HOW "THE SEWING SPACE" STARTED - By Kathryn Casson
It was 40 something Celsius in Nicosia on July 1. The Dignity Centre had been open just a few weeks and things were still in flux. The volunteers met as usual at the cafe just south of the UN checkpoint dividing Nicosia into the Turkish and Greek side. As we talked over the day ahead John Sloan (RSE’s co-founder) asked if anyone knew how to use a sewing machine. I said I did.
And so began my month in what became "the Sewing Space". That first day there was a large nearly empty room, with the brightest yellow walls, two sewing machines, a wooden bookcase with a kettle and some donated fabric spilling out of an Ikea cupboard. Carla (another volunteer) and I organized the fabric into small, medium and large pieces in a bid to make ourselves useful. A handful of women showed up. Margaret, from the Congo came in sweating with her baby Genevieve. A couple of others from the Kurdish refugee community brought things to mend. Margaret had never used a sewing machine before, and she struggled to keep her 6 week old at peace while she had a go at making a baby dress from scraps of old fabric. Harassed and unsure on arrival, her demeanour changed during the day to one of still absorption. When her creation was finished, she held it up high with delight to be photographed.
In the couple of days that followed, it was as if a spark caught fire. The refugees’ palpable eagerness to establish new lives was matched by the offer of the Dignity Centre and all it stood for. More women started to come every day. Some all day, or at least from mid-morning when their domestic duties were done.
I watched their desire to create and mend things, to be part of something positive, to be somewhere safe and respectful, to have their kids looked after with kindness, to have something of their own to do, and their growing kinship with each other, take on a life of its own.
We volunteers moved fast too, struggling to keep pace with the refugees’ enthusiasm and to harness the potential we could see. Two sewing machines became eight and we added a cutting table, an ironing board, and a proud row of baby bouncers to free up mums’ hands. We searched the container of donations from the UK, for old pairs of jeans that could be turned into upcycled bags. And with his knack for forging new connections, John had met a tailor from west Africa, and a local lady highly expert in crochet and sewing, who were both quickly recruited to teach weekly classes in the Sewing Space.
Three days later, we had the first group meeting with - by now - around 15 women, and switching between Kurdish, French, English and Arabic, a chaotic consensus formed around the idea of making things that could be sold, as well as some ground rules for the Sewing Space. In time I could see a true cooperative forming, with the women owning the process and the resources, with their own leadership. But it was too early for all that. We huddled around YouTube instead and watched videos about how to make tote bags and cushion covers and made it up as we went along.
Two frantic, animated, hilarious, error-strewn, upcycling, friendship-forging weeks later, John flew back to the UK with a suitcase full of the first 36 cushions, bags, and aprons, all made with love in the Sewing Space. To the womens’ delight, everything got rave reviews from the generous people who took a chance and bought them. And the women got their first payout for their efforts. Aid with dignity.
The characters in "the Sewing Space" are as colourful and distinctive as the yarn and cloth strewn across the room at the end of each day. There is Hanan, who loves to invent original upcycled bags from old jeans, and line them with colourful donated fabric. Some of the most popular things now selling are made by her. Farah is diminutive, always gentle, and with her tiny son perched on her knee will show you her photo-gallery of a thousand stunning pieces of embroidery she did before leaving Iraq. Then there is Nour, the natural if unofficial leader of the group; always there, always engaged, always helping others, always the most productive when she is not attending to her four children. And Margaret, Irene, and Brigitte, loud and laughing, and most at home making vivid African dresses and debating any unfairness they perceive.
The beginners call on the more expert sewers to help them fixed a jammed machine and correct a mistake. The experts group together and master a new more difficult pattern.
Sometimes the bonhomie in the room gets overtaken by the precariousness of life in migratory limbo, and competition and jealousy rear their heads. But most days an astonishing spirit of collaboration and shared endeavour prevails in "the Sewing Space", and the vast distance between these womens’ origins, stories, cultures and personalities seems to all but vanish.
In August I returned to Nicosia for another week, resuming the happy rhythm of my days in "the Sewing Space", as well as my daily visits to the fabric stores from which we are now sourcing more and more materials. To my delight my sewing friends were forging ahead with producing ever better quality items on a rapidly growing scale. Margaret, whose sewing had advanced alot in just a month, reminded me proudly that she was the first member.
Some new faces, from Iran, Palestine and other strife torn places, had added to the richness and talent of the group. The constant whir of sewing machines and animated chatter that filled the room, echoed the womens’ energy and determination to grasp the opportunity of their new venture.
In a hurried week, we developed and chose fabric for a new range of things the women are now producing for the autumn and Christmas season. Watch this space (the online shop launches on 23rd September) for their new bag designs, Christmas stockings from upcycled sweaters, and stunning crochet cushions.
In between, I caught the latest on the unfolding dramas in their lives: the threat of removal to another city, memories of dangerous journeys that still haunt, the stresses of asylum interviews, insufficient money to survive. I flew home with nearly 100 more pieces for sale. I hope that what we have started survives, grows and helps these remarkable, resilient women to start over.
For me, the genesis of the Sewing Space is one of the most hopeful things I have ever experienced.
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The sewing space would not be the same without our master tailor: Ba, great teacher and valuable source of knowledge for everyone at the Dignity Centre.