Some sewing machines, a skilled teacher with experience in Arrernte communities of Central Australia, and financial and practical support was all it took for a small idea to turn into a community-driven project with a big impact for the women, young and old, of Ltyentye Apurte, Santa Teresa.
The aim of the Ltyentye Apurte Intergenerational Sewing Project, supported by the Good Samaritan Foundation, was to assist women in the small Arrernte township about 80 kilometres south-east of Alice Springs to develop their sewing skills, make items they can sell or use, and forge positive relationships across the generations.
The Sisters of the Good Samaritan became involved with the project following a ‘listening and learning’ trip to Santa Teresa last year by Sister Bernadette Corboy and Catherine Cresswell, who was then the executive director of the Good Samaritan Foundation.
Bernadette says she and Catherine went to Santa Teresa “to sit and have conversations with a group of women from the community who gathered in the shelter of the Spirituality Centre about the possibility of a social enterprise they might like to put forward”. The foundation would be able to offer funding from the generous donations made to the foundation for the Santa Teresa Spirituality Centre.
“The artistic gifts of these women have been supported by the Good Sams over several years in the Spirituality Centre, which provides a safe place to create artistic works to sell, which support them financially,” Bernadette says.
“Emerging out of our visit and conversations with the women and Nicole Johnson from Ltyentye Apurte Catholic School was a project to engage the young women in the secondary school in an intergenerational sewing program with the older women based at the Spirituality Centre.
“This initiative would provide a safe space for older women to be mentoring younger women; interacting together while engaged in meaningful, purposeful activity.
“Developing sewing skills provides the opportunity for the women to create products to meet the needs of the community and small products that could be sold at the centre to provide an income.”
Maree Slatter facilitated the workshops and also coordinated the donation of 35 sewing machines, an overlocker and materials.
Maree has had a relationship with the Eastern and Central Arrernte people for more than 30 years. While working for Catholic Mission in the 1980s, she taught in Santa Teresa.
“In that time, I was adopted into a family, which is pretty normal in these communities,” Maree says. “We’ve been communicating and visiting each other over the years, so I have this ongoing relationship with the community.”
Maree said the older women had often asked about getting a sewing group going again.
“I was asked to come and visit and bring my sewing machine, so we could hold a workshop,” she says.
A call-out via the ‘Chat 10 Looks 3’ Facebook community page (linked to journalists Annabel Crabb and Leigh Sales’ podcast of that name) for sewing machine donations for the project yielded an immediate 20 offers, with others coming in progressively. Sewing machine company Blessington also donated 10 new machines and an overlocker.
“It was an incredible response,” Maree says.
However, the machines were from all over Australia and the problem was how to get them to Santa Teresa.
Undeterred, Maree asked friends across Australia to pick up the machines and a teaching friend from her current workplace at St Theresa’s in Albion, Victoria, offered a transport solution. Her friend’s husband owned a trucking company, Cahill Transport, and was happy to collect the machines and get them to Santa Teresa.
“They were there within a week,” Maree says. “It was amazing how it all came together. People were so generous.”
Nicole Johnson, the Senior Ladies teacher at the Santa Teresa school, says the workshops have had instant positive effects in the community. Over the three weeks of the project, 30 participants produced more than 140 products.
“Many of these products produced a small income either for the participant or for the project itself, which was put back into purchasing more fabric,” Nicole says in a report on the project.
“Many more ladies in the community wanted to engage with the sewing but were employed in jobs that made it difficult. Some came up and worked during their lunch breaks and after work.”
Nicole says workshops would begin at 9am and finish well after 5pm, with many participants, including school-aged students, working all day. Some of the girls were so engaged in the program they sewed three projects in a day.
“Some students who have been absent and inconsistent in their schooling, re-engaged not only in these workshops, but it motivated them to increase their attendance in other areas of their education,” she says.
“It was fantastic to have their grandmothers, mothers and aunties engaged in mentoring.
“Six Secondary students have re-engaged in the Certificate 1 in Retail while participating in the sewing program. Over the summer school break, they continued their retail employment in the local store.
“Sharing the existing space at the Spirituality Centre was perfect for welcoming younger women and providing opportunities for older women to mentor and share their stories and skills with the young participants. There was a high level of positivity and encouragement. The environment was alive with conversation, laughter or seriousness, depending on the conversations.”
Some of the women even bought machines and took them back into their homes so they could carry on their passion and interest in the craft of sewing.
Maree, whose longstanding relationship with the community meant that many referred to her as ‘nana’, ‘mummy’ and yaye’ during the sewing workshops, says the most popular items for the women to make were bags, coin purses and phone cases, along with curtains for their homes.
“It sounds like something so simple, but it was empowering for them,” Maree says.
Ursuline Sister Anne Surtees, who assists the women at the Spirituality Centre two days a week, says the project brought a wonderful new stream of energy to the centre.
“When the artists were finished painting for the day they’d go straight down to start sewing. Some were quite proficient but they didn’t have the machines, so this was a great opportunity for them,” she says.
“The grandmothers loved having the young women there. It was great to see their enthusiasm and their competence.
“To witness the energy and the life in the room was beautiful. When it was over, they started talking immediately about what they could do in the future. It was a very practical and simple thing, but it connected a lot of people together in a very positive, happy way.”
Images supplied by Catherine Cresswell, Maree Slatter and Nicole Johnson.