Sometimes social media and sewing combine to introduce us to really awesome people. One day earlier this month, scrolling through Instagram, I noticed I had a “like” from someone with a very interesting handle: @themachinelesssewist. Turns out her screen name’s not the half of it.
Harriett is a Brit who works for a humanitarian de-mining NGO (that’s de-mining as in land mines) in Angola. This makes her a really interesting person to begin with, but then there’s the sewing. In September 2015 (FIVE MONTHS AGO), Harriett started to sew her own clothes from indie pattern designers. The rub? She doesn’t have a sewing machine in Angola. So she sews her lovely frocks, blouses, and skirts by hand, with needle and thread, using African wax print fabric that she finds locally. The results are absolutely stunning.
I find Harriett’s creativity, resourcefulness, and commitment to doing good absolutely inspiring. As I’ve mentioned before, for many of us in the West sewing is an act of privilege; it’s easy to take our time and materials and tools for granted. I interviewed Harriet to learn a bit about her sewing life in Angola. Here’s what she had to say:
Harriet, what’s your sewing history? How did you start?
I came to Angola in May 2015, and I kept seeing all of these gorgeous African wax prints everywhere. They’re used every day by so many people and for a million different things, from making clothes to carrying babies or firewood. There is a long history of making in my family: my great grandmother ran a tailor’s shop in Manchester and passed her skills on to her daughter, my grandmother. My grandmother taught my mother to sew when she was young, and taught me the basics on an ancient Singer sewing machine when I was a kid. My grandmother on my dad’s side was an accomplished and prolific knitter. So with all that behind me, and with the beautiful fabrics in Angola (and my love of clothes!) I decided sewing was a skill I wanted to learn.
Tell us about the amazing African wax print fabric you use!
I decided to do it because, for one, the fabrics in Angola are truly stunning and ubiquitous. In terms of clothing, the culture here is quite varied. You’ll see a girl looking like she just stepped out of Topshop chatting with a girl in traditional African dress, so the combination of traditional African fabrics and modern style was right in front of me. Plus, the moment I discovered the world of indie patterns and blogs, I was addicted.
I buy my fabric in two places. There is a shop in town that sells a selection of fabrics, and great African wax prints. They cost about 700 kwanza a meter (around 5 USD). I also get my haberdashery bits and bobs there, although the supply is limited; sometimes you just have to find a workaround. The other option is the main market, which is a mad place. It is absolutely huge, like a small town of shacks made of metal sheeting and mud, selling everything you could possibly imagine. A lot of the people running the stalls live in the market too, so it really is like a town. It’s a really exciting place to go but a bit intimidating with a thousand people shouting at you all the time, and since I don’t drive I don’t get to go very often. There, you can get a ‘pano’ (a piece of African wax print usually about 4 or 5 meters long) for 2000 kwanza (about 15 USD).
How difficult has it been to learn how to sew garments by hand?
It was a steep learning curve! The first couple of garments I made are embarrassing to look at now. I didn’t know how to sew or finish a decent seam by hand, and buttonholes were a mystery. There aren’t a lot of resources online if you don’t have a sewing machine. Instagram has been really helpful, and Seamwork recently had an article about a few basic handsewing stitches. The part about buttonholes was particularly useful.
When I started, it could take a month to make a dress, which was a combination of slow sewing and lack of knowledge. Now, it will take me one week of sewing in the evenings. I’ve got a few methods to help me now. I didn’t realize that sewing machines have seam allowances marked on them, and I couldn’t work out how everyone was getting those perfect seams! So now I carefully mark out the seam allowance all the way along before I start sewing. I use different stitches depending on the finish I want; a simple running stitch works fine in a lot of cases (i.e., for the enclosed part of a french seam), a whipstitch is a good way to finish a seam, and I use a backstitch most because it is strong, durable, and neat. I almost always double my thread. I recently got pinking shears, and they have changed my sewing life because it is literally twice as quick. Buttonholes, however, are still a challenge: I recently made a top with eight buttons. It was painful.
What kind of reception have your garments received by the folks you interact with in Angola?
To be honest, I’m not sure most people notice! I guess the fabric is so normal here it’s not really a big deal. Although when people realize I actually sew, it’s a mix of surprise and curiosity and a bit like they’re looking at a freak show. Once when I was in Menongue, I went into town with an Angolan colleague to buy a zip. We ended up driving through a maze of back streets until we came to a tiny little square full of women on the floor selling their piles of tomatoes and onions. One shop with a massive, not particularly friendly-looking man sat in the doorway. I said hello, shook his hand, and asked if he had any zips. He gave me a long, slightly terrifying look, then went inside. He came out carrying a handful of baby pink invisible zips.
In Europe, sewing and other crafts are often seen as ‘feminine’ occupations, but that doesn’t seem to be the case here. A tailor made me some dresses before I started sewing, and he and his apprentices are all men. He’s very skilled and the pieces he made for me are beautiful and well constructed. There’s also these “street tailors” who sit on the street or in the market with ancient treadle sewing machines, and they’ll do adjustments or repairs. I really want to get a photo of them, but these guys are tough and so far I haven’t picked up the courage!
What’s one thing you’d like us to know about Angola?
I think the main thing to remember is that Angola (as well as Africa) is a huge and varied place. Angola alone is almost ten times as big as England! As with Africa in general, Angola has a long history, with a huge variety of ethnic, cultural, and linguistic groups. Angola had 27 years of civil war, and the recovery has been impressive, but a large proportion of the population still lives in extreme poverty and survives through subsistence farming. On the other hand, Luanda is considered to be the most expensive city in the world for expats. So it’s difficult to pick one thing. But maybe some people might like to learn a little bit of Umbundu, one of Angola’s most spoken languages (after Portuguese). So, ‘hello’ is ‘wakolapo’ and thank you is ‘twafandula.’
Twafandula, Harriet! If you’re interested in following Harriet’s awesome sewing projects and life in Angola, follow her on Instagram or at her blog.