Saturday, May 5, 2012

Making clothes in Burkina

What do people wear?
You have seen some of the kinds of clothing Burkinabè wear in some of my pictures. Very few of the things people wear are ready made clothes.  T-shirts and women's tight fitting shirts are probably the most common ready-made item, although you can find all sorts of things in the marchés here.  Some are new things, but others are used clothing, what my daughter once referred to as Salvation Army rejects.  Most of these women, like the one nearest the camera in a tank top, wear a pagne as a skirt.

 This brand, Obama Girl, is particularly popular here:


My Friend, the Couturier

In the big cities you can find boutiques that sell ready to wear clothes, but in the village most things are made to order.  Most of the people who sew clothing are men, but my friend, Martine, has just opened her own shop and I will use her shop as an example of how the system works. Her shop is one of two rooms in this building someone rents out to her and to a guy who sells gas in whisky bottles. The building is essentially a billboard for one of the cell phone companies, Airtel.
 Most things are made on sewing machines that have been converted to work with a foot treadle. They still have their electric motors, but because there is no electricity in many of the tailor shops, human power has to take over. Here is a fancy zig-zag sewing machine, converted to run by foot power.
 If you want to have something made, first you have to figure out what kind of material you want to use.  You visit the marché and look over the wide variety of options.
 As you can see, most of the fabric is brightly colored with large, elaborate designs. While some patterns are for special occasions, like Women’s Day and Christmas, most have no special connection to any event. As I showed you in an earlier blog, people sometimes select a special pagne pattern for their group to wear to a wedding or a funeral, so other people can see that they are all part of the same group. Everybody uses the same material, but the dresses or shirts or pant suits that are made from it may be quite different.
Once you select your material, you go to a tailor.  Most of them are located in small shops near the marché. Here is a picture of Martine's shop open for business, the door and window on the right of this building.  It is not near the marché, but it is near her home.  That makes it handy for her, and she seems to get enough business to keep her busy even though she is not in the town.
You explain to the tailor what kind of outfit you want, either by pointing to one of the pictures hanging on the wall or by presenting a drawing of what you hope it will look like.  After this has been discussed thoroughly and the tailor has made some notes and sketches, he or she takes some basic measurements like arm length, chest, neck and waist with a tape measure, and you leave.  Then the amazing thing happens.  Without any pattern, the tailor cuts the cloth to make the item you had in mind. He or she may modify or embellish the design, but it usually is similar to what you wanted.  There are big differences among tailors in their ability to create your idea. Those in the big city and the better ones in small villages tend to pay more attention to lining up the pattern and planning so that the important part of the pattern, like the logo for Women’s day, is easy to see when you wear the garment, as you see on the sleeve of my Woman’s Day outfit..

Those of you who sew will know how important it is to iron your work as you go along.  So, what do you do if you do not have electricity in your shop?  You use an old fashioned flat iron, like this, in which you make a small charcoal fire.
Many people have fancy designs embroidered on their clothes.  They have things embroidered on material that has a complicated pattern, although I prefer to see it on a plain fabric.  Here is Martine wearing an outfit she designed herself. She did the basic sewing and then sent the outfit to a person who has a special machine that does the embroidery.
 Here are Dawn and Annie in dresses Martine made for them while they were here.

Here is a dress Martine made for a little girl who was baptized as a part of her parent's formalization of their marriage. 

That is to say, the parents had been together for quite a few years and had three little girls.  Now they have accumulated enough money to have a formal wedding in the church.  Here you can see the three little girls. The one on the left was baptized after the wedding vows were exchanged, which is what you see happening in the background.  There were a couple of people taking pictures as the parents made their vows, so it is a bit hard to see what is going

Last, but not least, here are the bride and groom at the reception ot the home of his family.  Notice they have changed from the European style suit and white gown they wore at the church ceremony to more typical African attire.  If you look closely, you can see that both the bride and groom have heavy embroidery on the clothes they are wearing. 


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  2. Jan, I am so in love with African prints...if there is any way I can convince you to bring some with you, I will gladly pay you for them. :)

    C Fritsch