Cameroon Task Force

Sewing 2015: Part 2 of 3

Based on our belief that women can use beautiful African fabrics to sew items that can be sold in local markets, the Kribi Sewing Project was established in 2012. Selling items at a fair local price, the money earned would be welcome income in this country with many needs and few resources.

First Sewing Lesson

(Sewing 2015)

Making Hot Pads

Fast forward to Kribi and the focus of my trip. A three-hour bus ride, dedication of a new well in Bongehele, singing, dancing, local foods, church services (in French) wonderful music (in French and local Native languages). Finally, it was time to sew.

Flexibility is a requirement for this job. After much planning, I travelled with supplies to teach a master class with three local experienced seamstresses: my co-shoppers Laurence and Josyan and Ope , a high school home economics teacher. All three know their way around a sewing machine and wanted to learn the fine arts of bag making and finishing touches. But as we started setting up the new treadle sewing machines almost all the ladies who were with us in 2012 started arriving at the Wellness Center. They expected to pick up from where we left off. Oh my……so, a couple of us went to the local market and bought more fabric while the others put the new treadle machines together and I thought of alternate plans.

The first lesson I taught was a simple hand sewing project to make a 6 sided shape that can be sewn together to make many different designs. The ladies cooperated, but were not sold on this. They wanted to get to the sewing machines. So I moved on to the second lesson: hot-pads.

Hot Pad Hurdles

We made hot-pads last time, but they were not successful, which is why I wanted to try it again. The ladies had no familiarity with the subject of hot-pads. This left me wondering why until I observed them preparing food in a cooking shed over a small-but-open fire. I saw ladies grab fabric from the full skirts of their beautiful dresses to grab the handle of a cast iron skillet cooking over an outdoor fire.

The first hurdle in 2012 was what to use for insulation inside the hot-pad. This problem was solved while shopping at the used towel booth in the market. I made that lady’s day buying all of her pre-owned, torn (but clean) bath towels. Then we cut them 9”x 9” for to use as insulation.

To prepare for this trip I cut up my own old towels, cotton duck cloth for the hot surface area and sacrificed some of my least favorite African fabrics to create ready-to-sew hot-pad kits (and transported them as packing around medical supplies). This saved so much time and we moved right into a quick and successful lesson. I had also developed a simple pattern that eliminated mitered corners and has an easy way to include a loop for hanging. We even found satin covered cord in the Kribi markets to make hanging loops. Everyone was happy with the lesson and promised to give them a try when cooking.

After classes were done, the three master teachers expressed their concerns about losing the opportunity to learn bag-making as we all spent the day teaching hot-pad assembly. This concerned me, too, since it appeared many of the ladies had not used their sewing skills since our last workshop.

Women and Income

(Sewing 2015)


Pauline, the Kribi project manager for all of our work, and I met after dinner to talk this over. It was Pauline’s hope that we focus our workshops on the women with few job skills, who turn to prostitution as a way to support their families. Her hope is that when they are ready to make changes they will remember the skills they learned at one of our workshops and make the choice to become a seamstress. A few of the women who participated in 2012 already have jobs in the marketplace sewing dresses. One has her own shop. These ladies are earning enough money to send their children to school, proof that sewing is a viable way for women to support their families.

With that goal in mind we all understood that the sewing projects need to be learned first by the master teachers. They would practice teaching these lessons to the ladies in the workshop and then to others after I went home. We just needed another approach to accomplish all of these goals.


By morning we had a new process in place: the ladies continued making pot-holders and I brought out some of the gifts from my suitcase: Quilters rules and squares. These items had never seen before in Kribi. They may have been in inches and the local measurement is centimeters – but a straight line and square corners are the same in any project. I also brought paper to use for making copies of patterns as last time I could not find that, either.

We set to work measuring a small backpack with drawstrings, crafting a pattern, sewing it and finishing the project in about an hour. Then Ope directed while Laurence and Josyan offered hands-on assistance. The ladies were producing bags by lunch time. It was an amazingly successful process we repeated daily. I instructed the instructors, they passed on the patterns and skills, in French, to the ladies and the ladies produced bags. We were all very proud of each other.

The Men Go Shopping

(Sewing 2015)

Lessons Learned

Every afternoon I’d prepare a shopping list and send it with one of the ladies to the local market to buy more fabric or supplies. I learned this lesson the hard way and I take complete responsibility for my error. The ladies know one side of the open air market and I needed a couple of things from the other side. Not once, but twice I sent two local men to the market. My bad.

Our two friends, Cyril (a computer guy) and Phil (an interpreter) were kind enough to run my mid-day errands. The first request was to pick up a steam iron. They returned with a 20 year old pre-owned model that did not have stopper to keep the water inside. It did have was a local currency plug, so it worked. Hard as it was to endure the extra heat in the middle of the day I needed to teach the ladies the value of a well ironed seam.

Another Task

The second task was for a specific type of plastic PVC pipe for the decoupage project. I even sent a sample along. I still don’t know what they brought back, but they were so proud of the fact it was cheaper. We laughed and laughed, and I told them it was not their fault – everyone knows you don’t send men for sewing supplies.

But the ladies were great at shopping. We found that old towels are good for hot-pads, but won’t work in marketing bags and neither polyester nor quilt batting exist there. But I found a solution. As we drove in from Douala I saw many outdoor upholstery shops creating sofas and chairs. So we went there to buy their thinnest foam rubber by the meter. It is light weight, dries quickly and maintains its shape.

We also got a steam iron with a local electric currency plug. Hard as it was to endure the heat and humidity I needed to teach the ladies the value of a well ironed crease.

Read part 3

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