By Samantha Biel

On the third floor of the Nebraska History Museum, a giant pink, yellow and purple quilt splashes the white walls with bold patterns and color. Some squares of the quilt are embroidered with dainty flowers, while others are graffitied with a resolute proclamation: “I am a victor, not a victim!”

The quilt, called the Women’s Vision Quilt, was made by several women from Lincoln’s Asian Community and Cultural Center’s sewing circle. Each woman used a different artistic technique, including painting, embroidery and applique, to create a quilt square that represents their vision for the future of women.

Just a few feet away, an elegant burgundy and black gown with intricate beading drapes from a mannequin. The gown was worn by Stephanie Johanns, wife of former Gov. Mike Johanns, to the governor’s inauguration in 1999. Fran Pralle, a seamstress from Waco, Nebraska, designed and made the dress specifically for the governor’s wife to wear to the inauguration party.

Surrounding the quilt and the gown are dozens of other pieces of art, clothing and jewelry created by Nebraskan women from a wide variety of cultures and backgrounds. Strands of beadwork made by two Sudanese refugees lay in a display case next to embroidered floral shoe insoles created by a Chinese immigrant. A tablecloth hand-beaded by an Iranian woman sparkles in the center of the room.

Each piece of art on display is part of the Nebraska History Museum’s new exhibit, Crafting Culture, which runs from April 12 through July 13. The exhibit recognizes Nebraska’s enterprising, creative women who use their talents in the business of building culturally and artistically significant items. By showing the beauty and utility of handmade textiles and crafts, the exhibit aims to break the stereotype that crafting is frivolous or unimportant while celebrating the rich culture that the textile industry can manifest.

The embroidered soles of a pair of Chinese shoes.
Sudanese bead work.
Stephanie Johann's inauguration gown.
Iranian tablecloth.
Women's Vision Quilt
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On the opening night of Crafting Culture, a panel of Nebraskan women spoke about their textile design careers and the challenges, rewards and intricacies that come with working in the competitive world of art. 

“Trying to get funding for my next project is a constant battle,” said Kate Francisco, creator of Kate Lavender, a line of lounge clothing with historical influence. “One time a potential sponsor asked me if designing clothes was just my hobby.”

Each of the panelists agreed that gaining credibility as a professional can be difficult in the textile industry, especially since crafting and fashion design are sometimes perceived as unnecessary hobbies that are less valuable than more traditionally masculine manufacturing jobs.

Ellen Sartore, a fashion merchandising major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, combats the negative perceptions surrounding fashion by managing her own business, an online vintage boutique.

“As women, we have been conditioned to always question if we’re making the right decision,” she said. “We feel the need to ask someone else for permission before we pull the trigger. But I just remind myself that I have expertise. I am a professional.”

Another panelist, Samirah Alotaibi, establishes her credibility as a craftswoman by rooting her work in her culture and her target market. Alotaibi, who grew up in Saudi Arabia and came to the United States for graduate school, centers her clothing brand, Masisa, around the patterns, colors and feelings of her home.

Samirah Alotaibi discusses the designs for her clothing brand, Masisa.

“Masisa is all about enjoying where you are right now, appreciating where you came from and seeking more from the future,” she said. “The woman who wears Masisa understands the value of the culture around her.”

Alotaibi created an entire persona for Masisa’s target market in order to give her work a focus and to directly appeal to potential consumers. According to Alotaibi, the kind of woman she creates Masisa for is in her mid-20s, works full time in Europe, is originally from Kuwait, is globally minded, well-traveled and collects beautiful, durable items such as Persian rugs.

When asked if the target audiences of their designs include themselves, the panelists all took a moment to consider the breadth of their art. While each of the panelists bases their designs in their experiences and interests, there are certain factors that prevent some of them from wearing the clothes they create.

“Honestly, I can’t always afford the pieces I make,” said Makenzie Lesiak, who makes modern, luxurious wedding gowns. “That’s why I always have to chase down funding for my pieces.”

And while Alotaibi would happily wear some of her pieces, such as a bright green coat with traditional chain stitching inspired by the wedding garments of Saudi Arabian tribes, she would not wear some of her other designs.

“In Saudi Arabia, I can’t wear some of the clothes I design,” Alotaibi said as she gestured to a form-fitting silk evening gown. “But the point of my designs is to show that you can wear your personal style while still recognizing the influences of your culture.”

Through the expertise of the panelists and the immense range of textile work on display, the Crafting Culture exhibit leaves visitors with a glimpse into the minds of Nebraskan women who build their lives around their creations. To them, their craftsmanship is not only a way to celebrate the inspirations of their cultures, but also a business venture and a way of life.