10 - sarah brown and esterline voila


We’ve all heard stories of someone who visited a idyllic tropical paradise and never left. Meet Sarah Brown, the UK designer who has made that her reality in Sainte Luce Bay, Madagascar - and managed to do so by transforming the lives of the local community with a sustainable livelihood project. 

There are some places on earth that compel the wild in us; some people on earth who compel a fight against all the odds. Tôlanaro in Madagascar is one of those places; Brown and Voila are two of those people. Meetings happen a little differently in Sainte Luce village - as we hike for hours down a dusty path, with chameleons and lemurs meandering across our path along the way, we are soon greeted warmly by an entire village. It’s extreme remoteness provides a guise of a sanctuary against the bustling outside world for me, but for the community who live here, it proves a daily struggle. I sit down with Brown and Voila as they explain how they changed the course of their dying village by using their hands and recycled thread.


LILLI - How did Stitch Sainte Luce start?

SARAH – I came to Sainte Luce to work on the ACP during my summer holiday. There were so many women here who just didn’t have any opportunities at all that is seemed like there would potential project to give the women skills to make something and sell it to this market of volunteers that were constantly coming through, so that’s where it started. 

LILLI - Why did you choose embroidery?

SARAH – There was a tradition of embroidery here in Sainte Luce. Some of the older ladies learnt with the Lutheran Missionaries a long time ago. But they didn’t have the finances to buy the fabric and the thread, so it was something for many years they never capitalised on. Um, there just need to be a little bit of investment here to rescue those skills that were going to die out in Sainte Luce. And to just give some people the confidence because when we were staring the project a lot of the women who where interested came and said to us, well even if you did teach us to embroider we don’t know how to approach Bazaars we don’t speak English, you know how, how do we sell these things – so the project has become about that as well, not just teaching the skills, to do the practical work, but it’s about teaching women to basically run a business. Which is a big challenge but you know we are getting there.


LILLI - What inspires the design patterns?

SARAH – I mean women here love colour, there is not the same sense of colour that we have in Europe at all. People love wearing brightly coloured clothes, you see it all the time. In terms of image making, the first group worked on translating the aesthetics that were already here in the village into stitch. So we looked at traditional weaving patterns, we looked at reef making patterns, we looked at traditional hair plaiting as well- we also made with the first group lots of designs based on drawings of wildlife. Obviously, Madagascar is famous for wildlife. Most of the people who come to saint Luce want to see the wildlife. It’s great for conservation as well as the women start to talk about all these animals that before that never gave a second thought too.

LILLI - How important is being able to tell the communities stories through embroidery?

SARAH - We have looked at traditional culture and we have been looking particularly at traditional storytelling. Because this is very much an oral culture, people don’t write things down, most of my students are either illiterate or have very low level of literacy and we wanted to capture some of those stories – so the women will quite often come in and tell stories as they are working, now after they have told the story then they draw it out in their sketchbook to break it up into storyboard and then they embroider it.


LILLI - How has this project impacted the village?

SARAH – This is actually the only place in the village where a load of women can get together without husbands, so it becomes a sort of place where women know that they can come for support, particularly in the new class we have got a lot of very vulnerable women. We have widowed, we have disabled ladies, we’ve got women who aren’t married but have children. All the women who are working with us, all the women that have graduated with us have significantly increased their income and that allows them to make changes, quite big changes in their lives. We are also seeing people able to improve their housing, so we have got 6 ladies who have now built a new house with their embroidery money, so that eases overcrowding. We have got people being able to afford medicine who haven’t been able to afford it before, so people now trying to access the health services that are here, if what here isn’t enough then they are able to afford to go to Fort Dauphin.

LILLI - On a personal level, what has the experience been like for you?

SARAH – It’s incredibly moving to watch women who have basically nothing, and who have had no opportunities at all you give them a small opportunity and they take it with both hands. I have been lecturing for a long time in Textile design and I’ve never had students as hardworking as this because they’ve got a real incentive because that actually puts food on the table. It has been wonderful and humbling and inspiring, I always cry when I talk about this.