Sewing's Rising Star

Pakistan, March 31, 2009

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper/Mercy Corps  </span>
    22-year-old Mehnaz Akthar is supporting her 11-member family with her skills as a seamstress, a talent she picked up at one of three sewing centers set up by Mercy Corps in Pakistan. Photo: Miguel Samper/Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Miguel Samper/Mercy Corps

Growing up, the chattering gears of my mother's sewing machine provided the soundtrack to weekends in our home. Her dexterity with a foot pedal translated to nifty Halloween costumes for my brother and me, never going to school with rips in our pants and the occasional new blouse for her.

The familiar chatter of the Ghari Duppatta Sewing Center took me back to those days. But while my mother's efforts were simply to save a few dollars and express her creativity, the women sewing here are working towards a much bigger goal: putting food on their family's table.

One such woman is Mehnaz Akhtar. This 22-year-old is helping to take care of expenses for her 11-member family by using the skills that she has learned at this center to make new salwar kameez (the tunic and trousers combination that is the national dress of Pakistan) to sell at a local boutique and by helping make alterations and repairs to already worn salwars.

She has also become something of a rising star at the sewing center. Although she had never done any sewing before, she picked up on these new skills so quickly that she soon became a volunteer at the center. Now, when she's not working on her own projects, she's helping other women with theirs and providing some training.

She is one of over 400 Pakistani women who are learning the highly marketable skills of hand tailoring and embroidery at this sewing center, one of three that Mercy Corps has helped establish in areas affected by the 2005 earthquake, which resulted in the loss of over 70,000 lives. In each of the centers, the women are learning how to stitch things like wearable garments, handbags and mobile phone covers to be sold at nearby markets or at the center itself.

On the day I visited, Mehnaz was one of a dozen women sitting on the floor of the center, a small aluminum building just off the town's main road. The women conversed quietly as they turned the cranks on manual sewing machines. As she spoke, Mehnaz inspected a large women's shirt made from silky red fabric that she had just pulled out of plastic shopping bag. "This piece was stitched up by a local tailor," she says, inspecting the shirt's seams, "but the owner didn't like what he did. So, my neighbor brought it to me to undo the work and fix it."

Mehnaz earns about 5,000 rupees a month (around $60) for her work, all of which is going to her family. "With the prices of food going up and few people at home earning anything, it has been difficult," she says. "But we can afford food much more easily now."

Mehnaz lives with her mother, her six siblings and their spouses in a pair of tents while their house — destroyed in the quake, alongside more than 1,000 others in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir — is being rebuilt. The government is helping pay for the construction, she says, but her family is still strapped. "We have to spend whatever I'm earning," she says.

Although my mother never had to make the sort of sacrifices these women are, I couldn't help but envision a kinship between her and Mehnaz, both of them working so hard for their families. Before I left I bought a long-sleeved green blouse from Mehnaz — a present for my mom.