Handmade: Sewing entrepreneur wants to pay it forward

Jocelynn Brown
The Detroit News


Kimberly Wilson of West Bloomfield is a woman on a sewing mission who's been influenced by three very special women in her life -- her mother (Shelia Wilson) and late grandmothers (Ruth Neal and Ada Wilson).

Kimberly Wilson of REA Alexander carries her handmade "Life Hobo Bags" made out of African prints from Mali at Inglenook Park in Southfield.

Although they didn't teach her the basics of sewing, their "elegant" sense of style led to her brand called REA Alexander, a trendsetting collection of handcrafted apparel and accessories, which she launched in 2014.

She said sewing is her way of paying homage to her grandmothers because they were "very stylish and classy ladies," and it'll "keep their legacy alive." It also takes her back to the time when her mother made special-occasion dresses for her and her sisters when she was growing up.

Wilson, the daughter of pastor Nathan Wilson of Abundant Life Fellowship COGIC in Detroit, began learning to sew six years ago. She was taught by a woman at church, who makes the robes her father wears while preaching.

"When she started making his robes to preach in at church, that's when I gained an interest in sewing," she said. "And, after I saw her work, I needed something to wear for my birthday, so I thought, 'Why not make it?'" She quickly put her skills to work and celebrated her 30th birthday wearing a button-down blouse with a bow, which she made to match a pair of leggings.

Wilson, 36, later met a woman who worked at Joann Fabric and Crafts, while shopping for a sewing machine as a new addition to the used one she'd been gifted. "She verbally told me how to make a bag, and I just put my own twist to it. She didn't have a pattern, but I wrote the instructions down as she gave them to me," she recalled. 

Wilson was inspired to continue making the bag because of its unusual silhouette and possibilities for usage. The double-handle carry-all, which she named  "Life Hobo Bag," is now the No. 1 selling product in the REA Alexander collection. It sells for $86, and fits snugly beneath the upper arm as a shoulder bag, or it can double as an oversized handbag. 

Three handmade "Life Hobo Bags" made out of African prints from Mali by Kimberly Wilson of REA Alexander hang on a fence at Inglenook Park in Southfield.

Other items in the collection include dresses, leggings, wraps, berets and cosmetic bags, all of which she makes using commercial patterns. Her mother, who sews as well, taught her how to read patterns, and has given her tips for honing her skills. 

Wilson works closely with customers to create items made to order, using a variety of fabrics, including African prints, upholstery and outdoor material. "Sometimes for the lining, I'll use a polyester fabric or a cotton calico," she said, adding, "The hobo bags are reversible, but the cosmetic bags are not." Locally, she shops for fabric at Joann Fabric and Craft Stores, and Discount Fabric Outlet in Clawson. She also buys fabric in New York and Florida. 

The sewing enthusiast often works into the wee hours inside her home studio, completing different projects, which she sells by word-of-mouth, in her online shop at www.reaalexander.com, and at a few art shows around town. Prices range from $25 for a cosmetic bag to $100 for a duster. Starting Dec. 1, her "Life Hobo Bags" will also be available at the Shoe Repair Shop (8681 N. Lilley) in Canton.

And, who exactly is the REA Alexander customer? Wilson said, "She's a person who is confident. She's a working woman. She can be corporate America or an entrepreneur. She's goal-driven and chases after her dream." 

As a "traveling sewing instructor," Wilson will share her skills, as part of a four-week course, with anyone interested in learning -- either one-on-one, or in a small group.  "I can go to their home, church or community center," she said. "They would need to have their own sewing machine, but I do have machines they can rent." 

Her mission, or "ultimate goal, is to someday have a studio outside her home, and reach out to even more individuals with her sewing skills. "I'd like to teach women who are incarcerated and employ them, as well, once they're paroled," she remarked. "I also want to teach girls in juvenile detention centers. I don't want to limit myself." 

Detroit News columnist Jocelynn Brown is a longtime Metro Detroit crafter. You can reach her at (313) 222-2150, jbrown@detroitnews.com or facebook.com/DetroitNewsHandmade.

Contact REA Alexander at (248) 910-0659, reaalexander.com, or on Facebook. Email: reaalexander01@gmail.com.