Sewing school has been a long time coming. Around this time last year, the women’s committee was just finishing construction on the committee house (they weren’t building it, but they were providing all the hospitality). I kept asking around, looking for projects I could maybe contribute to because my women’s committee is pretty darn active and self-sufficient, and I was told “Your project is to get us sewing machines.” So I had a mission.
Getting sewing machines was not so easy. I applied to New Zealand and was put on an indefinite holding pattern. Waiting around isn’t always the best sign, so to hedge my chances, I also applied to Germany along with every other PCV and women’s committee in Samoa, and was put on a slightly less indefinite holding pattern. That was way back in December, January almost a year ago. It wasn’t until May of this year that I heard back from both places I applied to. Germany said no, but New Zealand said yes. I went with my neighbor, who is treasurer of the women’s committee, to pick up the check and the sewing machines, we asked the Ministry of Women to come do a training, and we presented the sewing machines to the committee. A few more months passed, and finally it was time for sewing school. It consists of a week of learning stitches and patterns, breaking and fixing sewing machines, tons and tons of cooking, and laughing about what Samoan boys are and are not good for.
The Ministry of Women (it’s actually the Ministry of Women, Community, and Social Development ) sent four teachers out to stay with us the whole week. Susugas Mata, Dorthy, Maua, and Racheal were our teachers for the week, and they really know what they’re doing. I asked them what they did when they weren’t staying in villages for sewing programs, and they said they are always doing sewing programs. The week after our sewing program, they will be going to do a training in the jail. Their entire program actually consists of all kinds of traditional crafts, including tapa cloths, siapo, coconut jewelry, fabric printing, flower arranging, weaving, and of course sewing. But sewing always gets the bulk of the attention because everyone wants to know how to make school uniforms and puletasis (myself included).
The first day started out simple enough. We were given two pieces of cloth to sew together practicing different stitches. No problem. Sewing is basic enough that anyone can grasp the general idea of it. Then the teachers cut out patterns for shorts for the women to sew together. That’s where it got really complicated. Whereas anyone can sew (I am convinced of this), you need to be good with spatial puzzles to truly excel at sewing. It can be done no matter what your skill set or visualization abilities, but it’s easier if you are spatially inclined. Like I said, it’s easy enough to sew two pieces of fabric together, but one wrong stitch and all of a sudden your shorts have no leg opening, or it’s turned into a skirt, or your waist has become a leg hole, or any number of problems that turn a simple pair of shorts into a fashion impossibility.
From there it only got more complicated. Day two was all about the ofutino – the collared shirt. If you had problems with shorts, you’d better stick to them because I even had a hard time mentally putting together the collared shirt. Instead of four pieces that looked basically the same, the pattern now consisted of six or seven pieces of all different shape and size that were somehow supposed to magically turn into a shirt with the wave of a needle and thread. I also learned that there are some very skilled seamstresses in my village beside my seamstress. My seamstress truly is magical – I give her fabric, tell her to do what she wants with it, and she gives me the best puletasis and dresses that have ever been worn by a PCV in Samoa (I may be making some big assumptions there, but I’m pretty sure they’re true – she is that good).
On day three, we learned how to print patterns on fabric. There are various methods of doing this, but the easiest was the one they showed us. Get a square yard of foam-y board, cut out a design, lay the cloth on top of it, and use a roller to paint on the pattern. Super fast, super easy. Then the teacher doing the printing got really fancy and started drawing flowers in one color, doing the background in another, using leaves to make gaps in the design, and being super creative with the whole thing. I was enchanted with the printing and watched her paint fabric for probably an hour straight.
The rest of the week was spent refining what we had learned so far and working on other designs – dresses, flare skirts, puletasi tops, pocket ies (that’s pronounced EE-ays). On top of all the sewing, there was all the hospitality work to be done. Tea (breakfast,) lunch, afternoon tea, and dinner for five days. Cooking was an entirely separate project, and one which I always supervise rather than help with, but that’s OK. Since I (kind of) spearheaded the whole sewing project, I took time off from my regular teaching at the primary school. I stayed at the sewing school all day on Monday and Friday (to welcome and send off our guests, although that was a mistake because those were the days the people with video cameras came, and of course I was one of the people they interviewed. I hope the footage doesn’t actually make the news), and left school after lunch the other days so I could spend the rest of the day at the sewing school. Between school, sewing school, and trying to keep up with my village dinner dates, I probably got about 8 meals a day for the entire week. Good grief, it’s a wonder any of my puletasis still fit me with how much taro and coconut cream I’ve been eating. On Thursday night, the last night the teachers stayed with us, we had a little fiafia. This includes the presentation of gifts, singing, and dancing. It was a very short one compared to all the other fiafias I’ve been to for other fa’alavelaves, but that was nice because it was past my bedtime. More and more I see how the traditional aspects of Samoan culture are more common than I thought.
It may be too soon to say this, but I’m going to put this down as a success. There are more sewing machines now than there were when I came to the village, at least 30 women out of the entire committee of about 90 came to the sewing school every day, and they all seemed to be enjoy themselves. I liked it. Fiafia a’u.