So you want to be a volunteer!
07 June 2003
by Ruth Segal

By AESOP volunteer Ruth Segal

AESOP's request for a swimwear pattern-maker (an advertisement in the Sydney Morning Herald*) jumped out of the newsprint. I spend most days doing just that. I am a freelance pattern maker and business advisor to the clothing industry. Swimwear and lingerie are two of my specialisations.

AESOP's efficiency astounded me. My application was processed and my assignment to the Cook Islands was finalised within days, even to having a telephone interview and receiving my password to undertake a web-based cross-cultural training course.

Ellena, the owner of the business in the Cook Islands (AESOP's client), welcomed us at the airport in Rarotonga. A former beauty queen, Ellena was resplendent in her original hand painted dress with a beautiful ‘eis’ – a circle of fresh flowers - on her head. She set a positive tone and had a frangipani welcoming eis for us too.

The following morning Ellena took me to see the factory before we sat down to assess the assignment and organise the workplan. I had expected sewing machines under trees and I was relieved that this was not the case. Swimwear requires complicated machinery so the challenge was to make good swimwear with the machines and components that were available.

The relatively simply process of rolling paint over an intricately carved board prints the fabric and the designs encompass traditional symbols of Cook Islands’ culture. The wet cloth is then spread out on the grass to dry before going into a machine that sets the print. Ellena’s small swimwear range needed to be updated, restyled and altered to incorporate bra support. The fit also needed upgrading. This brief was expanded to include new styles.

Initially the staff seemed wary but this attitude changed as they realised that I was keen to improve the range and show them how to use different methods to make their work easier. I introduced the cutter to a new method of cutting small pieces suitable for bra manufacture. She is a very fast learner. I had to adapt to the fact that new attachments, which increase output, were not as important as employing more people.

The machinists were great fun, telling me that they gossiped about me in Maori! The banter that followed led to great merriment and made for a good working relationship. We all worked like demons, six days a week to make a rudimentary collection suitable for sale in the Tahitian market.

When Ellena took the new collection to Tahiti I was gratified to learn that the new samples sold out there! Ellena has commissioned a new carved board with Tahitian design for printing the extra fabric required.

I spent the last week of the project reinforcing Ellena’s new found pattern-making and grading skills and further reassuring her that she can do all that is needed to make good garments. I also offered methods that could assist her to transfer manufacturing knowledge to the appropriate members of her staff.

* AESOP remains very grateful to the Sydney-based charity FIDO (Friends in Deed Organisation). FIDO generously provides AESOP with advertising space nearly every week in the Help Desk section of the Sydney Morning Herald. This has often enabled us to recruit hard-to-find volunteers

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