Lawrence native Catherine Bell grew up with 10 siblings, but she was the only one to take up her mom’s passion for sewing and fashion design.
Now Bell is passing the torch — or needle — to the kids she’s had under her wing since 2019, when she started teaching sewing classes under the name Sew Simple Sewing.
Her program is located in a strip mall near Sixth Street and Gateway Court, in the same building where she works for her other business, Properwear, a custom apparel brand she co-founded with her mom Mildred in 2017.
“One of our Properwear clients brought her 6-year-old granddaughter to our studio one day. She started telling me about her aspirations, like ‘I want to be a fashion designer when I grow up,’ and ‘I want to make the stuff you do.’ It melted my heart,” Bell said.
After one lesson, she was sold. The Sew Simple program snowballed from private lessons into public group classes.
‘Plant a seed, help them flourish’
Sew Simple was designed as an after-school program for kids as young as 6, but Bell teaches adults sometimes too. She says sewing is a dying art, and it’s a way to mend more than just clothing.
“It’s therapeutic,” she said. “Sewing allows [students] to take whatever anxiety or stress and put it into a project that creates something really beautiful in the end. It gives them confidence and allows them to problem-solve, too, because things don’t always go the way you want them to. That’s why we have seam rippers; just take the stitches out and start again.”
Bell finds the work deeply rewarding, especially when her students fall in love with the craft. It’s a way of coming full circle from her own childhood. Bell’s favorite success story is that one of her students, who has been in the program for three years, is now as good as her … and teaching her friends how to sew, too.
“It’s amazing to see her take the skill I taught her and carry it onto others,” Bell said. “I just want to plant a seed, help them flourish, go and be independent. It’s never the idea for them to be in the program forever. At some point, they’ll learn the basics and start to get creative as a designer of their own. I want to give them the tools they need to create whatever they want.”
Sew Simple puts on an annual fashion show to showcase its students’ work. Last year’s in-person event was canceled due to the pandemic, and the 2021 Sew Inspired Fashion Show — being held Saturday, Oct. 9 — will be a virtual movie premiere instead.
The film will feature young creatives from the Sew Simple program, showcasing their work in a competition for the most impressive clothing line designed in just three weeks. Tickets are available here. The winner will receive a $300 cash reward and top-grade sewing machine.
“We’d love anyone and everyone to support this fashion show movie,” Bell said. “It’s just another confidence booster for the kids. They realize they have a support system and a community that loves them.”
Deep Lawrence roots
For Bell, community is key. She spent time in New York interning for big brands like Victoria’s Secret and Ralph Lauren while earning her apparel design degree at Johnson County Community College. Despite countless opportunities, she decided to return to Lawrence and hone her craft locally.
“It was fun and fast-paced in New York, but if I continued in the city, I’d have to start over in a new place and deal with much more competition,” Bell said. “Somebody had to bring that fashion culture to New York in the first place, so I thought, why not be the one to bring it to Lawrence, Kansas?”
So she built a loyal customer base through great customer service and creative custom clothing. This kind of entrepreneurship runs in her family. Catherine’s siblings Breanna and Isaiah Bell own Prestige Hair Salon, the only Black-owned combination barbershop and hair salon in Lawrence, in the same shopping center as Sew Simple. But the challenges and pride of being Black-owned businesses are rooted even deeper in their family tree.
“I think my biggest accomplishment as a successful Black-owned business is being able to look back and see myself as an extension of my parents and grandfather, and the hardships they had to go through,” Bell said. “My grandfather was an entrepreneur; he was a farmer and then an electrician. I’ve heard stories of how he was discriminated against because he was Black, how he worked for two or three years without pay, then had to find another job just to support his family.”
Bell says those experiences instilled a hard-working mentality, integrity and skills to persevere, not just in her grandfather, but also in her father, who opened his own construction business when he came to Lawrence in the 1970s.
While honoring the past, Bell is set on looking ahead. She’s hoping to expand her class offerings for Sew Simple Sewing, including online classes, and breaking more into the retail space on the Properwear side of her business.
Find more info about Properwear on Facebook or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Find more info about Sew Simple Sewing on their website or Facebook. Buy your ticket for the 2021 Sew Inspired Fashion Show at this link.
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Jordan Winter (she/her), a contributor to The Lawrence Times, is a 2019 KU grad with degrees in journalism and political science.