Sewing to Save the Planet.

March 2, 2016

chameleon in malawi africa

Can sewists make the world a better place?  I think we share a common bond that makes us special – and different.  We aren’t so interested in buying ready-made because we love the process of creating.  It’s the journey that excites us – sometimes more than the destination.  Our passion for learning and doing gives us unique skills in problem solving and finding alternative solutions.  It also teaches us patience.  The seasoned sewist knows that results are directly related to the time and care we put into the project.  We are the right people to pull up our set-in sleeves and get to work saving the planet.

My craft career began with a “fair trade” project in Africa.  I trained a group of artisans here in Malawi and together we created recycled paper and hand-painted textiles.  People came into the shop and made nice comments about our products, and I felt very confident that we did, indeed, make nice things.  But there was a problem.  I didn’t like selling.  I thought people should visit the studio to learn how to make batiks – not just buy them.  I was much more interested in explaining our techniques than showing someone around the shop.  I never, ever should have been in the studio store – but I got pulled in when the customers didn’t speak English, or they wanted some guidance with color and design choices.

The Malawian lady working in the shop knew that I wasn’t supposed to be on the selling-side of things and would give me a warning look when she saw me walk in the door.  “Oh boy, there goes the sale,” she was thinking.  I just couldn’t help myself.  I’d start a conversation with the customer, convince her that less is more, and then give tips on other places to buy crafts in Malawi. As a parting shot, I’d add, “Oh – be sure to save some cash in case you get stopped for a speeding ticket.”  Which is great advice, by the way, if you happen to be traveling in Malawi, but not so great for shop sales.

I’ve never been much of a consumer.  It takes me a long time to buy things.  I’ve realized it’s not so much about the money; it’s the fact that I don’t want lots of “things” in my life.  The more I have, the more I feel weighted down.  Less stuff means more freedom, and freedom is something I’ve always cherished.  But I’d spend my last dollar on anything that will help me learn – or create.   I thought this was limited to books, art materials, fabric, and culinary ingredients – but it turns out it’s just as easy to buy a truckload of tree seedlings as it is a few meters of silk.  And at the end of the day, just like fabric, you wish you had bought more.

It’s been over a year since the textile design studio I started in Malawi closed its doors.  Since then I have been busy with sewing and pattern making.  A few months ago, I started a grass-roots tree-planting project in my community.  Too many trees were being cut down and I couldn’t stomach the idea of not doing something about it.  Two friends and I managed to bring over 3000 tree-seedlings to our first 2 pilot villages.  We also gave out sweet potato vines for planting, a drought-resistant food crop that gives small-holder farmers food security when their maize (corn) crops fail.

sweet-potato-vines-villageThe team checking on our tree-seedlings and sweet potato vines.

The rainy season (what there was of it) has now ended.  We’ve been back to monitor the progress of the tree seedlings and the sweet potato vines, and everything is looking good.  I didn’t have much hope, as we suffered through months of blazing sun and no rain.  The maize suffered and many farmers lost their entire crop.  It was only because the villagers fetched well-water for their seedlings and vines that our plants stayed alive.  This gave me and the team great encouragement that our project was wanted in the community and something that we should continue.

Tree-seedling being protected from goats in the village.One of our tree-seedlings being kept safe from goats.  A creative solution!

In my downtime, after the planting season, I started working on a travel bag PDF pattern.  This design has great pockets and lots of space for clothing, fabric, and notebooks.  It’s light and easy to fold up and store away.  I design things to fit my lifestyle.  The travel bag is for busy ladies who need a bag big enough to hold everything, but one that keeps you looking stylish when you pop into a cafe for lunch.  If you would like to test the pattern, please get in touch!  I’d love to hear from you.

Zoona Nova Travel Bag PDF patternZoona Nova Travel Bag – PDF pattern coming soon.  Be a pattern tester!

Trees are never far from my mind, even when I’m sewing or designing patterns.  But I’m not the only one with trees on the brain.  Billboards call out for Malawians to “Plant More Trees”.  Western charities, churches, and NGOs (non government organizations) are out delivering seedlings to villages, and the Malawian government has declared that they are planting 60 million tree-seedling this year.   Of course, this is all great news.  Even if all the little seedlings don’t make it to adulthood, at least the message is out – and people are listening.

I knew very little about trees when I started this project.  Basically, I could spot a baobab.  To get some experience, I hit the dirt road and started asking questions and tagging along on NGO tree-planting trips.  During these trips, and while visiting the tree nurseries that supplied the tree-seedlings, I noticed something: everyone was planting the same few types of trees.  I did a little research and discovered that many of these were exotic species not native to Africa.  What about the indigenous trees?  Who was planting those?  This led to more research and soon, a list of over 100 native African trees that seemed good for our project.  But few people had heard of the trees I discovered in my online research.  I wandered around in the villages asking people the names of different trees and why they were important, but again, there was little knowledge of trees outside of the few that were being planted over and over again.

Tree nursey in a village near Balaka - Malawi.

Out in the villages we spotted a tree nursery started by the community.  Great to see!

I imagine that a lot of the indigenous trees on my ever-growing list are now scarce and not easily found in the wild.  On a bright note, there are places in Malawi with tree experts who collect seeds and sell them to the public, but the variety of seeds is limited.   If I want to see these trees in the wild, and collect their seeds, I have a big, challenging job ahead of me.

Would it be worth the effort?  I know it would.  The only way we can make a positive change is to work together and make the effort.  I’m determined to start an indigenous tree nursery here in Balaka, Malawi.  It’s paramount to educate people about the environmental, medicinal, nutritional, and economic benefits of their native trees and get them planted in school yards and villages. In addition to their incredible ecological value, many of these indigenous tree products, such as oil and fruits, are highly prized in Western countries and can bring much-needed income to villagers while bringing better health and well-being to people around world.

The question that lingered in my mind was how to tie the PDF sewing patterns to the tree-planting project.  I felt that people should have a real connection to the trees and to the people planting them.  Cash is great, but it’s cold.  I know that many of us, as creators, understand the need to protect what we have on this planet.  Being part of a project that is trying to do something would mean more than a token donation.

After a lot of talking with friends, and researching different business models, I decided to turn Zoona Nova LLC into a “social enterprise” that will return its profits back to the tree project.  In addition, for every pattern purchased, a number of trees will be planted in Malawi-Africa.  People who don’t sew can also get involved.  We will sell tree-seedlings to the public through the internet, helping us pay for the caring of the trees, educational programs, and village outreach projects.  Individuals and companies alike can buy our tree-seedlings to off-set their carbon emissions.  The journey of the trees will be documented, so people engaged with the project can follow their trees’ progress.  If the idea takes off, I’d love to see this project over in Madagascar, too.  In Malawi, we have lost 50% of our forests in recent years, but in Madagascar it’s already 90% that is gone.  There isn’t any time to waste.

I know the Golden Blogging Rule:  Thou shall not go off-topic.  In sharing my tree stories, I suppose I’m guilty, but I believe that sewists are the perfect people to get involved with tree-planting and environmental education.  We know the thrill of creating something with our hands, and we understand that every couture gown begins with a single stitch.

chameleon in malawi africa

He wants more trees, too!

Remember to get in touch if you’d like to test the travel bag PDF pattern!

Happy sewing (and planting!)  -Tamara


    1. Another lovely post Tamara, it’s nice to know that behind your sewing pattern there is such a good cause!

      1. Hi Aida,

        Thank you! It means a lot to hear that. I wasn’t sure how I was going to link PDF sewing patterns with my love of trees. Let’s hope the idea of DIY eco-fashion works…


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