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Friday, 4th December 2020

Stitch Christmas stock has arrived – but what did it take and why does it matter?

By Rainie Schulte

As in every corner of the world, the women of the Stitch Sainte Luce Embroidery Cooperative have not been immune from devastating economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. As 2020 progressed, it brought personal challenges to the women trying to earn a living and unexpected logistical difficulties to SEED staff trying to get stock out of the country.

April 1st, 2020 should have been an exciting day for the Cooperative, as after eight years Stitch officially relinquished their funding ties to SEED and became an independent Cooperative. However, devastatingly, that very week saw the closure of Madagascar’s borders and tourists and residents alike left the country to return home due to COVID-19. Overnight the domestic market for the Cooperative disappeared. The Cooperative is estimated to have lost around a third of its potential income over the pandemic. As a result, for the first time since the project was introduced in 2012, the embroiderers are struggling to earn sufficient income from their embroidery.

Clerie-with-her-baby-.jpg
Many women, like Clerie, use their Stitch income to support their children

As one Stitch member explains, “For a single mum like me, this time is harder than usual. We try to sell spaghetti and bread, but you wake up early to earn only two cups of rice for your children for a day.”

To make up for the loss of Stitch income, many have had to return to mahampy weaving, though the monthly income from selling mats alone does not compare what they have earned since joining the Cooperative. On top of the dramatic drop in income, the women must now also work longer hours doing more manual work outdoors to collect, transport, and treat the mahampy reeds. Even further, the local demand for mahampy mats has decreased because buyers are instead focussing on feeding their families during this economically challenging time. Prices of even the most basic of household essentials (rice, beans, and cassava) having increased in price by more than 30% due to the pandemic.

As another member of the Cooperative explains, “The impact of COVID-19 on our sales is so big, and it makes us go back to our old skills. Before Stitch, that was weaving and we wake up early in the morning to collect mahampy and do the whole process. We try hard to finish 10 mats in a month, but the price of all of it is only 28,000 MGA (£5.50). Compared that to what we earned before that is nothing.” In comparison, a purse takes around two weeks to stitch, the profit gained is 25,000 MGA (£4.90), and requires no hard manual labour or long hours.

Esterline, president of the Cooperative, in the Stitch studio after the onset of the pandemic

Despite the losses in the national market, the international audience has maintained some stability and Stitch continues to sell online via the Etsy store. This income stream from international sales has become a lifeline for the members of Stitch. So far this year, around 80% of Stitch sales have been abroad, compared to around 55% in previous years. However, returning volunteers would traditionally carry small packages of stock, enabling the women to receive the full profit for their stock rather than paying postage fees. However, with no volunteer couriers or flights in or out of Madagascar, the availability of stock quickly became low in the UK.

Amazing Christmas gifts including bespoke cushionsWith the most lucrative season being the months leading up to Christmas, we knew that low stock would significantly reduce the amount of income the women could generate. Transporting items to the UK quickly became a priority. With no international flights and freight very limited by complex restrictions, we began to reach out to contacts for assistance. We are incredibly lucky to have a long time Stitch supporter and agent of DHL Antsirabe, who has been generous with their time, expertise and funding. In mid-November we were able to send an eight-kilogram parcel of products to the UK to be sold online in time for Christmas. In just the short time since the arrival of the parcel, 22 items worth more than £470 have been sold.

It was a mammoth task to get stock from the isolated, rural village of Sainte Luce to the UK, but we are certain that it will provide essential income for the women over the coming months. It was well worth the wait – the stock is beautiful. Check out the Etsy store soon to get unique, handmade Christmas gifts before they’re all gone again!