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Ghana Boosts Dressmaking to Create Jobs
By Amy Ascherman
ACCRA, Ghana – The small shack beside Marjorie Patterson’s house encloses evidence of a hard day’s work. Bags overflow with the bold prints of traditional African fabrics. Tattered, faded posters of the latest Ghanaian fashion trends are posted on the walls. Scissors, pins, and measuring tape are strewn near two old sewing machines.
“When I was small, my dream was not to be a designer,” said the 30-year-old seamstress. “I wanted to be a pilot. But God didn’t give me that. I left high school and couldn’t learn more.”

So Patterson, (featured right) began an apprenticeship with an established seamstress. After three years, she learned to cut and sew kabas and slits, the traditional Ghanaian dress, ensuring herself a job and income.

 In a country with an estimated 25 percent unemployment, the Ghanaian government and local NGOS are trying to help more women into dressmaking careers. Nearly 40 percent high school graduates don’t go on to college. 

“As a government, what we are trying to do is to build more vocational schools at subsidized rates, to ensure that people get training,” said Minister of Information Zita Okaikoi.

Authorities also negotiate with the Ghana National Tailors and Dressmakers Association (GNTDA), lowering their taxes in exchange for less expensive apprenticeships for tailors and dressmakers. But for many students, the price of training is still too high.

Nor is learning to sew the same as succeeding in the modernizing world of Ghanaian fashion.

“It is a practical something, what we do,” said Armah Adu Ibrahim, 56, GNTDA’s national coordinator. Nearly 40,000 members offer practical sewing skills to over 600,000 young people.

 “You are trained to cut, sew and deliver, so that you can make money and support your family,” he said. “If you want to continue to know how to design, there are other schools you can attend to further your education.”

But it’s not easy to make time to learn, said seamstress Irene Nortey, 43. “There was no money for me, so I had to take care of myself,” she said. “I just dropped everything and started sewing for some money.”

Nortey eventually began vocational school for dressmaking, but said she lacked the money to finish. She left her apprenticeship after just three months. “I didn’t take much time there, so I didn’t learn that much there,” she said. “But the pieces I have from each experience, I just put together. That’s how I became a seamstress.”

After meeting the head designer of Dreams, a local fashion line, Nortey became the company’s first seamstress. Six years later, she is still with the designer label, which she believes is one more opportunity to learn. “It is not the final step,” she said. Right now, I’m just working and trying gain from my experiences.”

After seven years of schooling and two and a half years with the company, fellow Dreams seamstress Naomi Hayford, 27, agreed that the job provided an opportunity to grow. “Most seamstresses want to be designers, but I think for a seamstress to do this they need to work under a designer for more education.”

Hayford said that, after three years at Ramina Wear Fashion School in Accra, she was still reliant on patterns, unable to cut free-handed.

At Kaneshie, the second-largest market in Accra, hundreds of seamstresses and tailors work side by side. The demand for modern clothing, less restrictive and more comfortable than traditional attire, is on the rise. Those who can’t keep up with new trends lose business when dissatisfied customers turn to other dressmakers – and there are many to choose from. 

Anne-Marie Adoley Addo, 38, owner of Jill Boutique and designer of her own line, Jill Besia, recognizes why seamstresses must expand their dressmaking capabilities. “If someone comes to you and wants a western skirt but in a traditional African print, a seamstress should know how to do that.”

 That’s why aspiring designers like Belinda Ofosuhemaah 26, look to the media for inspiration.

“I get ideas from celebrities like Kimora (Lee Simmons) and Beyoncé, ” Ofosuhemaah said. She also watches popular designers, like Versace.

Internationally-recognized local designer Kofi Ansah recognizes the growing interest in Ghanaian fashion as an opportunity to help the local economy, but fears inadequate training and poor knockoffs will harm Ghana fashion’s growing international reputation.

“There are a lot of people [in Ghana] who are not designers, who are just dressmakers,” he said. “For them it’s just a moneymaking thing. They take the fabric and then the cut off corners. In presenting their work to the world as African designs they have done us a lot of damage.”

Patterson creates what she calls “obroni” wear (obrani is the local term for foreigners). Through both media and the requests of American students studying in here, Patterson has learned to sew everything from hooded jackets to bubble skirts. Her work is popular; business is booming.

After three years of training and 10 years of work, the profits from her self-taught designs will allow her to achieve a new dream: to establish her own certified company. “My company will be called Marjorie Fashions,” she said, “and I will open it soon.”

 Amy Asherman can be contacted at livewire@journalism.nyu.edu

Photo of Marjorie Patterson by Amy Asherman