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.
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.
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.
Thanks Gillian – that sounds fascinating; I’ll watch it with my teenage daughters.
I just wanted to mention that there are many different types of Mennonites. Many of us are as urbanized as anyone else, and you wouldn’t be able to pick us out of a crowd based on clothing! Old Order Mennonites tend to be the groups with more traditional dress.
Thank you Brenda! My first Mennonite friend was gay and had green hair at university. Definitely a huge range! The area I worked in was mostly Old Order and Old Colony – I guess by virtue of working in such a rural space I didn’t learn much about more urban groups. Thank you for correcting me! 💕
The movie was really great. I loved seeing Holly right at the age when she is still a child, but almost a woman. Her relationship with her mom was so sweet. Thanks for sharing this, Gillian!
This is really interesting to see! I grew up with grandparents who lived very close to a part of “Amish country” in the United States Midwest and we certainly saw many different orders of Amish, Mennonite, and Dunkard women and their varying forms of dress. It’s also interesting how fabric stores with a large demographic of customers who wear Plain clothes have a very different selection of fabric than what we more urban people are used to! Much more polyester but also different kinds of elastics and other trims that I would be hard pressed to find in a chain store.
I love this!
I’ve watched that video and this one as well:
As someone who grew up in the Ultra Orthodox Jewish community, I am intimately acquainted with the intersection of religion and clothing. Similarly we too, can tell which section of the community you are a part of by your clothing and how you dress, down to the colours you wear, the cut and style of your outfit, the shoes you wear…
In fact sewing allows me to express my individuality whilst still (mostly) conforming to my community’s expectations.
This topic is endlessly fascinating to me. I love learning about how other communities use dress to differentiate themselves from wider society. How we dress to show membership and belonging, and also how clothing allow us to express where we come from and who we are.
I’m so glad you commented! We are actually gathering contributions from folks for another post about how people sew for their religion, and I wonder if you’d be willing to write us a few paragraphs! I think it is such an endlessly fascinating subject!
One of the things I miss most about working at Fabricland was getting to observe the different cultures of sewing among different groups of customers. The conservative Mennonite ladies who loved bright ITY knits. South-East Asian people were always looking for the lightest-weight fabrics. African immigrants who were disappointed that we sold fabric but didn’t provide a service for sewing up the clothing. Of course the First Nations customers making ribbon skirts and shirts, bright satins for regalia, broadcloth for ceremonies. One of my fonder memories is of an ex-Hutterite man who wanted to buy fabric for his sisters who were still with the colony. He explained to me that in their colony, women tended to wear darker colours as they got older, and he was looking for a dark floral that would please them but also push them just a bit beyond their comfort zone.
I’m very curious to watch this now!
[…] How Sewing and Religion Intersect – A Mennonite Story; CBC Docs; June 29th, 2020. […]