Sewing for success: UP retail management students work with community embroidery project to make commercially viable clothing

Posted on October 20, 2021

Clothing Retail Management students from the University of Pretoria (UP) have been collaborating with Mapula Embroideries in Winterveld, Gauteng, over the past few years to create unique pieces of clothing, and are also offering skills training to help community members make commercially viable products.

Mapula Embroideries is an arts project that involves about 150 economically disadvantaged women who embroider their history, stories and experiences on cloth to generate an income. Some women create images to tell their story, some trace the pieces and create the outlines, while others do the embroidery. A few also do basic sewing and construct pieces like cellphone bags and tote bags.

The collaboration with UP students, who are working towards a BConsumer Science degree, began in 2019 and has evolved every year to become something more significant and personal. During this time, the students have incorporated Mapula Embroideries pieces into fashionable, sustainable garments as part of their clothing collections for their KLR411 Product Development course.

“The students have had the chance to work alongside Mapula Embroideries to develop sustainable garments from 100% locally sourced cotton fabric/recycled denim, and embroidered fabric pieces that were produced by the ladies of Mapula Embroideries,” Dr Hanri Taljaard-Swart, Clothing Retail Management lecturer, said.

The community engagement project has exposed students to real-life situations where collaboration with unfamiliar parties is required to produce a desired or requested outcome.

The partnership is now at a point where the two parties are conceptualising embroidered images together to create a personalised, unified collection of garments.

“In the early phases of this project, embroidered pieces were given to the students and they had to incorporate them as best they could into their collections,” Taljaard-Swart said. “But now, the students work closely with the embroiderers to customise the pieces according to specific themes, such as flowers, farming, etc. UP students even assisted in the tracing process during a field trip to Winterveld in 2020.”

Additionally, as part of the Textiles course (TKS421), students were tasked with compiling step-by-step sewing guides and training Mapula community members to create good-quality products that can be sold commercially, Dr Taljaard-Swart explained. “More recently, the students have started workshops as part of another course that forms part of this degree – Experiential Training (KTP403) – in which they teach the women basic sewing skills, about sewing machine maintenance and offer step-by-step guidance in making products that can be sold commercially.”

The community engagement project has exposed students to real-life situations where collaboration with unfamiliar parties is required to produce a desired or requested outcome. “Students were either given predetermined guidelines and materials from which they had to create something new, or had to collaborate with external parties to co-create embroidery pieces that suit their collection, always bearing in mind the environmental as well as social impacts of their actions,” Dr Taljaard-Swart explained. “The focus is also on involving local communities who can enrich the business plan and collection, and add to the improvement of the triple bottom line concept, which relates to the environment, society and economic situation of the country.”

The project has had a hugely positive impact on the women of Mapula Embroideries and on the students. “I thoroughly enjoyed this experience, and enjoyed teaching the women,” UP alumnus Kenyani Mitri said. “I have learned that I enjoy teaching more than I thought I would and feel that it has prepared me for the real world as I would like to start my own business. This project has reassured me that I will be able to train staff to create garments. It has been a wonderful experience, and made me look back at how far I have come over the years, as I had started my first year learning to sew and finished my final year by sharing those skills with someone else.”

“I learned various tips in sewing,” said Mapula Embroideries seamstress Ephitha Baloyi. “These tips will enable me to sew with accuracy in all my future sewing projects.” This collaboration was and still is an enriching experience for all the parties involved, Dr Taljaard-Swart added. “All the parties have developed skills and knowledge relating to both creativity and technicality.”

- Author Mecayla Maseka

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