Threads Across the Pacific project helps Vanuatu women become self-sufficient.
Story and photos by Kasey Jackson
It’s only a few days into summer, and the lunchtime crowd at The Beach Bar in Mele Bay, Vanuatu, already screams of vacation and leisure time. A quick survey of the scene reports about five tables with various numbers of guests, presumably all expats and tourists in flip-flop shoes and colorful island attire, most of them sipping a frozen drink or popping the top off a Tusker, the local beer. This piece of paradise might be off the beaten path, but throughout the day, it’s bustling with activity. This exact spot is the jumping-off point for adventure seekers heading to Hideaway Island for a day of snorkeling, diving, kayaking or sailing. Later in the day, many of the same people will be back here, often in the same chairs, saying to the friendly staff, “Mi wantem Tusker.” They’ll get what they came for.
A few wooden tables at the bar’s outdoor seating area have been shoved together to accommodate eight people, seven from New Zealand and one from the United States. Four women huddle at one end of the table. At the other: three men and one woman. Unlike the sand-covered sun soakers around them, this group is here to talk business.
The men are from Rotary New Zealand. While visiting Vanuatu, they heard about Threads Across the Pacific, a sewing project with Kiwanis ties that, like them, came from New Zealand. One of the men is a journalist and he’s here to interview Caroline Mason, a Kiwanis member from New Zealand who runs Threads Across the Pacific. While they talk about the project, the women at the other end of the table put their heads together. It’s important stuff. An exciting prospect. Conversation begins over chips and pizzas.
“If they say 700 wide, it needs to be 700 wide.”
“Yes. And it will be. And it needs a drawstring.”
“Maybe Janet can get this job. It will be huge for her.”
“They’ll stencil their own hotel logo on each bag, right?”
The conversation continues, everyone talking quickly and over one another.
“Tell me again why didn’t they want her to add the cord? The drawstring?”
“Because we weren’t sure if we go black to match the logo or go with the same color as the fabric.”
“She very well might get this job.”
“If she does this one right, it could lead to other jobs.”
“Yeah. What do they call those things at the end of the bed? The foot cloth thing.”
“A bed runner?”
“Yes. A bed runner. Making laundry bags can lead to other things. Like bed runners.”
“How’d they find Janet?”
“They found her through us, word of mouth.”
“It’d be a big break for her if she gets this job.”
“It certainly would.”
Severe Tropical Cyclone Pam devastated Vanuatu in March 2015. With sustained winds reaching 175 mph and gusts around 200 mph, experts say it was one of the worst natural disasters to ever hit the South Pacific islands of Vanuatu.
After the storm, Caroline Mason wanted to help the people of Vanuatu, known as Ni-Vanuatu, or Ni-Van. So she took up a collection of quilts from friends and other donors throughout New Zealand. It wasn’t a tough sell. Everyone wanted to help. Within three weeks, she was on her way to Vanuatu—with about 750 handmade quilts.
But it was what she saw there that changed everything.
“When I was delivering some of these quilts, a woman took me into her little home and showed me how the salty, muddy river had swept through her house and destroyed the hand-driven sewing machine she had,” Caroline recalls. “The image of that muddy, rusty machine stayed with me after I returned home.”
Caroline says she couldn’t stop thinking about the woman. She also couldn’t stop thinking about the abundance of sewing materials that many people—including herself—have in their homes. And she wanted to do something. She wanted to do more.
Turns out she could do a lot. When Caroline learned that New Zealand Kiwanians had been shipping containers of supplies to Vanuatu for more than 20 years—everything from school books to school furniture—she wanted to be a part of it all. She joined the Kiwanis Club of Matamata, New Zealand, in January 2016. Now her Threads Across the Pacific equipment and gear finds itself on those same shipping containers, all headed to Vanuatu, an almost-2,000-mile journey across the sea.
“New Zealand Kiwanis members have been wonderfully generous in providing the Threads project with as much container space as we need,” she says. “And the Port Vila (Vanuatu) Kiwanis Club has been marvelously supportive too. They process everything through port and customs and then store the machines and boxes until we arrive for the workshops.”
She also gets countless hours of help from friends in New Zealand who sort, stack and pack supplies for shipment to Vanuatu. Then, once in Vanuatu, the strong New Zealand expat community rallies around her to unpack, sort and stack on the other end. Every little bit of help is important for such a large-scale project to be a success.
Caroline and a few of her circle of sewing friends, Kay Gray, Alison Leslie and Jeanne Brown, weave through the rows of women who are all seated at a school desk inside a brand-new school building in Mele Bay. The women are here to learn to sew. It’s the second week of sewing workshops on the island, and the first in this location. During the previous week, the instructors worked with beginners at a Catholic church closer to the capital city of Port Vila. This location at the Suango school is spacious, spread over two classrooms. One classroom is filled with beginners; in the other classroom, the more advanced seamstresses.
Alison and Kay teach the advanced group. They’re not only great at sewing, they’re great at teaching. It’s apparent as Alison asks for everyone’s attention.
“I know you’re working on your turtles, but let’s everyone gather around me for a moment to talk about shorts,” she says.
Immediately, the women gather around for a tutorial. Alison holds the paper pattern against her hips to show how it will create a nice pair of shorts.
Janet Kaltovei is in this advanced group. She’s the same Janet the Kiwi instructors were talking about over lunch earlier in the day. Caroline and the other instructors have chosen Janet for an important role.
“The main goal of our workshops is to get electric sewing machines and sewing skills into the hands of Vanuatu women and schoolgirls so they can either sew for themselves and their families, or to sell to other villagers or visitors arriving in cruise ships on the island,” Caroline says. “Secondly, we want to identify women who can go a step further and become sewing tutors to other women and girls.”
Janet will be one of those women.
Johanna Taravaky has maybe the loveliest sewing machine in the room. She’s one of the only women in the workshop who owns her own machine, a hand-cranked, black and gold Singer with a distinct sound. Johanna laughs and asks others to listen. She’ll tell you it sings. Hers is one of only two manual machines—all the others are newer, electric versions brought from New Zealand. (Caroline says from now on, all the machines will be new so the instructors aren’t wasting time fixing them. She also reveals the surprise: each of the Ni-Van women will take one of the machines home to keep after the workshop.) Johanna’s sewing skills are fairly spot-on. Though soft-spoken, she’s not nearly as shy as many of the other women around her, so she’s become somewhat of a spokeswoman for the group.
“I’m talking on behalf of many of us, and we’re very happy,” she says. “I think this is a very good program. For visitors to come and make workshops for us, this is our first time ever. For local mamas and their villages, we are very fortunate. We’re going to sew things for tourists. We’ll all work together. I’m very proud and very fortunate.”
Lina Willie and Susan Taravaki sit next to each other and often stop to help others with a thread that won’t cooperate or to double-check a measurement. Already, it’s obvious that some of the women are leaders and find as much satisfaction in helping as they do in finishing a lovely bag or dress. Lina and Susan don’t hesitate to offer tips.
“I’ve been sewing a lot, but most of it was not quality work like I’ve learned here,” Lina says. “I’m so excited to maybe sew things to sell and make money. I’m so excited because I’ve learned a lot.”
Susan shows great pride in the pieces she made this week.
“I feel happy,” she says. “I sewed before, but only one thing: the island dress. Maybe I will make different kinds of dresses now. I think it’s important for women to learn a skill like this. I can be independent and help my family. I’d like to say a very big thank you for the knowledge, for the sharing of knowledge to us. I’m very blessed.”
Janet Kaltovei first attended a Threads Across the Pacific workshop in 2015. Now, as a sewing tutor, she’ll take over when the New Zealand women head home. Then it will be Janet’s job to keep her fellow Ni-Van women on course. She’ll lead workshops and pass along the skills she has learned.
Janet has created a flurry of excitement around the workshop circle. A representative from a new resort has approached Janet, asking if she could make a sample laundry bag to be used on the property. This request has the potential to turn into a real job. Real money. As the instructors move around the room, talk of Janet’s potential contract is the topic of discussion. The call is supposed to come in any time now. She’ll find out if she got the job or not.
“Janet is a very hard worker,” Alison says. “She went to our first workshop and she got very keen on sewing. She has a sewing machine from us, and she’s taking commissions from the local women to make mama dresses. She sews beautifully. She’s hungry for knowledge and she’s hungry for patterns. We can’t produce enough patterns for her. She wants more and more.”
A day passes. The whirring of sewing machines does little to drown out the laughter of schoolchildren, all lined up at the windows. They come every day to watch the women, many of them their own mamas, aunties and grandmamas. They can’t seem to stop smiling either. Seems everyone in the village is happy for the Threads Across the Pacific workshop. Even back at The Beach Bar, daily greetings are complete with inquiries. “How are the ladies and mamas doing?” Word on the beach is that there will be an end-of-workshop fashion show. Everyone wants to know what time and where.
Back in the classroom, Janet is keeping mostly to herself while stitching fabric. But inquiring minds want to know: Has she heard anything?
“The good news I got today was that I was accepted for the contract,” she says, a huge smile spreading across her face. She seems almost relieved to be asked. “I am so glad I got the contract. I am so thankful that I met Alison one year ago and she shared with me a lot of things. And again now, she is here. She brought me projects and patterns that I can work on and share with other ladies. And now that Caroline is organizing other tutors, I’ll be the person teaching them. I will be teaching other women at my home. I’m so glad to help.”
In the background, Caroline checks on her pupils. She offers words of encouragement.
“Very nice. Look at you! Sew it straight on. Plain stitch. Start right there …”
Watch a video of the Vanuatu seamstresses as they present a fashion show of their creations.
This story originally appeared in the April/May 2017 issue of Kiwanis magazine.
I shared this article to my Facebook group for hand crank sewing machines. The featured machine looks old but is actually a Chinese- made reproduction from the 1980s. People all over the world are still using original hand cranked sewing machines especially in places where electricity can be iffy. Thanks for the article!