Interview with Stitch Sainte Luce

Have you heard of Stitch Sainte Luce, a sustainable project in Madagascar that empowers women through embroidery?

I have to confess I hadn't heard of them, so when they got in touch asking about my thoughts on social media for small organisations, I was completely blown away....not by being asked about social media but by what they do for women. I just had to know more and so, instead of interviewing a blogger this month, I thought I'd interview Sarah Brown, the Stitch Sainte Luce Project Coordinator to find out all about them this incredible project.

What is Stitch Sainte Luce and how did it start?
Stitch Sainte Luce is a sustainable livelihoods project in the village of Sainte Luce in Southeast Madagascar, which uses embroidery skills to empower women to increase their incomes. Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world, and Sainte Luce is situated in the Anosy region, one of the poorest areas in the country. It is run by Azafady, a British registered charity working in partnership with a Malagasy NGO, taking a holistic approach to tackling the issues of poverty and conservation in the Anosy region. 

On a conservation volunteering trip to Sainte Luce with Azafady in 2011, I was shocked by the lack of opportunities for young women. At the same time, The Azafady Conservation Programme volunteers like myself wanted to support local enterprise and take souvenirs home, but there was almost nothing to buy. 

There was also a remnant tradition of embroidery taught by missionaries decades ago, which was not being passed on from the elder generation due to the financial capital and investment of time required, and the lack of access to the markets due to the language barrier. Access to good quality clothing is limited in Sainte Luce and lots of the local people have insufficient or badly worn out clothing. I started thinking that some basic needlework skills would go a long way in the village. The more I thought about it, the more I realised that needlework could potentially not only fix clothes, but could offer a livelihoods by tapping into the volunteer market -  Stitch came about to address all these issues.

Did you face any obstacles setting the project up?
Probably the biggest challenge is sourcing materials. Because we are so geographically isolated it is difficult to get hold of threads and fabrics. We started by bringing fabric from the UK, which is obviously not sustainable and was really expensive. But the fabrics that were available locally, and even in the capital city, were all poor quality synthetics, it is impossible to get hold of good cotton or linen. Now we upcycle second hand clothing and bedding from the local second hand market, which the embroiderers can choose and manage themselves. It is affordable, we can get it quickly and easily and it is more ethical than buying new. The other difficulty is the sewing machines - we use old hand crank machines, but because of the humidity they rust and it is very difficult to get replacement parts. We are constantly having to improvise ways to get them going.

What inspires all the women involved to create such beautiful designs?
All our students are very proud of their village and their surroundings. Sainte Luce is incredibly picturesque, a village of 3 hamlets bordered by the Indian Ocean on one side and lowland rainforest on the other, containing globally important biodiversity. The diverse array of flora and fauna, from lemurs and chameleons to spiders and crocodiles is an obvious source of inspiration and is the basis of our first collection of designs. We also have a geometric collection, drawn from the aesthetics of traditional crafts, including basket weaving, roof thatching, hair plaiting, lobster pot weaving, as well as fish scales and snakeskin. Our newest collection illustrates folktales, including tales of sea monsters, cannibals, and a woman who married an egg! Each of the ladies has a sketchbook for drawing ideas, but some of the embroiderers prefer to draw directly onto the fabric with a needle. Some of them like to discuss ideas, and Guerceline, one of our first class, says that when she has a piece to do and doesn’t have any ideas, she thinks about it before bed and then ideas come to her in dreams!

Where do the women make their products? 
We are very lucky to have a brand new purpose built studio that we work in, with a shop for selling. The embroiderers come to collect materials, use sewing machines and irons, sell their work in the shop and catch up on gossip! Some do their embroidery there too, but lots of them choose to work at home so they can cook and watch the children whilst they work. We have a set of solar lamps that the embroiderers use at home if they want to work in the evening, which also means they don’t have to use petrol lamps every day, meaning a much healthier home environment and the light can be used by their children for studying too. 

How is STITCH changing lives?
We do regular monitoring to check that the project is achieving its aims and to measure impacts. At the last count, the 23 embroiderers were financially supporting 359 people, feeding 187 people regularly, and buying clothes for 154 people. Collectively they have brought over 50 million Ariary into the village, (about £12,500) which is an incredibly significant sum in a village where an estimated 90% of people are living below the poverty line. But for me the best thing about working day to day in the village is seeing the small changes that are harder to measure. Seeing dangerously underweight women and their children gradually putting on weight, women coming in and saying that their husbands have stopped cheating on them because they are more respected within the household. Esterline says that she has never had aspirations before - there was no point because she didn’t have a way to achieve them. Hearing the ladies talking proactively about the future of their children is a huge change from when I arrived. Last week we were talking about why it was important to build a sustainable association and everyone mentioned the aim of sending their children to university - when I arrived many of them didn’t even have the money to enrol their children at primary school. Seeing people’s horizons expand is really exciting!

How can people help or get involved with STITCH?
The first thing you can do to help is to buy our products! Each product has a label with a photograph of the maker and her signature, so you can see exactly who is benefitting from the sale. You can follow our news on our blog, twitter feed and Facebook page and share and like things to spread the word. Tell people who might be interested about what we do - some of our most useful connections have come from word of mouth. The UK side of Stitch is run by volunteers, who work together to publicise, exhibit and sell our work at events as well as running the web shop. If you’d like to volunteer your time and skills or suggest an event we could sell at, drop us a line at  Any fundraising efforts are greatly appreciated, which can help to cover our ongoing costs and also provide equipment and activities which we can’t fund any other way, for example a planned exchange visit to other successful women’s associations to share good practice. 

Thanks so much Sarah for taking the time to tell us all about a truly inspiring project!

Don't forget to go check out their shop and follow Stitch Sainte Luce on Twitter and Facebook too!