It was our penultimate day in Guyana, and I was walking among the stalls inside the public market in Bartica. Glancing to one side, I barely registered a woman sitting in one of the stalls, a large embroidery hoop in her hands. I had gone several metres past when it hit me: she’s embroidering! I turned right around and went back.
Naomi Drakes is 32 years old, a single mom with an 11-year-old son. Her family runs several stalls within the Bartica market; Naomi and her sister run a stall selling haircare products, fashion accessories and, by the looks of it, they do minor alteration work using two sewing machines, as well.
I asked Naomi if she would consent to a short interview and some pictures of herself and her work, and returned the following day with a camera. I tried to shoot a video of the interview, but the gloomy, greenish atmosphere inside the poorly-lit market produced a very poor video, and the ear-splitting roar of the town’s power station, which is next door to the market, drowned out her voice. So I have had to content myself with a few photos and some stills from the video.
I found Naomi to be a confident, articulate, and industrious young woman. On days when business is quiet at the stall, rather than gossip with her neighbours or kill time on her phone, the enterprising lady does her embroidery. Her large pieces (average size of her pieces is about 30 cm. in diameter (a foot) adorn bedroom pillowcases and decorative ‘towels’ (draped over furniture and such, not the kind used to dry things). Her work is popular, and she has quite a lot of orders from locals in Bartica. She leaves her embroidery projects at work, because she knows that if she took them home, she’d want to do nothing else, so clearly she enjoys embroidery.
Her designs come from things she sees in books, or sometimes she might ask a friend who knows how to draw to design something for her. I asked her what her favorite stitch was, but she couldn’t pick one…she knows many, and each one is good for achieving a particular look. She learned embroidery from her mother, but is the only one of her sisters who pursued it seriously. Embroidery floss is expensive in Bartica, so she gets her materials from Georgetown.
How much does she sell her work for? A pair of pillowcases with a matching design, plus all the sewing and ruffles that she adds with her sewing machine, goes for G$ 3,500.00. That’s US$17.50. I was horrified. “And the towels?” I asked… “the towels are G$2,000.00 (US$10.00) each, if I supply all the materials. Apparently, if a customer brings her own fabric for Naomi to embroider, it is cheaper. Each embroidery takes between 5 days and a week to stitch.
I protested that this was much too cheap for the amount of work she puts into each embroidery, but she reasoned that she would be sitting in the market all day, anyway, and a pair of pillow cases brings her an extra, unexpected G$3,500.00 on top of what she earns by running the stall. Fair enough, I suppose.
I bought a pair of her pillow cases. All her other finished work were orders that she couldn’t sell to me, and she had nothing else finished. It being our final day in Guyana (we had already cleared out with immigration, we were departing that evening) I couldn’t wait for her to finish something else. A shame, as I would have loved to conduct subsequent interviews, maybe shoot a video at her home on a Sunday (or at least somewhere with better light, away from the noise of the power station.) Only one of the pillow cases had been sewn up, the other embroidery was on an unfinished piece of fabric. “That’s fine,” I told her, “there’s no way I will use your embroidery as a mere pillow case, anyway! It’s too nice for that!”
I had noticed her broken wooden embroidery hoop, the day before, and so I left her a parting gift of one of my good plastic hoops…just an 8-inch hoop, not quite as big as the 12″ hoop she had been using, but I thought it might help her to tension her fabric better (if you look at the photos of her work, you’ll notice that her fabric is badly puckered and distorted by the tension of her stitches.)
I asked Naomi to write her postal address down for me, and I look forward to corresponding with her when I get back to Australia, maybe send her some embroidery goodies, books and such, because, despite the very different sort of work that we do, I felt such a kinship with this remarkable young woman who, in a money-and-gold-crazed mining town, and with very limited resources, has managed to nurture a serious love for the craft.