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Later this year, over 100 girls and young women from one of South-East Asia’s most impoverished communities will receive a brand-new handmade dress – courtesy of some talented South Wairarapa locals and swathes of donated fabric.

In December, Martinborough resident and long-time crafter Annie Woodhams founded Stitch 4 Kids – a collective of sewers supporting charitable causes [at home and overseas] with handcrafted items made from second-hand or repurposed materials.

Stitch 4 Kids is currently hard at work on its first major project: Dresses for girls aged five to 14 in Timor-Leste, a small country with almost half of its 1.4 million citizens living below the poverty line.

The groups plans to make “at least 200” dresses by the end of March, which will be delivered to Timor-Leste by Her Excellency Felicidade de Sousa Guterres, the nation’s ambassador to New Zealand, in April.

To reach this goal, Stitch 4 Kids is appealing to the Wairarapa community for donations of fabric – as its previous supply, generously contributed by crafters New Zealand-wide, is already running low.

Woodhams said she first started planning Stitch4Kids in June last year while lying in a hospital bed – recovering from a stem cell transplant to treat an aggressive form of multiple myeloma.

“I felt like I needed a project, and I wanted to do something to give back to the community.

“I thought about how much I loved making little girls’ dresses. They’re like little works of art.

“I thought there must be a community group I could do some sewing for.”

Woodhams discussed the idea with daughter-in-law Jane Keig, who had previously worked for the Ministry of Defence and had travelled with the New Zealand Defence Force to Timor-Leste in 2019.

Keig helped her mother-in-law secure a meeting with Guterres in Wellington – and, moved by her accounts of daily life for young people in Timor-Leste, Woodhams pulled out her sewing machine and got to work. Within a few short weeks, she and her fellow sewers had completed more than 50 garments.

“I’m very much a believer in getting things done – rather than sitting around and talking about what needs to be done. So much is achievable if you step up and start something,” Woodhams said.

“Jane told me how beautiful Timor-Leste was – but the poverty really gets to you. Felicidade told us a lot of stories about what people go through, and it’s not good. Knowing that we can do something small to help, like giving 100 girls a brand new dress that’s been made especially for them, is a wonderful feeling.

“This project has been so exciting and fulfilling so far. And it feels good to be able to take the focus off myself.”

Woodhams relocated to Martinborough from Napier to be closer to whanau in August 2021 – but received her cancer diagnosis a month later.

A difficult 18 months followed: She began several courses of chemotherapy and eventually received her stem cell treatment – to help and prolong her remission period – at Wellington Hospital.

Some respite arrived in the form of WoRN Featherston Cloth Collective, a social group of sewers which lend their skills to help community groups in the region, such as the Cancer Society, and the maternity ward at Wairarapa Hospital.

Later in 2021, Woodhams attended one of WoRN’s weekly meetings at the Anzac Hall and immediately felt at home.

“At the time, I had a broken pelvis and was using a walker – so I didn’t get much sewing done! But it was wonderful to be amongst a group of like-minded women.

“They were so accepting and lovely – and have been very supportive throughout the cancer journey.”

Woodhams said WoRN got on board with the Stitch 4 Kids project right away, contributing “a whole cupboard” of cotton fabric. Donations came flooding in from the wider South Wairarapa community and around the country, with friends and contacts all too happy to “dig through their stash” and make a contribution.

After meeting with Guterres in December, Woodhams and three good friends from WoRN started sewing – and made 55 dresses. As at last Friday they had finished 70.

“All that wet weather over Christmas was a bit of a bonus!”

“We’re hoping to make 200 for Felicidade to take over. But, as we’ve made so many in such a short amount of time, we’re hoping for a lot more.

“If a handful of people can make two to three more dresses each, it’ll add up pretty quickly.”

As well as fabric, Stitch 4 Kids also welcomes sewers who want to contribute their own “works of art” to the project. Free patterns are available to download from the group’s website.

“Any dresses people want to make will be very gratefully accepted. They just need to be cotton, knee-length, and not too flimsy.”

Woodhams said she was “thrilled” with the support Stitch 4 Kids has received so far.

“So many people have gotten behind us – it’s made such a difference.

“Hopefully, there are a few people in Wairarapa who’ve got a whole room full of fabric they’re not using, and are keen to help us out!”

She said Stitch 4 Kids will continue to work on community-focused projects, either for those in need within New Zealand, or in a country with ties to New Zealand.

To make a donation to Stitch 4 Kids, contact Annie Woodhams at [email protected], or go to www.stitch4kids.nz for more information. The organisation does not accept cash donations.  

Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall is the editor of the Wairarapa Midweek. She has been a journalist for the past 10 years, and has a keen interest in arts, culture, social issues, and community justice.

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