Ever fancied sewing a dress or plaiting thatch, but not sure how to get the stitches just right?
Just spend time with the ladies of East End and I promise you will not only gain knowledge, but you’ll also get a warm embrace, some lessons in Cayman’s cultural history and maybe a taste of the best food on island.
The club started in March when Carmen Conolly, 75, felt heartbroken about the people in Haiti who were suffering after the earthquake a month earlier, and she prayed to find some way to assist them. She contacted other women in the district and the crafting club took off from there.
Subsequently, “It was suggested that the 12 women continue to make things for people in the community,” especially for people in need, said Mrs. Conolly. “There is no teaching, but if anyone wants to come and watch and learn, they are quite welcome.”
The women learned the basic crafts from their parents and grandparents, but most credit their advanced skills to Teacher Harrison.
How they learned
Most of the ladies sitting on the porch at the East End MLA office enjoying the cool sea breezes and knitting, sewing, plaiting, crocheting or just looking to learn, tell a story of honing their crafting skills by watching the older folks.
“They didn’t show us how to do any works, we learned just by watching,” said Mrs. Conolly. “There was nothing else to do and I really was interested and loved to work.”
Mrs. Conolly grew up in Gun Bay watching her parents do whatever they had to do for survival. Her aunt was a dressmaker who sewed for people in the community, and as a child Carmen was so fascinated she kept a keen eye on what was taking place.
“My aunt had a room where she did the sewing and along with my cousin, I learned to cook and do most things. Sometimes she would give us the needles to show us how to make button holes, but most of the time we watched and gathered the cloth scraps when she was finished to make doll dresses.
“Clothes those days were sewn from flour and chicken feed sacks which had a pretty print,” she said, adding that sacks were bleached and washed before use. “As the years went by I learned to make wedding dresses, suits, pants dresses and so forth. The older folks did not cut by pattern, they just put the clothing on the cloth and cut around it. That is just how I do it today,” she said.
Mrs. Conolly’s mother also made sisal hats, which were shipped to Jamaica and sold for two shilling sixpence. “Sisal was growing in abundance along the coastline and inland. It was gathered, crushed, soaked in water for a few days to soften, dried, combed out, plaited and sewn to make bed slippers. In them days there was no dye so the ladies used crepe paper soaked in water to get the different colours,” she said.
Mrs. Conolly also learned to make hats from sisal mosquito brushes and jewellery boxes, which she would keep because folks had no money. “I don’t think anyone in East End besides me works with sisal because when being prepared it itches.”
Most know the thatch rope was part of a Caymanian livelihood and mostly everyone did it.
Mrs. Conolly said her mother was hard working, raised cows, cut bush, planted the grounds, cut wood, twisted rope, sewed and baked and everywhere she went she would take her daughter.
“My sister was the bookworm, but I liked the physical work and would help milk the cows,” she said.
Eventually, as she was not one to like plaiting thatch, Mrs. Conolly joined the craft ladies and learned to plait, make baskets, hats, brooms and crochet.
“I have made some beautiful artwork but my favourite is embroidering,” she said. Mrs. Conolly also does hardanger, a form of embroidery worked with a needle, and tatting, which she said she did not like because if she made a mistake it was too much trouble to take it out. Tatting is done by handcrafting lace to make decorative pieces.
She also embroiders underwater scenes such as the ten sails, though she has never dived in her life.
To keep the tradition alive, Mrs. Conolly visits the older folks in the district, taking something along when she goes and spending time praying with them.