Remember when I said I thought that I would try doing a photo shoot during recess at the school where I volunteer at? Well, I tried it with my Simplicity 4188 + Beninese embroidery skirt. And the verdict is… not a good idea. You’ll see why near the end. Image heavy story time now!
Here is the original pattern. I made view E. It’s from the care package, but I’ve actually made this skirt once, before Benin. But that is another story for another day. So this is actually my second try with the skirt.
When I was at the market for my sexy beads laurel, I actually bought two fabrics that day. Light blue and dark blue. When shopping, I wasn’t sure which one I wanted to use for my Laurel… and when they cost only $1.60 each, it’s easy to just buy both colors and make a decision later. So this navy blue is from my potential laurel leftover fabric stash.
Recognize this fabric? It’s those same sheets form the hibiscus laurel and from the souvenir blouse & shorts… those sheets were HUGE but now they’re finally finished! You won’t see them anymore, I promise. Except for the scrap quilt to be made in the far future.
All my skirts in Benin have to be made out of elastic. If there isn’t elastic, I won’t wear it. Period. Comfort and movement is my priority here, especially since I bike every day and often eat really filling portions of rice or pate. So out went the zipper that the pattern originally called for and in came the elastic.
I’ve recently discovered this great hand embroidery website. I wanted to make a project with hand embroidery and I thought that this would be the one. So on a piece of scrap fabric I practiced the back stitch and the raised fishbone stitch. The back stitch (right) looked fine but my fishbone stitch looked really strange (left). Until I realized that I was using sewing thread instead of embroidery floss to do this. Ah hah, no wonder why mine looked so skimpy.
I switched to embroidery floss and my leaves looked much better! But one snag. I couldn’t find embroidery floss in navy blue. Then I decided, well, if I can’t do it myself, I’ll go to a tailor and have him embroider my skirt for me! I’ve always wanted to try collaborating with a tailor, and now this would be a perfect opportunity. I decided that I’ll save hand embroidery for another project, this one will be focused on Beninese embroidery.
Now before we continue to the embroidery I want to show you a little bit of the shop. Imagine yourself in a small closet. I’m terrible at measurements but there’s barely enough space to turn around, so imagine yourself in a small shed or something. But there is a lot going on. We will go from left to right and make a circle. On the left with the tattered gray fabric you have the ironing table.
Then crammed next to it is the table with purple fabric. This is the head tailor/owner’s area where he does all the measurements. He marks them on the fabric. Oh, and his kid is reading on a bag of fabric to the right. Who needs furniture when you have bags of scrap?
Then there are two treadle machines and this is where the apprentices work. The tailor gives the marked fabric to them and they stitch along the lines. Other apprentices look on. Now look behind the apprentice with the blue tank top.
This is where finished customer work is stored. See Jesus? That is a fabric to commemorate someone’s communion, so there are a bunch of matching outfits there. Christians here often have special Christianity related fabric for special dates. There’s Easter fabric, Christmas fabric, Pope fabric, etc etc. For obvious reasons Muslim fabric doesn’t exist. And voodoun fabric is a completely different thing. Hmm, future blog entry idea swimming in my head…
The owner hung up an outfit for me to photograph – as fun as it is seeing Jesus fabric, look at the “mannequin.” Here, 3D mannequins are expensive and take up too much space. It’s easier to grab a piece of wood and paint a 2d bust yourself instead to display clothing. Behind are the usual outfit posters from where customers can select what they would like made.
And we finish off the indoor tour with the embroidery machine with the embroiderer. He in fact does only embroidery. The owner himself doesn’t embroider, but he owns the shop and the machine, so he hires someone else to do the work. In Benin it is rare that that the tailor is also the embroiderer because of A) skills and B) costs of buying an embroidery machine. So often they’ll “send out” outfits to someone else with the machine and skill to do it. In this case, the owner has an in house embroiderer so he has no need to send his clothing out. Same thing with serging. If a customer wants serged edges and the tailor doesn’t have the machine, he sends the work to another tailor with a machine to do it for him. In this case, this is a tailor where work is sent to rather than sent from because he has the machine and the worker to do it for him. This embroiderer studied embroidery for 5 years in Cotonou.
Whew! Ok, now don’t think the tour is finished. Indoors is too small of a space so two more machines are placed outside. There’s a treadle for the apprentice and then a serger (not pictured) on the other side. Again, another kid eating. What’s she eating?
An avocado sandwich from across the street. A half sandwich with avocado inside costs 75CFA, or …15 cents. When I convert to USD I always think about how ridiculous it is for me to haggle here. But it’s all about principle!
Let’s talk about children. Here it is neither professional nor unprofessional to have kids at the workplace. It just is. If you were to tell a Beninese parent about daycares or babysitters, they wouldn’t understand. You send your kids away? You pay someone you don’t know to watch your kid? Don’t you have family? What a waste of money! You mean you only see your kid after work? Your kid is not allowed to hang out with you at your job? What? What? What? Heads would explode if you tried! And they would look down at you because what kind of crazy culture separates their parents from their kids? So don’t. And this is why you are seeing so many kids at this tailor’s shop. The tailor has his own kids, the apprentices have their kids, and the embroiderer has his kid too. Everyone has kids, no use trying to keep them away.
Ok, look at the scissors. Look at the bolts in the middle of both of them. I am pretty sure those scissors were not originally sold like that. There doesn’t exist anything here that can’t be fixed. Nothing is thrown away, there is always a solution for when things fall apart.
Then his kid gets his hands on some bissap. .. .. .. .. red on white. Do you see how he spilled it on himself!? An American parent would freak out right about now. The dad, however, didn’t seem to care. “It’ll wash out,” he shrugs and continues working.
Ta DA! Bon travail! Kudo azo! Good work! By the way, all this work costs 3,000CFA (6USD). Simpler embroidery is cheaper, but since I wanted it completely covered it was a bit more expensive. Regardless of the prices in CFA, it will always be cheaper compared to what someone will charge in the states.
And so begins the recess photo shoot. Please note I’ve hiked up my skirt for these few minutes because I think it’s more flattering above the knee. But that’s the beauty of elastic – once I was done, I pulled it down and covered my knees again. Up down up down, you can’t do that with a non elastic skirt!
And you might ask why I’m wearing such a frumpy oversized t-shirt with my skirt. Well, comfort of course. I don’t always want to look good. Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaand because we’ve just started working with clay.
This is not the time nor place for nice outfits. You need stuff that can get dirty and dusty and messy. Yes I know clay isn’t permanent and washes out easily, but still, it’s work when I have to do laundry by hand.
The older kids are better at standing behind me and not blocking my outfit. Perhaps I should’ve tried with them first. But in any case, the experiment is over, no more young kids in my photo shoots for me.
And… to be honest I’m not a fan of this skirt. I didn’t realize how stiff the embroidery would make the fabric. It’s kind of like walking with two pieces of cardboard flapping away at my hips, that’s how rigid the sides are. Perhaps they’ll soften up? In any case, it’s fine for Benin and perfect for my first time trying embroidery. I’m just pretty sure this skirt won’t be heading to the states afterwards. Next time I’ll pick something else to embroider, like a strap or collar where the stiffness won’t bother me.
Pattern: Simplicity 4188 Skirt E
Fabric: Secondhand sheets