Quilt-making business honors an ancestral tradition

February 19th, 2019
Kecia Escoe, owner of Umi's Comfort. (Photo courtesy of New Economy Initiative.)

Crafted quilts are threads that fasten memories, weave stories, and bind generations. They hold special meaning in ethnic cultures, where quilters are not only artisans but family historians.

Kecia Escoe knows this well. It’s a knowledge that courses in her blood. For most of her life, it was an undercurrent of which she was unaware. Then, in 2003, Kecia experienced “a shift in life cycle,” she said. As she gathered herself to push forward, she found herself designing and sewing quilts.

The skill seemed to flow through her hands from an unknown source. It was an inherited gift, she would come to discover from her elders. The art of quilting goes back six generations in her family, beginning in the West African country of Benin. She was picking up an ancestral thread to stitch a new direction for herself.

“When I am making a quilt, I go into a type of trance,” Kecia said. “When I’m done, I look at it with some surprise and think: I did that!”

A quilt designed and made by Kecia (click the image to see other designs on Umi’s Comfort Instagram)

Not only does quilting run in her blood, but so, too, does an entrepreneurial current. Her grandmother owned beauty shops in Detroit, and she persuaded relatives to come from the South to take advantage of business and work opportunities in the city. Continuing this family tradition, Kecia started her own company, called Umi’s Comfort, to make and restore quilts. “Umi” is an Arabic word that means “my mother.” The warmth of a handmade quilt that embodies familial memories and mementos can feel like a maternal embrace, and provide some comfort when one is apart from family.

Although Kecia had good business instincts, she understood that it would be beneficial to take a small business program to coalesce her ideas. She decided to enroll in Southwest Solutions’ ProsperUS Detroit program, which trains and assists minority and immigrant entrepreneurs who want to establish or grow small businesses in Detroit neighborhoods. Kecia completed the program about three years ago.

“ProsperUS was definitely helpful,” Kecia said. “It allowed me to articulate my thoughts about my business into a plan, and to consider how to market and customize my designs to attract more customers.”

In addition to ProsperUS, Kecia has been resourceful in reaching out to other programs that help aspiring small businesses in Detroit. She received a Motor City Match award to provide free technical advice about blueprinting the space where she is setting up shop. Kecia also received an NEIdeas award last year for $10,000 to purchase design software and sewing equipment so she can increase her quilt sales.

Kecia expects to open her shop in the Russell Woods neighborhood in the late spring. She is transforming a once-vacant building to become the location of Umi’s Comfort, where she will create and sell the quilts and custom bowls and also offer quilt-making workshops.

“I’m hoping that my shop will contribute to revitalizing the neighborhood,” Kecia said. “There used to be many businesses here, and I think we could have a vibrant local business district again.”

When a customer commissions a quilt from Kecia, she listens intently to their story and what they want to quilt to express through images, patterns and materials. She then draws out a few designs and gives the customer a choice. Once the choice is made, the handiwork begins.

“When I give the customer the finished quilt, they often have an emotional reaction,” Kecia said. “Some even cry.”

In addition to commissions, Kecia creates quilts for her own artistic and storytelling purposes. She is currently designing a quilt to represent moments in the history of the black race in America. The quilt will include references to the slave trade, plantation life, “laughing barrels,” sharecropping, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights movement, men and women who advanced the great cause, and more.

“The quilt is meant to express our resiliency and the verse ‘We don’t die, we multiply,’ meaning that even though they’ve tried to destroy us, we’ve survived and thrived,” Kecia said.

Because of the powerful message in her art, Kecia has had her quilts displayed at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History and other public venues.

To learn more about Kecia’s work, and to order a quilt or bowl from Umi’s Comfort, please visit the website.

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