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Thread by thread: An ode to the mananahi

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Uniforms, dusters, patched holes, and sewn sleeves—hiding in between the threads of everyday clothes are the graceful skill and craftsmanship of the mananahi. They are an indispensable facet in local communities with blushing brides-to-be, future prom queens, or really anyone looking for anything from a sharp suit to a costume flocking to their doors. Their years of experience handling the craft have amply awarded them with a distinct proficiency in putting design onto fabric.

Away from the fast fashion of overproduced store-bought clothes and the trendy private pleasure of do-it-yourself sewing, seamstresses who often lack formal training have long been materializing their perseverance, skill, and talent into people’s wardrobes.  With the popularity of homemade sewing, The LaSallian takes a look at the quaint and humble businesses of small-town tailors with needles that never dulled and hands heartfelt with purpose.

Through the needle’s eye

Juliana Dela Rosa recalls her experiences starting to sew at the young age of 16. Now 72, she cherishes her skill in tailoring, reminiscing about the time that she learned how to sew while doing work—sweeping outside a tailor shop for military uniforms. Little by little, she got into the craft. “Kasi pagka ginusto ng isang tao, may paraan. Talagang aano-hin mo na matuto ka,” she expounds.

(Because if a person wants to, there’s always a plan. You’ll really persevere to learn.)

The same goes for her sister-in-law, Luzviminda Vera Cunanan, who also started sewing at 16 for a barangay project. “Naisip ko na hindi naman po ako nakapag-aral. Kapag natuto ako manahi, kikita rin po ako ng pera…Pagtanda ko, meron akong alam,” she shares.

(I thought, because I did not study, if I learned how to sew, I can earn money…When I am old, I will at least know something.)

Cunanan first learned how to tailor menswear but found joy in making women’s clothes. With her mother and sisters being seamstresses, too, the strong familial support fueled her love for the craft even more. Relying on their own intuition, the years have blessed self-taught seamstresses with experience that improves their craftsmanship with each body they clothe.

Heart sewn on their sleeves

Seamstresses would work tirelessly from four in the morning until the wee hours of the night just to deliver their promise to complete an order before the deadline. This is their service to their communities—an obligation they happily embrace out of passion for the profession. “Pinagpapahinga na ‘ko ng mga anak ko. Sabi ko sa kanila, ‘Hayaan niyo na ‘ko. Dito ako masaya’,” expresses Dela Rosa.

(My children are already asking me to retire. But I told them, “Let me be. This is where I’m happy.”)

The value of their work certainly goes beyond tailoring everyday clothing for the average Filipino as well. The mananahi is also adept in tailoring other types of clothing and meeting bulk orders. Even without expertise in tailoring a particular kind of garment, seamstresses need only rely on their intuition to meet the requirements of their clients. Knowing this, the locals are assured that they can rely on the mananahi for whatever needlework they desire.

But if anything, it’s also the genuine commitment of seamstresses like Dela Rosa and Cunanan to fashion garments that seamlessly fit form and figure that attract most people to their craft. “Sasabihin ko sa kanila, ‘Pagagandahin ko kayo, pababatain ko kayo sa gagawin ko,’” Dela Rosa relays. She says that it is by working earnestly that seamstresses like her can gain the trust of their customers.

(I’ll tell them, “I’ll make you look beautiful and young with my work.”)

Not cutting corners

Even with the pandemic worsening in the country, it seems there is rarely a shortage in demand for the work of the mananahi. As Cunanan points out, with the population still enduring forced home-isolation arrangements, many have turned to online shopping as a form of pastime. However, seeing as the online platform cannot afford customers a chance to fit the apparel before purchase, people could only seek the help of the mananahi for repairs.

Indeed, these seamstresses have a certain acumen for sewing that could never even be replicated in the fast fashion industry. Cunanan has seen her fair share of clients lamenting over their struggle with ill-fitting store-bought clothes.

As she recounts, “Dinadala nila dito ‘yung kanilang mga nabibili. Mura nga, pero ‘di naman maganda ‘yung tahi [at] tela nila.”

(My other customers would bring their store-bought clothes to me for repair. Those clothes are affordable, but the tailoring and the fabric used are subpar.)

Although her fear of the virus remains, Dela Rosa was convinced she had to reopen her shop last November for the sake of her loyal customers. Since then, it’s been business as usual. “Kami na ang sumusuko din sa trabaho,” she exclaims.

(We already have to turn down work.)

But even on days when business is slow, Cunanan keeps herself productive by sewing ready-to-wear ternos, curtains, and cushions that she can later on sell to interested buyers. As she says, seeing her customers appreciate her works is one of the joys that she finds in being a mananahi. This is what motivates her to keep sewing, pandemic or not.

Finishing the seams

Ang hindi lang namin natatahi ay tao, pero lahat ng [klaseng] damit nagagawa namin,” Dela Rosa states.

(The only thing I can’t sew is a human but all the types of clothing we can make.)

Despite the years, the joy of working as a seamstress never tarnishes for the likes of the sisters-in-law, as Cunanan adds, “Kaya ako masaya, kapag nalapatan ko ‘yung isang tao, tuwang-tuwa sila at bumabalik ulit.”

(I am happy because when I make a perfect fit, my customers are happy and they come back.)

Having to spend their lives stitching a community together, Cunanan and Dela Rosa enthusiastically hope that future generations will also discover the wonders of sewing. “Kahit na degree holder sila or hindi [sila marunong magtahi], or may hilig sila sa fashion designing, mapapagkitaan nila ‘yan,” Dela Rosa encourages.

(Even though they are degree holders or not, or they don’t sew, or they are interested in fashion designing, they’ll earn from it.)

Coming from a family of seamstresses, both Cunanan and Dela Rosa hope that they can pass the needle on to their children. But until they tie their final knots, they remain ardent in embroidering love to their community, one garment at a time.

By Alexandra Simone Enriquez

By Kay Estepa

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