Learning to sew with inspiration and values
|(L-R) Penny Jayewardene, Thushini Gunawardena and Barbara Wijesinghe.
Many of the students who come to veteran Barbara Wijesinghe’s sewing classes end up learning values and other key essentials for survival in every-day life.
Penny Jayewardene, daughter-in-law of the late President J.R. Jayewardene, describing herself as an “eternal student”, has been learning under Barbara for the past year. She says they learn much more from her than just sewing.
Patience, discipline, punctuality are some of the values that Barbara imparts on her students as well as the check block method of dress making. “Sew for pleasure and for profit using the check block method of dressmaking” says Barbara’s latest book which was recently launched in Sinhala.
Barbara or “Aunty” as she is affectionately called by her students is a sewing instructress who has passed down the knowledge her mother gained from Irish nuns to her students. She teaches the check block method of dress making which she described as an uncomplicated and practical method. Incidentally, she is also the patent holder of this method. This method involves only two measurements and once the basic blocks are mastered, even a beginner can go on to become a fully-fledged dressmaker.
Her students are a mixed group coming from all walks of life to learn what “Aunty” has to teach. Lawyers, doctors, engineers, school principals, medical students, housewives, domestic aides, businesswomen and the occasional gentleman are all treated equally. “No matter what background they come from, they are all students to me,” says Barbara and the students around her nod in agreement. Also a qualified counselor, Barbara provides the occasional listening ear and shoulder to cry on for her students when they need it.
For sewing, patience is needed in abundance with students meticulously marking the fabric and then cutting it very precisely. No student is allowed to be absent for a lesson if they have not informed Barbara of their inability to attend. When the students were asked whether there were any punishments that Barbara used to met out discipline, they said that she practices “discipline without malice” and that there are no punishments as such.
Economizing is another value Barbara insists on. “She makes us use as much of the fabric as possible when we are cutting,” said Michelle Mortier, a student. “If we don’t, she goes wild,” Penny added. “All my students are experts at unpicking,” Barbara said with a laugh during a weekly class at her residence adding that if the sewing is not neat she makes them unpick the garment and start all over again.
A medical student on her break, Thushini Gunawardena, found out about Barbara’s classes from her mother and joined after being inspired when she met Barbara. When Thushini questioned her as to whether this method was difficult she had replied saying “There is no such word as difficult in my vocabulary”. These words of Barbara’s inspired her, Thushini said and now she’s an enthusiastic student on her way to making her own clothes.
V. Chitrakala, another of Barbara’s students is a domestic aide who said she wanted to learn sewing as she plans to get married and move back to her hometown. Sewing, she said, will supplement her income and help her to become independent.
Being a mother of three leading a very hectic life, “therapeutic” is how Michelle described the lessons. “I look forward to the class.” She also went on to say that Barbara imparts all her knowledge on her students and holds nothing back. Kanthi Rathnapala, an entrepreneur running her own business came to Barbara to learn how to make saree jackets.
Barbara said that she has had students of all ages with her youngest student being aged 13 years and the oldest student was a 70 year old who also described the sewing as a kind of therapy. Her students described her as an “inspirational teacher” who shares all her life experiences with her students.