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Salma Shakir (email: SARID Project Coordinator

SARID (South Asia Research Institute for Policy and Development), a US-registered non-profit organization promoting development through small-scale efforts in South Asia, recently funded me for a quilting project in Pakistan. Although the indigenous people practice quilting, it is quite different from the patchwork quilts in the USA. Their local quilts, called "ralli", are simple patchwork and appliqué designs using only a few colors. Village women normally work on their rallis after doing household chores, and sell the finished products to supplement their income.

I have been a quilter for over two decades, and enjoy piece making. Quilting today is much easier thanks to various tools and instructions. Rotary cutters, along with rulers and squares, make cutting easier so that complicated designs can be assembled more quickly. Although the "ralli"s are basically patchwork appliqués, they are extremely labor intensive. Fabric pieces are either cut or ripped and joined by hand. The idea behind my project was to introduce the principles of American quilt making to women who already had some needlework experience in order to ease their labor.

The project started initially in the USA, where I bought books on patchwork quilting, cutters, boards, rulers, squares, etc., all tools that are very important to piecing but are not available locally in Pakistan. Next, I went to Dhahran in Saudi Arabia, where my husband works, to ask a group of expatriate ladies with quilting experience to put together some samples of various patchwork combinations, e.g., nine-patch, log cabin, flying geese, etc. The proprietor of a local fabric and craft store, Zamils, donated a box full of fabrics for the girls. In two weeks, I was ready to go to Karachi and begin the work.

The Center

My work started in a Vocational Center situated in an impoverished area of Karachi. This center is part of a school that my mother-in-law helps to finance. Tuition at the center is 40 cents per month. (The average income of the people living in this area is $50/month).

The school is a family affair, managed by the sons and daughters of the late Mr. Rehman Shah. The eldest son Mr. Shaukat manages the school while Gulnar; one of the daughters, is in charge of the Vocational Center. She runs two sessions; one in the mornings from 10-12 and another in the afternoons from 2-4. Each session has about 20-25 girls learning to sew and embroider. These skills are important for the girls, as they can cut household expenses by sewing clothes for the family themselves. Girls also attend because without skills they will most likely end up domestics.

On the first day I discovered that the center had only four working sewing machines, cutting tables that were falling apart, not enough scissors, needles or other tools required to make the girls’ learning smoother. The room where the girls worked was dusty and as there were no chairs, the girls sat and worked on the floor. It was definitely not conducive to productivity. For windows, they had rectangular holes in the walls. These openings were the only means of ventilation during power failures. However, they were high up in the ceiling, enabling people from outside to see the girls working inside. Mr. Shaukat is now putting in windows with controls for opening and shutting them, which the girls can reach.

Everyone seemed excited to see me (they had been told why I was there) and interested to see what I would share with them. The first thing they said was “Is it difficult to do this?” I showed them the books and the samples that my friends had put together. They liked the patchwork blocks, and could not wait to get started.

The Women

I have been teaching various crafts for almost 15 years now, and I have never come across a more enthusiastic group and do not remember having so much fun running a class before. It gave me a lot of encouragement to see them concentrate and work hard on their pieces. They are very cheerful and have a great sense of humor. The best thing about them is that they are making the best of whatever they have. I had them working in groups, so that they could help each other. I realized quickly that the working groups that formed were totally based on ethnicity. Each group shared a common language and heritage and to divide them would make them uncomfortable. As long as they came together as one class at the end, their own diversities were interesting.

There are three groups of girls at the Center, mostly from Hazara, a few Pathans and Afghanis. My instructions were all in Urdu, which everyone spoke and understood. As I felt that they needed to write down the details of techniques, I bought notebooks and pencils and dictated to them. It was then that I discovered that five of the girls could not read or write. They wanted to, but their parents did not have the resources to educate them. I arranged for one of the girls, Sumera, to tutor the five everyday. Sumera is also the class monitor and an extremely cheerful and intelligent person. She has been educated to grade 10. She has now been hired by SARID to tutor the girls in Urdu and Mathematics.

I had taken Rehana to the Center with me. She is the lady who I may say inspired me to take on the project. About two years ago, I was working on a quilt and took it with me to Karachi to finish. I then asked Rehana, a seamstress, to help me with the sewing. She showed a keen interest in learning the log cabin design that I was working on. We worked together for a few days and I showed her all that needed to be done. I gave her the designs and books that I had. Six months later I heard from her saying that she had put together some cushion covers and sold them at the Sunday Bazaar.

She asked if I could send rotary cutters and boards, as cutting with scissors took a long time. Since then Rehana has become a friend, and because of my quilting experience with her, I hired her as an assistant. She is a good seamstress whose most wonderful attribute is that she does not give up trying to better herself. She is the sole supporter of her family of five and works very hard to keep her kids in school. She is passionate about crafts and needlework.

My work with the girls started by introducing them to various patchwork blocks. A block is put together from fabric shapes of different sizes. The result is normally a square of assorted fabric shapes - the patchwork block. Blocks are then pieced together to make bigger pieces. Color schemes and designs vary with individual preferences. For beginners it is wiser to start with specific blocks, and as each combination has a name, it can be easily duplicated. I started everyone with the nine-patch.

Trust me, it did not go as smoothly as I had wished. On the first day as I showed everyone what they could do from the samples and books, my excitement matched theirs and I foolishly said “Yes you can do it…” to whatever designs the girls were showing me. Yes, they were excellent at sewing and yes they knew how to embroider on the Machine, but patchwork does have its basic rules and, unless one knows them, the patches can look extremely tacky. The first blocks that everyone did were just that.

So we backtracked and started from the beginning. I spoke and they wrote down. I drew on the blackboard, and they copied. I cut the pieces and they joined. Later I supervised all the cutting until they became confident. Some of the girls learned quickly and were put in charge of their groups. After a few stumbles we got off to a great start. One thing that really amazed me was that how quickly the girls in charge took the responsibility of helping others. They were not shouting down commands or being rude or obnoxious just because the teacher had selected them to be in charge, they acted more like an extension of the teacher’s mind and hand. I saw a lot of love and compassion and understanding in these girls. And everything was done cheerfully.

Local Resources

In my two weeks I also came across many shopkeepers, as my intention was to buy whatever material I could find locally. True rotary cutters, boards, and quilting rulers are not available locally, but everything else that I bought for the center was made in Pakistan.
I bought seven sewing machines, five of which (“Daina”) were made locally. All of the fabric that we used was local. Everywhere I went, when I told people about SARID and what we were doing, they were very happy and gave me discounts. It seemed like we were one big happy family helping each other.

The only people who were a bit blasé were the wealthier shop owners in the high streets. Some of the more affluent people living in Karachi also had similar reactions. One of them said, “You will not achieve much with all this”; another said, “My servant makes more money, so why do this?” True, but every morning when I arrived at the center, I understood “why I was doing this”. The enthusiasm and dedication of the girls inspired me to persevere.

Many organizations are working to help village communities and impoverished urban communities. They have proven that with their help these communities can grow economically and socially. Hundreds of villages have benefited from outside help and are now managing on their own. Yet, in a third world country where the problems are monumental, there are always areas that require assistance, guidance, and favor.

SARID feels very strongly about its mission to bring about change and development to improve the lives of ordinary citizens by providing them with the means of sustainable growth. SARID is now funding the School and Vocational Center, at the cost of $3,500 every year. We need a supply of rotary cutters, boards and other quilting equipment. The girls have begged me to send books. They want to have their own library. We could do with a TV/VCR to show instructional videos. We are committed to our cause, and to make sure that we are able to do our work we do require funds. Every contribution makes a difference, even 40 US cents! To do good work we need the good will of our friends and benefactors. Please help us help others.

I have to admit that acts of kindness and charity have helped me tremendously throughout my venture. I have faith that we will not bedisappointed.


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