How Sewing and Religion Intersect: A Mennonite Story

There are some experiences as a teacher that I will never forget. One of them is the culture shock and wonder when I became immersed in the unique and distinct Mennonite culture as an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher. How could it be that just an hour north of my hometown there were these distinct groups of people wearing bonnets, “pioneer” style dresses, driving horse and buggies, and living such a different life? It really fascinated me, and I had so much to learn.

I soon learned that there are many different types of Mennonites, and each group has very distinct rules of what is allowed. For example, some groups don’t believe in the use of glass in tractor windows, or rubber tires; other groups fled anti-German persecution in Canada after the first world war and now split their time between Canada and northern Mexico. Mennonites in my area range from well-established local landowners to migrant labours living near the poverty line. I don’t pretend to understand all the nuances and motivations, but my students were always happy to explain as best they could.

Photo of a blonde teenager in a pink dress and braided hair with the words "Hollie's Dress"
Image courtesy of the CBC

How does this relate to sewing? Well, one member of that community was recently featured in a short CBC documentary called “Hollie’s Dress,” which follows 14-year old Hollie, who has left school after Grade 8, as she considers what choices to make in her life. The film follows her as she sews a dress with her mom. It’s a lovely insight into both sewing and culture!

In the same region, I also taught the first wave of Syrian refugees arriving in Canada. They were sponsored by Mennonites, and arrived to small-town life across the region. As a result, it is particularly fascinating to me that Annie Sakkab, the director of “Hollie’s Dress”, is a Palestinian-Canadian filmmaker. She grew up in Jordan, precisely where many of my Syrian students had lived during the war. My worlds collide!

In her essay about the film, director Annie Sakkab says, “As a woman who grew up in Jordan’s patriarchal society, I wondered how the choices of the girls and young women back home differ from the girls and young women in the Mennonite community. How do we define freedom of choice?” It’s a fascinating question, and relevant around the world.

Photo of a woman and three children wearing traditional styles from their Mennonite community
Here’s an example of the clothing worn by Old Colony Mennonites, who are connected to communities in northern Mexico and southern Ontario. You can read an interview with this family here. These dresses are made from polyester woven fabric, and according to my students, the pleats in the skirt are created by ironing and then wrapping the fabric in foil and baking it to heat set the pleats in place. Image courtesy of canadianmennonite.org

It has been a few years since I worked in the Mennonite community, but they were intrinsic to the relaunch of the Sewcialists. How does identity and intersectionality affect sewing? What if your homemade dress clearly telegraphed your religious beliefs, culture and language? If the size of the floral print and the number of pleats told people clearly which church you attend? The same is equally true for Muslim students I work with: everything from the style of their hijab to a homemade overcoat can signal cultural and regional differences.

Sewing is a point of connection for me with many of the communities I work with as an ESL teacher. Nothing is as fun as realising we’d bought the same local fabric and made completely different garments with it! I love asking students about the history of making in their families, and celebrating the intersection of our cultural heritages.


Gillian is co-founder of the Sewcialists. She is an ESL teacher by day and sews colourful clothes by night.


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