"Stitch by Stitch": How Two SIT Students Helped Launch a Sewing School in South Africa

On a sunny day in March, Roselina Nombhinqo Shiyani greeted us with a grin. We soon found out she would be our host mama for our time in Tshabo, a small village in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. Jobs are increasingly hard to come by in Tshabo, with more and more people leaving each year in search of employment, but she has created her own source of income. Sewing anything from aprons to pants, she is a talented seamstress, as her sales — and she — will tell you.

One afternoon, while sewing in the kitchen, Mama asked us if we knew of any means to get funding for sewing machines and supplies. She wanted to teach the other women of Tshabo how to sew, so that they could create an income for themselves as she did. But she could not do this with only one machine. Back in Cape Town, we brainstormed. After deeming the grant options inapplicable or unfeasible, we set out to raise the money ourselves.

Dubbing the project “Stitch by Stitch,” we set up a profile on Indiegogo.com, with an explanation of our objective and a target of $1,000: half for sewing machines and half for supplies. With donations from family, friends, and generous strangers, Stitch by Stitch reached its goal within three days.

On May 24, we picked up four Empisal Celebrity sewing machines in East London, as well as a voucher from Da Gama fabric supplier, before making our way to Tshabo. With the support of our program’s administration, we brought in the machines and introduced Stitch by Stitch to representatives of the community at the local high school.

After seeing our Mama wipe her eyes, our hopes of stoicism were shot and both of us teared up. She expressed her gratitude, and joked that after voicing her hope for funding, she did not think we were “capable of doing anything.” (A noted vote of confidence.) Mama had made the initial comment about her sewing machines in passing, and it had never crossed her mind that we would have followed through and made her wish a reality.

In terms of sustainability, we emphasized the focus on community empowerment and instruction. While our Mama will take charge of Stitch by Stitch, it is intended for Tshabo’s collective benefit. We are grateful that future SIT students will be returning to Tshabo each semester to ensure the progress and expansion of Stitch by Stitch, and hopefully to one day see an improved economy in Tshabo.

Tremayne (University of North Carolina) and Wagner (Barnard College) studied on SIT’s South Africa: Multiculturalism and Human Rights program in spring 2013. Find out more about the program.