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Calming Exercise: Nikki Stokes Crochets Garments and Tools for Sensory Integration Therapy

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When Nikki Stokes started out as a spoken-word artist, she never imagined herself as a fashion designer or a business owner. She always made things but it wasn’t until she became the mother of an autistic son that her desire to create became a significant focus in her life. Stokes taught herself to crochet when her second son, Roman, was a baby, and originally it was a form of soothing and tactile therapy for her own frazzled nerves, especially during the extensive doctor and hospital visits that became a part of her life.

When asked about the formation of HGE Designs, Stokes laughs and says her business started backwards. “I never intended to sell or make anything for anyone else,” she says. “I literally started crocheting for myself as a stress reliever. It just made me happy. And then, I started wearing the hats and scarves and other people wanted to know where I got them. And when I told them I made it, people would ask if I would make them something, too.”

Stokes’ colorful hats and scarves have evolved into one-of-a-kind garments, which can be altered to fit any shape and size. She has been a crochet designer for The Dollhouse Boutique in Baltimore and Los Angeles, where her collaborations with designer Natalie Karyl include dresses and accessories, but also camo jackets embellished with crocheted portraits. She credits Karyl for helping her to price her labor-intensive handmade works and market them to Baltimore-based clients who love one-of-a-kind garments that merge fashion with art.

 

“When Natalie launched in L.A., she invited me out to be a featured designer, so I created a new line for a show there,” says Stokes. The new garments were made entirely from what she describes as granny squares, the concentric shapes inherent in crochet blankets. “When you say you crochet, people assume I make blankets,” she explains. “But I wanted to take something that is traditionally not the coolest thing and turn it into fashion.” Stokes proceeded to make an entire line based upon this technique, merging the comforting and the familial into dynamic and, at times, sexy creations. Stokes started doing more fashion shows, which helped her to raise more money, and this helped her to buy iPads for her son’s school, which in turn helped her to do more visual artwork.

Born and raised in Baltimore, Stokes has always been committed to family and community, and her hobby, which evolved into a business, has taken on a growing philanthropic mission. In addition to fashion design, Stokes now uses her crochet skills and creative problem-solving for sensory integration therapy with her son as they navigate life with autism together. Like her wearable creations, this art is also in high demand, but instead of fashion it serves as a therapeutic connection between creativity and complex trauma management. Stokes says it’s important to her to share these therapies with the communities that need them.

Stokes realized early on that the tactile aspects of crochet could soothe her son, so she made him a sensory panel, a textural surface designed to be touched in a calming exercise for turbulent times. Then she made him a weighted scarf and blanket, and made more sensory panels for schools and other families with autistic children. Whenever possible, Stokes donates these panels to organizations and individuals who cannot afford to buy them, and says that Lion Brand Yarn has donated materials and participated in community-based collaborations with her.

 

“I am blessed that people love my stuff,” she says, “but when they find out why I make it, I think it becomes more meaningful. My son was diagnosed with autism at age two, and he had this blanket that, whenever he got upset, he would rub his face on it, so whenever we went to the hospital, that blanket was going.”

During the pandemic, Stokes found herself and Roman, now a teenager, cut off from his school and communities of support, so she expanded her sensory panels into an entire room in their home in order to provide more stability and comfort. “I create to foster healing for my son, our community, and myself,” says Stokes, who explains that she is interested in making families with autism feel less isolated and serving underrepresented communities that do not have access to many life-saving therapeutic tools.

The sensory room she built has padded walls, textured surfaces, weighted blankets, and soft but complex objects, and has become a sanctuary for her son when he needs it. Stokes explains that, for those with sensory processing issues, lights that are too bright, noises that are too loud, and textures that are uncomfortable on the skin can all lead to a meltdown and even physical illness.

Stokes knew that other families from her son’s school were dealing with similar issues at home during the pandemic, so she has helped them create fiber-based calming objects, where the materials, textures, and stitches help others to soothe during frequent episodes of overstimulation. “I went into mommy mode and new sensory products were born,” she says. “Even the scarves could function like a wearable fidget. You can add little one-pound sand pouches to make it heavier, and then you have a wearable, weighted blanket, an everyday item people can wear. Nobody knows you’re suffering from sensory issues, and this is all about creating inclusive space.”

At HGE Designs, Stokes maintains a balance between her handmade wearable objects, fashion, and therapeutic sensory objects. In 2018, she attended a crochet class at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York to expand her practice and to learn more about her materials. She has since expanded her output, and she participated in the 2020 virtual American Craft Council show selling scarves, hats, and sweaters. Stokes’ jackets and dresses are available through the Made in Baltimore shop and her website.

In 2020, Stokes’ work was recognized by a Baltimore Corps Elevation Award, and she received a grant to design more products for people with sensory processing disorders. In addition, Stokes was asked to serve as a resource in developing new mobile crisis units for Baltimore City, as a way to divert emergency calls from the police and fire departments and to lessen unnecessary police interaction with individuals on the autism spectrum and with cognitive disabilities.

“The reality is, we all have moments when we are stressed out and overcome with sensory issues,” she says. “We all go to places that are too loud, too bright, too crowded. What if workplaces had a quiet room full of comforting objects to help with these moments of stress?” In 2021, the Baltimore Gas and Electric Company awarded Stokes with an Energizing Small Business grant, a new program designed to assist small businesses with COVID-19 relief and recovery. At this point in her creative evolution, HGE Designs includes portraits, free-form and wearable art all crocheted or stitched by hand, as well as therapeutic objects designed for sensory processing with a traditional crochet technique at the center of all of it.

“Pairing this centuries-old discipline with modern fashion trends is an irrational juxtaposition,” says Stokes. “However, it works to expand the art and skill set of crochet by challenging traditional presumptions and applications. For me, the work that I do is about the love and energy I pour into it. When you have something that is handmade, rather than mass-produced, you realize that a person has poured their heart into that object, and I think this is where people find the most value.”

This story is from Issue 12: More is More, available here.

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