Getting (sewing) schooled in the Congo

The instructor at Bondeko sewing school. Photo by JMD.

On Monday, May 7, Nancy, Nina, and I visit the Bondeko sewing school, sponsored by the Bondeko Mennonite church in Kinshasa.  (I wrote about it before my trip here: I am looking forward to this visit—I know about sewing. Plus, I have the gifts my sister Julie and I made for the school and I am ready to give them to the women.

Nancy and I arrive first (Nina is staying with another family) and we are welcomed into the classroom with two young women students and one instructor. The instructor is wearing a beautiful halter dress with ruffles down the front which she sewed herself. She is a walking advertisement for her sewing skills.

The room is small, with three cement walls and one wall of windows that looks out onto the busy street. Crowded into the room are five hand-cranked sewing machines, tables, and plastic lawn chairs. Most of the tables are pushed aside to make room for us, their visitors and Nancy and I wait for Nina’s arrival.

The professional sewing room with one of the seamstresses. Photo by Nina B. Lanctot

Next door is a similar room with two sewing machines with fabrics, notions, and pictures of various women’s, men’s, and children’s clothing designs. This space is the professional room where people come to order clothing or to get alterations.

Marie-Jeanne, president of the Bondeko sewing school and one of our hosts.

Marie–Jeanne, president of the sewing school, is adjusting the tension on the machines while the bobbins are acting funky, and it appears that one can only sew one seam at a time then re-thread the machine and fiddle with bobbin before sewing again. The machines are old, black Singer machines with gold lettering and decorations. And, I marvel at Marie-Jeanne’s patience with them because I would’ve been swearing at my machine (and at myself) if I had to fiddle with my sewing machine this much.

Bondeko sewing classroom Photo by JMD

The two students are working on assignments from the instructor. When they finished one part of the assignment—sewing a collar—they gave it to the instructor, she looked at it, and without feedback, give them the next assignment. It’s very different from my grandmother and great-grandmother teaching me to sew.

After Nina and Izir (our translator) arrives, we receive a history of the school, a demonstration by the students, and then they offer us an opportunity to sew on the machines. I volunteer, thinking this will be easy, but I am quickly disabused of this idea! It is tough to crank the side wheel to get the machine going, get the fabric under the needle and sew a straight seam. The women had a good laugh at my clumsiness and the instructor helped me with the wheel. Both Nancy and Nina took turns and each did fine—I’m assuming they learned from my awkwardness (and not, perhaps, that they are more coordinated than me!).

Here I am getting (sewing) schooled. Photo by Nina B. Lanctot

Nina offered a blessing for the school, the instructors, and the students. Then I talked and this is what I said:

“It is traditional for the older women to teach the younger women to sew and my grandmother and great-grandmother taught my sister Julie and me to sew. They showed us how to thread a needle, tie a knot at the end of the thread, and how to take out my stitches when I made a mistake, which was a lot! (The women laugh at this).

My great-grandmother and grandmother died many years ago and I miss them a lot. Yet, sometimes, I can hear their instructions when I sew, like, “Don’t leave that mistake in—re-sew that seam.” (The women nod their heads in understanding). Sometimes my sister and I sew together although she lives far away and we consult with one another by phone when we have a sewing problem.

My sister Julie and I made these sewing kits for you in memory of our grandmother and great-grandmother. I know they would’ve loved to meet you and visit this sewing center!”

I distribute the sewing kits and pin cushions and the women are delighted and touched that we had made these gifts for them. The instructor immediately understands how the wrist pincushions worked and asked me to put around her wrist and wore it the rest of the day.

The women holding their sewing kits in the classroom. Photo by Nina B. Lanctot

In each kit is a seam ripper, measuring tape, tailors chalk, needles, and a seam gauge.

Bondeko sewing kits made by Julie. Photo by Julie-Ann McFann

The pin cushions are filled with straight pins (after this photo was taken).

(Julie wrote about the designing and sewing of the kits and pin cushions on her blog:

Marie-Jeanne formally thanks Julie and me for the gifts and says, “We look forward to your sister visiting us.”

Then Nina, Nancy, and I took many photos of the group with the sewing kits.

Holding the sewing kits in the classroom. Photo by JMD

And outside of the sewing center, I try to get them to say “Cheese” for the photo. I think they oblige me to be polite!

Outside the Bondeko sewing school (with Izir, our translator). Photo by JMD