With Quilts and Crafts, This Inman Square Shop Says, “You Belong Here”

gather herePhoto by Emily Cassel

Gather Here is displaying “a large community announcement of inclusion.”

Hoping to spread a message of welcoming and understanding after November’s election, Virginia Johnson asked friends and customers of her Inman Square craft store Gather Here to lend a hand.

She had no idea how much it would catch on.

In December, Johnson put out a call for crafters to embroider, knit or sew a single phrase—“You Belong Here”—for a themed window display in her Cambridge Street storefront. Over the past month, Gather Here has received around 100 pieces stitched with those words. Local crafters have left contributions with staffers at the front desk, while others across the country and even some in Canada have dropped theirs in the mail.

“We didn’t think that would happen,” Johnson says incredulously.

Inspired by the words she saw on a homemade t-shirt worn by a nine-year-old family friend after the election, Johnson envisioned that message being amplified into a “large community announcement of inclusion.” Johnson explains that Gather Here has always worked to project inclusiveness, something that’s become more vital to their community in recent months. Since the shop started sharing more politically-minded posts on Instagram in October, Johnson says their following has doubled and become much more engaged.

“What you personally believe filters into what you do [at work],” Johnson, who is the daughter of an immigrant and says she cares deeply about civil rights and immigration issues. “We can’t separate those things from what we do here.”

Gather Here regularly showcases craft projects with a message. One quilt in the stitch lounge’s window reads “Choose hope, love, respect, equality, community,” and a chalkboard positioned at the entrance welcomes crafters of all identities and backgrounds.

But “You Belong Here,” in particular, has struck a nerve.

You Belong Here is a declaration that I will welcome you in my community even if the society I live in isn’t getting it right,” says April Paffrath, who contributed to the window, and whose daughter inspired the project with her homemade shirt.  “It’s a statement that says I see you as a human being, you’re not on your own, and I will keep trying hard to improve things … Making my contribution is a way to keep saying that people should be welcomed and supported and celebrated.”

The message reached far and wide. Many crafters around the country shared their work on Instagram, tagging Gather Here in their posts. And passersby here in Cambridge often stop in the store to express gratitude for the window, which was installed in time for Inauguration Day.

“I don’t think a day has gone by,” Johnson reflects, “when someone doesn’t come into the store to say, ‘Thank you for your window, thank you for your message.’”

Betsy Greer, a North Carolina-based blogger and the author of Craftivism: The Art of Craft and Activism, says it’s no accident that a community of creatives and crafters are spearheading this campaign.

Craft is a powerful tool for activism because it can open up the door for difficult conversations,” Greer says.

Johnson agrees. She views crafting as an inherently political activity; sewing, embroidery and quilting are traditionally female skills, and taking ownership of those arts today is an exercise in empowerment, focus and conscious consumption. The pink knit “pussyhats” worn by many women across the country at Women’s Marches last month are an example of this empowerment. (Gather Here staff distributed a dozen pussyhats on their train ride to the Women’s March on Washington.)

“You can protest, you can write, you can call,” Johnson notes. “But making something tangible has been comforting to a lot of people.”

Gather Here’s efforts haven’t stopped there. The store donates a percentage of their profits every Wednesday to a local organization—in January they raised $800 for Food for Free, and February’s organization of choice is Transition House. On February 18, cross-stitched patches reading “You Belong Here” will be available at the store in exchange for a donation, and Johnson worked with a local letterpress artist to transform Gather Here’s welcome chalkboard into posters for other small businesses to display.

“If we could use our platform to promote inclusiveness and engagement,” Johnson says she told herself in recent months, “then we would be doing our part.”