The Problem: Since deciding to move in to my yurt I have been contemplating sewing without electricity. My machine is electric and sewing by hand is simply too slow. I considered solar panels, hiring someone to build me an electric converter out of a car battery, or hooking a generator up to my bike trainer. This seems like a simple enough solution, but it is an awful lot of pedaling for a very small amount of sewing time.
The Answer: Chinese treadle-powered sewing machine. They are still all the rage here in Rwanda as few women have access to electricity and the majority of clothing is still made by hand. Discovering that Rwanda had an excess of cast iron treadle powered sewing machines was easy enough; acquiring one was more of a challenge.
The Adventure: There are rows of women at the market sewing on a variety of treadle machines. Asking where to buy one is useless, most machines are owned by a mother who bought it from a friend who got it from her grandmother and so on and so on. Their stories, though interesting, are of little use to me in tracking down a salesman.
Today at a little past noon I hit the jackpot. While searching the fabric district high and low for plain white cotton cloth, I came upon a tailoring shop no bigger than a dorm room filled to the brim with women working diligently on shiny treadle-powered Singer Machines. Every woman I asked who didn’t speak English would pass me off to the next woman trying to figure out what I was saying. When I reached the end of the row, and then end of my patience, an older woman in a green tweed suit grabbed me by the arm and whisked me away with my mother and Jenny following close behind.
She took us down a flight of narrow stairs, through poorly lit narrow hallways filled with precarious piles of dusty fabric four and five feet high. We went out on to the street, through a back alley, down more steps, through a group of men gluing piles of foam squares in to cushions, and finally off the side of a building and through a locked door where a man sat in a room no bigger than a Volkswagen. He had shelves lined with metal pieces and jars with screws and bolts. The room smelled the same as I remember my grandfather’s workshop/basement, a combination of machine oil and rusting metal. Next to the man stood a pile of cardboard boxes with red markings in Chinese and Arabic. The woman in the tweed jacket said something quickly in Kinyarwandan to which the man produced a dusty ‘Butterfly’ sewing machine, which was so old and poorly cared for it looked like it could have belonged to the French Foreign Legion. After much bartering and wagging of fingers, the man wipes an inch of dust from the top of his cardboard pile and opens one of the boxes. In little more than a few minutes he presents me with a fully assembled brand new treadle-powered Singer Sewing machine. The entire set up with machine, desk, treadle, bands, bobbins, and spare parts cost me 60,000Franc (just over $100 USD) and roughly a week of my time trying to track the thing down. A steal by American standards and the adventure was well worth it.
Adventure part two: getting a sewing desk and machine to fit in a suitcase… stay tuned.