Stitch In Time
She took cooking and sewing classes, although she showed little interest in the latter. “I thought sewing was uncool, and just not for me,” Surette laughs, “I used to cart my mom’s old Elna to class and pretend to work. I never actually sewed a single stitch. For my final project for home economics, I took it to my friend’s mom and she sewed it for me. I got a distinction, and that was that.”
Surette was then accepted into the South African Army Women’s College in George, and while there she overheard another soldier talking about her plans to take a food-and-textile course at Pretoria Technikon the following year. Surette loved the sound of that and decided it was something she’d like to do.
“When I had the interview for the course, I had to show them my home economics marks from matric and that’s how I got in. I arrived at the sewing class, and my lecturer said, ‘Now take out your patterns, and remember to follow your grain lines’ . I had absolutely no idea what she was talking about. My lecturer realised I had no idea what I was doing, and took it upon herself to tutor me after hours so that I could learn to sew. I remember sitting and crying through the first and second term, because it was such a struggle. I had so much to catch up on, including the last three years of school.
“I persevered and worked hard though, and by my third year, I was succeeding. I ended up doing really well in my sewing and even won awards. It was absolutely wonderful, and such a satisfactory feeling, and that’s where my passion for sewing started.”
She began working with a high-end fashion store, altering garments for their clients, and says she gained a wealth of knowledge and experience while doing this. In 2003 Surette and her husband bought Elna in Mbombela, a franchise that sells sewing machines and related sewing equipment. Clients began asking about lessons and training on the machines, but the timing was not right for her to begin the academy just yet, she knew that it was a dream she would one day want to pursue though.
“I eventually started the Lowveld Sewing Academy about five years ago. We facilitate a full curriculum which is Seta (Sector Education and Training Authority) aligned. I love empowering women by teaching them how to sew.”
One of the most convenient aspects of the Lowveld Sewing Academy, Surette emphasises, is the flexibility it offers students. “No one is obligated to finish the full curriculum; they don’t sign a contract when they begin, we want them to enjoy sewing. We work around each student’s schedule, and give individual lessons. We make sure each one gets the special attention they deserve, and it’s only an hour a week. You only pay for the classes you attend.”
Maryna Britz, Surette Braack and Thelma Mlombo
Currently they have 35 students enrolled, and two full-time employees. Thelma Mlombo, is an instructor in KaNyamazane, where she heads up a branch of the Lowveld Sewing Academy which facilitates the same sewing curriculum. It works out perfectly as many of her students are not able to commute to Mbombela for lessons. Maryna Brits is assistant instructor to Surette and takes over from her whenever she has other matters to attend to.
I love to see my students making progress and achieving their goals. I want them to enjoy it as much as I do, I want to uplift them. It’s a wonderful feeling when you see them wearing something they have made, or when they walk out of here with a dress they’ve created and people ask them where they have bought it. That’s the ultimate compliment.
Many think that sewing is outdated and old-fashioned, but Surette begs to differ. “Sewing is alive, and well. Our goal is to lay a foundation for students to know how to sew”
“You can really help yourself by knowing how to do so, and even earn an income off it if you need to. I save so much money by being able to sew; I put up my own hemlines, make drapes, covers for my couches, duvet covers and quilts for my children. It is a bit more time-consuming, but it is so empowering to be able to do it yourself. There is such a sense of achievement that you feel when you can walk in to a room and say, ‘I made that myself’.”
Surette mentions that when purchasing a sewing machine from Elna, two lessons are given to the client on how to operate it, as part of the price. Her students receive a discount on machine purchases and they are accommodated in paying it off over a period of time. Other accessories are also sold, and they do alterations too.
Surette also facilitates lessons to those who already know how to sew, but want to learn how to do something in particular.
Moving forward she feels now that the Lowveld Sewing Academy is up and running, she would like to establish a one-stop sewing shop. Many of the aspects are already in place for it, but she feels that ultimately a client should be able to walk into Elna, and receive everything they could possibly need from sewing, without having to go anywhere else. This will include machines, accessories, lessons and training, repairs, and having other guest facilitators come in to teach special classes.