In northern Senegal, the picturesque city of Saint Louis is full of local art and boutiques. But the Atelier des Femmes is different, not only in that it teaches women of all ages and backgrounds how to sew and crochet, but also that it uses entirely recycled materials to make a wide variety of products.
The Atelier, run by a group called La Liane, which houses children and women in need, teaches women how to sew and crochet — all with recycled materials.
“Some women will say, ‘I know how to crochet, I know how to crochet,’ and as soon as they come here, they see because there’s really a difference between working with yarn and working with plastic bags,” Marietou Diop, an instructor at the atelier, says with a laugh. Youndou Niang, who runs the boutique every morning and crochets with plastic between serving customers, says the atelier’s use of plastic is helping the development of the country.
“By reducing the trash and mess, so we collect these plastic bags, we wash them, we cut them and we crochet,” Niang says.
Iness, who attends workshops four afternoons a week, cuts up a green plastic bag in a perfected pattern that results in a long “string” of plastic. She goes on to roll it into a ball and begin crocheting what could become a coaster or a small basket.
She says that putting Vaseline on the plastic helps make it easier to crochet.
Though she knew how to crochet before starting work at the atelier, she learned how to sew, as a beginner, from Diop.
“I had never sewed, actually. I didn’t even think I would ever touch a sewing machine. But when I came here for the first time I learned — right at that sewing machine there,” Iness says. As Iness sews batik fabric onto the edges of a placemat she’s making, her 10-month-old daughter is sound asleep on a bench in the boutique.
Once the women have finished their training, anything they make is sold in the atelier’s boutique and they receive a percentage of the profits. But beyond the money and skills they gain, these women say the sense of family in the atelier keeps them coming back.
“This is my family here. Here, we’re family. That’s all,” Iness says.
“There are a lot of people suffering and the association La Liane is always ready to help them,” Niang says. The association, in addition to housing children, helps women escape domestic violence. It also helps women, who had to quit school, return and pursue an education.
Niang is one such woman who left school to make a living cleaning houses. But after one of her bosses helped her pay for a year of school, she discovered La Liane, which not only helped her continue her studies, but later gave her a job of opening the atelier each morning.
“I see myself in the association,” Niang says, noting how her personal experience is reflected in every new woman brought to the atelier.
“Maybe that’s why I’ve stayed here so long,” she adds, noting that it has been almost a decade since she began working with La Liane.
But whether they spend only a few afternoons at the Atelier or work there daily, every woman who passes through leaves her mark in the community, and her products in the boutique.