A shared Love of Stitching – the seamstresses and tailors of Ghana

*This post is close to my heart. I’ve taken the photos during our time in Ghana during walking tours of Jamestown and Nima, village stops on trips out of town and sometimes at random moments around the city. Most of the time my offer to pay for a photo is politely refused. I had toyed with the idea of making a photo book with this collection of pictures, but for now this post is written with gratitude to these Ghanaians who sew who have inspired and humbled me.

“Snip Snip Snip” “Snip Snip Snip”

I exit the school gate and see a tailor walking along the road, sewing machine balanced on his head as he imitates the act of cutting with his large pair of silver scissors. Just like the old ice-cream van playing a familiar tune on a weekend, causing us to immediately shout to our parents for some coins, and run outside for a refreshing treat, this man is hoping that the snipping of his scissors will alert anyone who is in need of clothing alterations or a new garment to be sewn! “Snip Snip Snip” –  he is his own walking advert!

For someone like me who loves sewing, living in Accra has been extremely creatively inspiring and enlivening. I’m thankful to have grown up watching my mom enjoy this craft and to have learnt how to sew properly when I was at university with our teacher Pam. Some of you follow my sewing adventures on Instagram where there are thousands and thousands of ‘Sewcialists’ or ‘Sewists of Instagram’ and even great weekly podcasts about all sorts of sewing topics (weekly….for an hour….on all things sewing!! How??!! you may be wondering). In that space I often mention our old Wednesday evening sewing group of ladies. We are all still good friends and we treasure the memories of the years we bonded and sewed together in a powerful circle of female friendship.

In the years prior to coming to Ghana I had not sewn much as there was no time with working and having little children, and somehow during my year of cancer treatment I really lost my sewing mojo and couldn’t find it in myself to create. Although I wish now that I had been able to stitch away the painful emotions I was going through, because my rational brain knows that creating beauty is a very powerful antidote to darkness (one of my favourite quotes by Phil Ochs is: “In such ugly times, the only true protest is beauty”) but depression is real and isn’t that the vicious nature of such a beast, that when in it, you don’t feel like doing the things that will in fact help you.  

But moving on, how very fortunate I’ve been that living here for the last while has felt like a return to my creativity and to what makes my soul happy and fulfilled! Yay!! I’ve been so blessed with the time to indulge in activities that bring me joy. My hands that play beautiful Adele songs, after 25 years of not touching the piano, thank my smaller 9 years old hands that played for a few years back then. And I’m also very much humbled by the amount of time and brain effort that learning an instrument as an adult takes. My hands that started painting again a few months ago thank my high school hands that painted with cherished friends every Friday afternoon, old big t shirts covering our DGHS uniforms to prevent them getting any oil paint on them.  My hands that sew feel very much at home pinning, cutting and handling fabric, sometimes whilst chatting with wonderful friends on Mondays, and sometimes relishing the meditative quality of sewing in silence, that stills my swirling brain and forces focus. Our requirements in life for what fills our cups up and brings us pleasure are so unique and individual to each of us, but for me making beautiful music or things with my hands feels as basic as my need for breath, and oh how pure the oxygen in that space is.  

It is unsurprising then that living in Accra feels to me like a sort of soul place on an artistic level. Handmade clothing out of vibrant African wax fabric or batik cloth is the norm here and far exceeds the ready to wear clothing market (which comprises mainly of second hand clothes sent from charity shops in Europe). African print dresses, skirts, tops and shirts blow in the breeze on every corner and most expats have a tailor or seamstress who sews for them.

African wax print garments for sale in Accra Ghana
Gladys Bless dressmaker in Accra Ghana
Gladys Bless, the dressmaker who has made Dave the coolest shorts and has sewn for family who have visited.

Before coming here I had not seen much bright African wax fabric before and certainly had never worn anything made from it. Now my wardrobe mainly comprises of handmade garments from African wax that make me happy to wear and oh my goodness….just seeing all of these bright fabrics everywhere is a real tonic to me! But I will save this delicious topic of African wax print for its own blog post!   

On our first Saturday in Accra as a family, back in April 2016, we took a walk from our home to busy Oxford Street in Osu. On the way we encountered a tailor fixing a lunch box. His broken-slop-covered-foot moved to power the pedal of his manual machine and on this hellishly humid day in April he sat under the shade of a tree earning a few Cedies through mending and making. I treasure this photo and have it hanging in my sewing space at home.

A tailor sewing on a pedal powered sewing machine under the trees in Accra Ghana

He was the first of many sewists (a term that combines the words ‘sew’ and ‘artist’ and refers to anyone making sewn works for art) I see daily here who are running tailoring and dressmaking businesses either from container shops, if they are privileged, or sewing on the side of the road under the shade of an umbrella or tree, or sometimes even just in the (almost) equatorial scorching sun. Converted shipping containers line the streets of Accra and take the form of little food stores, African hair salons, plastic goods shops, vegetable shops and in this case spaces where ladies and men sew clothes. Some have electricity but it is not the norm so most of the time cooldrinks and food are sold at room temperature. 

I recall the first time I caught a glimpse of a lady sewing in a small container shop on the side of the road.  On this day I was in the passenger seat of the car and we were driving past a row of these shops and I caught sight of her sitting in her sewing machine in her cosy sewing space. At the time it felt like a holy little moment seeing her, as I could remember what it was like to sit at my sewing machine and I had not ever seen someone sewing in such a small, unique space before. As we were very new to Accra, I didn’t realise then that it is common here for those who sew to offer their services from their container ‘Fashion houses’, and I still love spotting these small businesses which usually overspill onto the pavements with sewists creating garments on the pavements with their portable sewing machines.

Looking into these spaces is a treat and it reminds me of peeping into a dolls house with the open front and 3 surrounding walls. I love seeing how these ladies and men decorate and give their space flair and individual styles.

The walls are usually adorned with Ghanaian sewing posters with models wearing many different traditional Ankara African dress styles, and the idea is that a customer comes into the shop and chooses their style of dress that they wish to have made, from the options on the posters.

Posters for seamstresses, of outfits to sew, being sold at Makola Market Accra
Fashion magazines and sewing posters for sale at Makola Market. You have to love the headings 😉

Another thing I had not considered from my ever-privileged upbringing, was that manual sewing machines still exist and are very much in use in places like Ghana! Here people balance their machines on their heads as they walk to and from work and this sight is so different from anything I’ve ever known that I still get a thrill spotting these sewists on the roads. One of our family conversations at lunch recently included asking each other what 3 things we would take were we stranded on a deserted island and mine jokingly was a manual portable sewing machine!   

A lady with a sewing machine on her head walking along Elmina beach in Ghana
At Coconut Grove in Elmina we saw this lady walking along the beach her sewing machine balancing on her head.

For those of us who sew, how extremely fortunate we are and totally take for granted that with the push of a foot pedal our electric machines whirr and purr and form neat, uniform stitches! Victoria is a seamstress who sews under the leaves of a tree close by, and on one of my walks around our neighborhood she showed me how her beloved twenty-year-old companion works. Extra skill is required in needing to always sew with two hands; the left one holding the fabric you are working with, and the right one winding the machine up, so that it will sew a few centimetres of stitching. Then 5cm later needing to repeat the winding up process again! Respect!

A seamstress sewing outside in Accra Ghana with her manual sewing machine

On Jumia which is an online shopping platform here, a Butterfly manual machine costs 300 cedies (approximately 900 rand). At Makola market there is also a fascinating section with gorgeous 70s coloured Singers and second hand machines, in the coolest of 1970s colours! 

Vintage sewing machines for sale at Makola Market Accra Ghana
Pre-loved retro sewing machines for sale at Makola Market

Veronica is a Ghanaian lady who owns a little ‘tuckshop’ near our children’s school. When we drive past her store several times a day, I peek into her rhythmical routine of walking to buy street food nearby, selling something from her store, sweeping the sandy ground outside her shop with a palm leaf broom and occasionally napping on her bench. Often she is sitting at a basic handmade table outside her shop with her manual machine and gives me a big wave as we drive by. Domestic and working life seem to tumble from the roadside onto the road.

A seamstress sews outside her container shop in Accra Ghana

Colourful clothes are drying across strung pieces of rope or over walls, and a carpenter and upholsterer saws wood next door. If I put my hand out of the car at times I could touch these people as they work, but there never seems to be any fear that an accident could occur! A few metres down the street a talented gentleman called Ernest, who teaches sewing classes to some of the German school moms, has several seamstresses sewing in and outside his container space and one of the ladies looks peaceful and focused as she irons a garment on the pavement. The long patchwork curtain they have made from scraps of African fabric looks like an exquisite stain glass window of a church with the afternoon sunshine beaming through its many squares.

Tailors sewing from a container in Accra Ghana

A few weeks ago we stopped and chatted with Veronica and she showed me a dress she was working on, and kindly offered for Emma and myself to try out what it is like to sew on one of these machines which was fun (and challenging!)

I have great admiration for these hardworking Ghanaians who make a livelihood from sewing and who are committed to this skill they have learnt. There is so much poverty here, and I have no doubt that they are not earning much, but they continue to work hard to achieve their goals of making a living as they sit at their machines, day in and day out. They are proud of what they are doing and the simple spaces they sew in and they care about making these look pretty. They are happy with very little, and it seems to be enough – such big life lessons for us all. It is both humbling and inspiring when I have stepped into their spaces and captured their beautiful smiles and eyes that stare at me through the lens. I am richer for having met these people and having been exposed to another way of life that so sharply puts into focus how very wealthy we are in all ways when we live in first world settings. These people who have been gracious enough to let me take their photo are happy and friendly, which is how I find most Ghanaians.

I am well aware that for these ladies and men sewing is not the luxury and hobby it is for me, but I can still very much identify with how they must feel sitting at the machine, transforming what was a piece of cloth, step by step, crafting something beautiful   and the satisfaction they must feel when they hold up a completed garment that they have put a lot of their hands, head and heart into.

“I began to realize how important it was to be an enthusiast in life.….if you are interested in something, no matter what it is, go at it at full speed ahead. Embrace it with both arms, hug it, love it and above all become passionate about it.” – Roald Dahl

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