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Kentucky teenagers discover that embroidery is a lot more than just a craft

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Instead of hanging out by the pool or off at camp, some Kentucky teenagers are spending part of their summer with long needles and colorful floss and also learning how embroidery has long been used to empower women. Cheri Lawson of member station WEKU spent time with the School of Needlework for Disobedient Women and has this report.

CHERI LAWSON, BYLINE: In what looks like a cozy living room with antique couches, a group of teenagers is hovering over small pieces of fabric. They're getting a lesson on the how-to's of embroidery. Fifteen-year-old Arabella Huff says she heard about the workshop for kids her age when she saw a flyer on Facebook.

ARABELLA HUFF: It said they discuss, like, feminist and political topics while you stitch. And I was like, OK, I can get behind that.

LAWSON: And then she says, there was the name - the School of Needlework for Disobedient Women.

ARABELLA: That made it more appealing to me 'cause I have some very feminist ideals. So I was like, OK, that's my people (laughter).

LAWSON: There are 12 teens altogether, and they talk about everything from media literacy to identity to the rollback of Roe v. Wade. On this day, instructor Cecelia Rhoden is showing a few girls how to rethread a needle.

CECELIA RHODEN: Just take the needle off the thread.

LAWSON: Rhoden is one of the creators of the grant-funded workshop in the small town of Berea, Ky. She says there was a time when needlework was used as a tool to prepare girls for marriage. And women later used those skills as a form of activism. They stitched things like suffrage banners rallying for the right to vote. Rhoden says the School of Needlework for Disobedient Women is a nod to all those women and the evolution of their work.

RHODEN: They took that skill that they were taught to help marry them off, and they used it to just, like, scream, I'm not happy, and I'm doing something about it.

LAWSON: Kiana Mahjub, the workshop's other co-founder, says she and Rhoden are both artists. They work with things like fabric and multimedia, and now they're teaching teens to use embroidery as a means of self-expression.

KIANA MAHJUB: Mostly just learning how to speak their minds and not be afraid to do it here.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: Hey, Kiana?

LAWSON: Mahjub walks over to a table where four girls are embroidering and chatting. Adyson Shepherd is stitching an image of a woman's body. The 14-year-old points out the large thighs and stretch marks, saying the body reflects how she looks.

ADYSON SHEPHERD: I feel like it'd be an empowering move if I just embroider a body because it reminds me of how everyone is beautiful in their own way.

LAWSON: Mahjub agrees.

MAHJUB: I think it looks really cool.

LAWSON: Across the room, Cadence Perman perches on a gold velvet couch and works on a square of fabric inside a wooden hoop. Perman identifies as agender. The 15-year-old is new to needlework but carefully stitches a design circled by a message. In red thread, it says, respect my existence or expect my resistance.

CADENCE PERMAN: And then I made a uterus with my ovaries as the lesbian and nonbinary flags.

LAWSON: The free two-week workshop has received some funding and coaching from Shannon Downey, an art activist known on Instagram as Badass Cross Stitch. She says the School of Needlework for Disobedient Women is especially important because, in her opinion, there's been a backslide in the rights of women and folks of marginalized genders.

SHANNON DOWNEY: The only way that's going to change is if we're supporting our young people and understanding that they have power and that they have autonomy and that they have say.

LAWSON: The workshop is only in its second year, and co-founders Rhoden and Mahjub say they're already working on duplicating it so that other artists can teach teens about art, activism and finding their voice.

For NPR News, I'm Cheri Lawson in Berea, Ky. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Cheri is a broadcast producer, anchor, reporter, announcer and talk show host with over 25 years of experience. For three years, she was the local host of Morning Edition on WMUB-FM at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Cheri produced and hosted local talk shows and news stories for the station for nine years. Prior to that, she produced and co-hosted a local talk show on WVXU, Cincinnati for nearly 15 years. Cheri has won numerous awards from the Public Radio News Directors Association, the Ohio and Kentucky Associated Press, and both the Cincinnati and Ohio chapters of the Society for Professional Journalists.