges said.

So, she finally did.

Some of the grown-ups might ask Hodges why she didn't buy clothes from the store instead of taking two weeks to make a dress, but the students get it. Hodges realizes that working in the schools gives her a chance to transmit these skills to the next generation.

And there are some adults who are interested in learning these skills. Hodges was among the vendors selling items at the annual Martin Luther King Day event at the Century Center, and she sold jewelry, scarves and two portable spinning kits.

Darice Austin-Phillips, the assistant principal at Harrison Elementary School, purchased one of those kits.

"I did purchase a spinning kit. Well, because it's just interesting. I was getting into sewing and asked my husband about growing cotton and spinning my own yarn and thread," Austin-Phillips said. "When I met her and found that she actually did that I was amazed."

Austin-Phillips said that she purchased the kit as a gift for her grandmother, who is 104 years old.

Hodges said the response validates her decision to ignore the people who told her making clothes would be a waste of time.

"I understood that (there is a) place for this in our society it's just that we have forgotten it," she said. "And I experience joy every day when I realize that the children who are rotting away in front of the TV are the same kids chomping at the bit to try this."

Learn more about Traditions in Cloth by visiting https://traditionsincloth.wordpress.com or via email at melveneah@gmail.com.

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