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Muses graduates Thao and Suda scope new bag patterns with cofounder Sandrine Espié (center).

Image: Tori Dickson

One day, over a cup of Espresso Vivace coffee on Capitol Hill, two women mused about diversifying job opportunities for Seattle’s low-income immigrants and refugees. You know, the usual cafe banter. It was 2012 and Sandrine Espié, a French transplant, had just gotten her masters in public administration at Seattle University and was finishing up her internship at Global Washington. Esther Hong, meanwhile, volunteered for the local chapter of the International Rescue Committee. Between them, nary a thread of garment industry experience. Yet the duo was determined to help a hardworking, untapped talent pool of newcomers gain stable employment. The fashion world, it turns out, was just the way.

“We realized a lot of immigrants and refugees traditionally know how to sew; that’s a part of their culture and they have an interest in sewing,” says Espié. Some were even tailors in their native country. Still, work is hard to come by. In Washington, 23 percent of highly skilled or educated immigrants with at least a bachelor’s degree were either unemployed or working in low-skilled jobs in the past decade. 

Espié and Hong aim to change that. In 2013, they founded Muses, a nonprofit that teaches apparel manufacturing to individuals often fleeing countries in economic or political turmoil, such as Afghanistan, Burma, Eritrea, the Philippines, and Russia. One student left the Democratic Republic of Congo after having spent years in a refugee camp. And though she had sewed most of her life, she worked as a housecleaner until she joined Muses.

Here, students hone their sewing prowess during eight-week courses on everything from industry machine operation to workers’ rights advocacy. From there, they can either start a paid internship with Muses or enter the realm of garment making.

Around 60 students have trained with Muses, landing jobs at established local retail companies like Filson and Nordstrom. It’s our city’s collective penchant for all things sustainable that makes Muses successful, and helps make Seattle not only a sanctuary for the stylish but for the immigrant and refugee workers behind the trendy clothing on your back.

This article was updated on July 20. One student depicted in the photo is named Suda, not Luda as originally published.

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