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Fashion Design and Merchandising Skills Create a Source of Support for Malawi Orphans

By Doralisa Pilarte

Poor children in Malawi sometimes don’t attend school for reasons as stark as they just don’t have a shirt to wear.
It was this simple, heart-breaking fact that propelled Nettie Graulich, who has taught part-time in Marymount’s Fashion Department for 30 years, to launch a vocational sewing project in Malawi, one of the poorest countries in Africa.
Ms. Graulich explains,“I was reading a report from the Malawi Children’s Village (MCV) and when I came to that part, well, that did it for me. I decided that I was going to teach women and children there to sew. That way, the kids could have clothes to wear, and they could all learn a skill to support themselves and help them out of poverty.”
Thus was born the Sewing Project at the Malawi Children’s Village, which the organization calls “one of MCV’s most successful programs.” It started as a training course in 2002 with, Ms. Graulich says, “eight treadle machines in the corner of a garage, where we taught orphans from 15 to 19 years old how to sew.” Today, the project has grown into a small factory with industrial-grade machines, which produces enough steady revenue to support 18 employees. The project still involves teaching orphans to sew, and it contributes income that helps to support the Malawi Children’s Village.

MCV was established by the Friends of Malawi, a group of former Peace Corps and other aid workers and Malawi natives. Ms. Graulich herself was a Friends of Malawi member, having lived in the country for nearly three years in the 1960s, when the United Nations brought her from her native Holland to run a home economics program there.
MCV provides basic services to orphans and other vulnerable children in 37 villages in the Mangochi District of southern Malawi. Those services include shelter, food, safety, health care, and education, with children being cared for from birth to age 18. The children live with their extended families, in the traditional African way, and benefit from the additional support of MCV until they can lead independent lives.
Nettie Graulich explains, “For Americans, an orphan is someone who has lost both parents; but in African countries, if you lose one parent, the other often can’t take care of you, so you are an orphan. Many of these kids are living with extended families, so they may not be treated as well as if they were with their own parents. This vocational program gives them a skill and a future.”
Ms. Graulich kick-started the sewing project with donations from friends, but her goal was higher. Having owned a clothing business for two decades, she knew what it would take for the Sewing Project to become a sustainable enterprise. She says, “I quickly realized that if we really wanted to make it so they could earn a living, we needed work orders in volume. I have come back to Malawi every summer since, to work at extending our list of customers.”
The first donations to the project paid for a one-room brick building to house the Sewing Project. The following year, with more donations, Graulich was able to put in glass windows to keep out the rain. Even after the project took off and it became possible to obtain commercial equipment, Ms. Graulich insisted that the treadle sewing machines stay. They are used for training and serve as a back-up when the power goes out, a common occurrence.
At first, Graulich recounts, orphans would train for up to six months before earning a certificate of completion. But it was not enough. She says, “Nobody could make a living with just six months of training. So I said, ‘Don’t send these kids that I have trained home. We’ll make enough money to pay them a salary.’ Most have stayed with the program since I seriously started making it a business.”
She continues, “In Malawi, large companies are required by law to provide work clothes for their employees each year, because the people can’t afford to buy them. So we produce overalls, work uniforms, dustcoats, security uniforms, even prison uniforms for the various companies to purchase.”
During her summer visits, Nettie Graulich negotiates work contracts to keep the Sewing Project going for the rest of the year. She also brings donations, purchases materials, and creates new product lines that will expand the trainees’ skills and create additional revenue. Among the product lines she has introduced are water and wine bottle holders, bags, placemats, and many other items that can be sold to tourists, all in lively African patterns.
In the project’s latest annual report, Graulich writes, “Fraction, our manager, with us from the beginning, and Ayami, the teacher for four years now, have always kept the whole operation going during my absence. They have no problem running the factory. ...Running a whole business operation, as we have now become, is not yet something they can handle on their own, however. Therefore it is always a crisis when I return; all the jobs I had lined up are finished and no new work is on order. My challenge again this year is to find ongoing work, so that we will always operate at full production.”
Starting three years ago, Ms. Graulich began bringing Marymount students to Malawi for six-week summer internships. Christi Sanders ’11 calls her summer 2010 internship in Malawi “probably the best experience I could have asked for in an internship.”
Christi, who is from Orange County, California, had changed majors from Fashion Design to Art before going to Malawi. Once there, she put both of her interests to work in service of the Sewing Project, designing clothes and also teaching the children such art skills as painting, coloring, and print making.
Noting that in Malawi Ms. Graulich is known to children and adults alike simply as “Nettie,” Christi recalls that when they first arrived in Blantyre, one of the country’s larger cities, “Nettie was on a mission.”
Christi recounts, “I followed her and Ayami around from place to place as Nettie negotiated prices for fabric and new bicycles for her kids, and tried to close deals on orders of work suits and various other items her kids could make. We went to a tea factory with several hundred workers and, while Nettie was talking hardball business with the owners, I was able to take a tour of this huge factory.”
The whole experience was educational beyond her expectations. Christi says, “I realized that, right there in Malawi, I was being exposed to all the realities of the garment industry. I definitely got more practical experience than I would have gotten as an intern at a prestigious fashion company in a place like New York.”
Revenues from the Sewing Project have helped the Malawi Children’s Village in many ways. Last year, the funds made it possible for MCV to buy desks, chairs, and schoolbooks.
In her 2009 report to donors, Nettie Graulich wrote, “The kids are happy and proud of their achievements. This work is so fulfilling for me, also, because of all that happens around it – your ongoing support and caring for people far away who have no opportunities otherwise. You are making a difference, and for my kids I say a heartfelt Zikomo Kwambiri (Thank you very much!)”
Read more about Nettie Graulich’s Sewing Project at the Malawi Children’s Village at www.malawichildrensvillage.org/programs/education/vocationalschool/sewing