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Remembering Sew Images Owner Cecilia Franklin and Her Influence on Bay Area Artists

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Smiling Black woman in blue shirt in sewing shop
Cecilia Franklin at Sew Images in 2013. (Courtesy Lisa Franklin)

I am mourning the loss of Cecilia Franklin, the woman who taught me how to sew. Franklin ran Sew Images, a small business on Oakland’s Piedmont Avenue where she taught classes, sold machines and had every sewing knickknack imaginable, including a device that could embroider any patch you wanted. She died on Dec. 3, 2022 at the age of 81.

When she taught classes, Franklin told stories: stories about sewing dresses for her daughter, being an accountant at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the different garments she made for herself throughout her lifetime. Sometimes, she would bring them in to show us. They were always pristine, nicely pressed, sometimes wrapped in dry-cleaner plastic. To me, they were art.

Clothing, I learned from Franklin, can never be mass-produced to fit our individual bodies. To find something that fits, we have to sew it ourselves. I picked a complicated jacket pattern to make during her class, to finally have the vintage, neon biking jacket of my dreams. Franklin helped me every step of the way and I learned all the tricks. After the class ended, I would stop by Sew Images once a week on my lunch break to pick up thread, and to show her what I was working on. At the time, I was making a lot of wearable furniture, and she never failed to laugh wholeheartedly at my ridiculous inventions.

Older Black woman works with two kids to pin pattern to red fabric
Cecilia Franklin teaching kids at Camp Sew Fun at her shop in 2011. (Courtesy Lisa Franklin)

The truth is, every artist needs a Cecilia Franklin. It takes a lot of courage not only to make art, but to show it to other people. Her influence on my work was pivotal. I know I can’t be the only Bay Area artist who feels this way.

Stephanie Syjuco, an artist and UC Berkeley professor, bought her sewing machine, a $5,000 Bernina, from Franklin. It was a big investment, but Syjuco trusted Franklin’s judgment — for good reason.

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Syjuco went on to use the Bernina to make many large-scale pieces, some of which have found homes in museum collections. One of those textile works, The Visible Invisible (2018), was recently purchased by the de Young Museum in San Francisco. Over the years, their relationship led to conversations about Franklin’s previous job as an accountant at UC Berkeley and her extensive career as a costume designer before opening the store. Syjuco says, as a women of color herself, she loved to see Cecilia running her own business. Syjuco says she also admired Franklin’s “strange sense of humor.”

Left image of three mannequins in period dress made with green fabric, right image of model in puffy multicolored garment
L: Stephanie Syjuco, ‘The Visible Invisible,’ 2018; R: Blythe Feeney, ‘Caterpillar Protection Dress,’ 2018. (Courtesy the artists)

Local artist Blythe Feeney also bought their sewing machine from Franklin, and took a class from her to learn how to use it. Feeney says Franklin was incredibly helpful and kind. For a San Francisco Art Institute school project, Feeney was working on a strange pillow dress, which they showed to Franklin with an expectation that she would find it weird. Instead, Franklin loved it. Feeney remembers she was warm, encouraging and enthusiastic. That interaction motivated Feeney to keep making clothes.

Franklin was born in Fort Myers, Florida, in 1941. She was the oldest of seven siblings. She learned needlework from her talented mother and maternal grandmother, honing her skills on a 1969 Bernina Record 730 that she purchased new with a down payment and paid off in $50 installments. Her daughter, Alicia (Lisa) Franklin, also learned to sew on this machine, which is still around and in the family today.

Left image of young Black woman wearing pearls and graduation robe, right image of woman in blue blouse smiling in portrait studio
L: Cecilia Franklin’s graduation photo; R: Franklin in 1981. (Courtesy Lisa Franklin)

Franklin graduated from Newark, New Jersey’s South Side High School in 1958 and attended business school before getting married. In 1963, her family, including her two-year-old daughter, drove across the country in a 1959 green Chevrolet Impala, relocating to the Bay Area.

Franklin opened Sew Images in 1991 at its first location on Oakland’s Grand Avenue. Eventually, the business moved to Piedmont Avenue and Franklin became an invaluable member of the Piedmont Avenue Merchants Association. Sew Images remained in business for 31 years, until Franklin’s death.

Franklin was known for spreading what her family calls the “gospel and love of sewing.” She was always eager to demonstrate a difficult technique. Her good-natured ribbing of everyone, her take-charge attitude and her bravery are sorely missed.

After learning of Franklin’s death, I have been thinking about the idea of “focus.” The Latin root of the word means “hearth” — a place of light and warmth, for family gatherings and meals. Today, when we refer to focus, we are describing instead a state of mind — a place we find internally. As someone constantly facing distractions, it would be nice to find focus in my surroundings, rather than expending so much mental effort to attain it. Cecilia Franklin’s Sew Images, with its classes, materials and personal attention was, for me, “focus” in the form of a place.

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