African by design

Sherie Holder-Olutayo,

Added 11 November 2012


Violet Davis has always lived by one motto in her life: “To always have something to fall back on.” It wasn’t something she talked about loosely, but it was something she preached and lived. Despite the fact that she spent the majority of her years as a teacher, she always worked hard in other areas of her life. “Since 1971 I was teaching. I taught at a number of schools, including Christ Church High School. There I did my first training in home economics. I started to teach at the then St James Mixed School, and taught there for about four years,” Violet said. “Then I went to Erdiston Teachers’ Training College. Upon completion of that, I was working at Charles F. Broome, where I taught from 1982 to 1989.” After her stint at Charles F. Broome, Violet was recruited by the British government to teach at a school in Hackney, England. “I was attached to Mandeville Primary School. While there, I took the opportunity to do some studying to improve myself. I did courses like developing management, educational management, technology and design and mixed media arts and craft,” she said. “I returned to Barbados and was then asked to join Springer Memorial School.” But it was during her time in England that Violet developed a love and passion for African fashion. “Living in England, I got a feeling of what it was like when I saw the African women in their outfits. They looked so elegant and regal,” she recalled. It was then that Violet, who always used to sew, decided to try her hand at making African-style clothing. Since African clothing tends to be very visual with distinct and intricate patterns, Violet decided to create her own patterns using Styrofoam cups, basket covers, even things in nature she would use. “I design from scratch. Normally I would decide what colour I want and then design my pattern and create a stencil because I want the pattern to be uniform,” Violet said. “Using the stencil I’d print eight to ten yards of fabric to make sure I have enough and then I’d make the outfit.” What makes Violet’s designs even more remarkable is that she is basically self-taught. “Sewing for me was a natural thing. From when I was a girl, I would just get fabric and cut out the dolls clothes and get the needle and sew it,” Violet said. “But there was this lady ‘Mummy Jonesie’ or Ermine Miller, who was a seamstress, who would teach me certain things. Over time I would attend various little classes because you never know everything – you are always learning. That constant learning is something Violet used to stress to her pupils prior to her retirement from Springer Memorial earlier this year. “I loved working with the slower kids because they are the ones who need the help and they are the ones who tend to deviate from society,” said the remedial reading specialist. “I wanted to give them the opportunity to be meaningful people in society.” Even though she has stepped away from the school, Violet still continues to tutor students for Common Entrance and CXC in various subjects. Teaching, she says, is something she will never get away from. But making African clothes has been a passion that she’s nurtured over the years. “I tend to do the African style clothing for both male and female; the headpieces, and the bags,” she said.  “Last year’s Roots Experience winners were wearing my designs. I won Roots Experience four times and I also won three gold awards at NIFCA for textiles and needlework.” Her designs have even caught the attention of the Barbados Investment & Development Corporation, which is sponsoring Violet to be part of a project that teaches them how to work with leather and other craft items. So at 60 and retired, Violet is busier than ever and she wouldn’t have it any other way. “[Making these clothes] is how I relax because I’m doing this at my own speed,” she says. “I still do my lessons and prepare children for common entrance and for CXC language and literature. The staff at school warned me that despite the fact that you’re not at school I would still be called on. While she’s enjoying creating these African-inspired pieces, Violet will always have a passion for teaching. “A lot has to do with what you do with your time before you retire,” she said. “It means you have to plan with a future in mind and do something that you can fall back on. I encourage even my students to do that, to acquire some sort of skill. I do my own carpentry, tiling and I even paint my house myself. Maybe that’s why I’m on my own – I’m too independent. But when I finish making a piece and hang it on a hanger and I say, ‘Umm’, that’s when I’m satisfied.”


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