We have a fancy sewing machine at the shop. It was donated by a supporter whose mother no longer sewed, and she wondered if we could use it. We try to be honest about what we need and what we don't need. Our shop is small with almost no storage, but there was no hesitation about whether we could use this donation. The machine now sits on Jennifer's work table, along with a box of fabric, dozens of colorful thread spools, and a user's manual (sometimes fancy also means complicated). In solidarity with our sisters in Ghana, one of us sews and the other cheers her along.
The first time I traveled to Ghana, about half my photos are of women sitting at rustic wooden tables outside their homes, pushing fabric through a hand-crank sewing machine. Stacks of colorful fabric were piled nearby, and most of the time there was a small child or two playing at a seamstresss' feet. A few photos show a baby strapped on her back, peacefully sleeping while she sewed. On my first trip, I snapped the photos because I was fascinated by the sewing machine and the process of hand crank. On my next trip, I realized that these makeshift sewing areas were small businesses. Sometimes three or more women would have taken over the front of a house, talking, laughing, and cranking those machines. I made a connection with one of the seamstresses and she began sewing bags we sold in the U.S. to help fund a Ghanaian friend's nonprofit. And still, I didn't fully understand what was right in front of me.
In the rural areas and small cities in Ghana, there are basically two ways to buy clothes. You either purchase used clothing that comes (mostly) from the U.S. These are clothes that you and I no longer want and have donated to a place like Goodwill or Salvation Army. They end up at the thousands of outdoor African markets where the locals shop. If you see a five year-old wearing a Budweiser shirt, you know that his mother bought that at the local market because it was cheap and his size, not because the kid loves a good Budweiser beer. The other way to buy clothes in Ghana is to go to that same market and purchase two or three yards of traditional African fabric and take it to one of the local seamstresses. She will take your measurements, and then she will make you a dress, a shirt, or a skirt by carefully hand-stitching and hand-cranking that machine. She has trained for three years in an apprenticeship, so what she produces for you is probably finer quality than the cast-off from Target that you could purchase from the local market. It might not be less expensive, however, and so most families will supplement a few of these handmade pieces by also buying our unwanted clothes, shoes, hats, and bags.
When was the last time you had a custom piece of clothing made for you in the U.S.? I never have. The last piece of clothing I purchased was at Old Navy and it was a shirt made in Vietnam. I bought it on sale on a Saturday on my way to work. It took me fifteen minutes to walk in the store, find it, hold it up to make sure it would fit, and pay for it. The longest part of the process was standing in the check-out line. I am aware that this piece of clothing was produced on the cheap - the fabric, the labor, the shipping. The manufacturer made sure a very large bulk of these shirts were out the factory door as quickly as possible and on the store shelves where we could buy them with ease and without shelling out big bucks. My cute purple shirt is a fast and cheap piece of clothing.
I'm working on moving away from this type of shopping, but it's hard. If I lived in Ghana, I probably wouldn't have enough money to dress in tailor-made clothing every day and would also supplement my wardrobe with clothes that were fast and cheap. But Jennifer and I are both trying to learn what it means to value and elevate the slow, handmade way of producing textiles. We've also learned that for a woman in Ghana, the skills required to create and sell an article of clothing can mean feeding your child for a week. That's why, when you come into our shop, we'll always point out the stitched items and the apprentices we work with in Ghana.
If you want to carry a bag, wear an apron, or display a tablerunner that was created on a hand-crank sewing machine, we have them in our shop, along with handmade products like soaps, baskets, jewelry, journals, rugs, little girl dresses and more. Come see us on Route 66 and let's talk about slow products and the people who make them. See you at the shop!