Workshop teaches students to sew Navajo skirts
SHIPROCK — The sound of sewing machines filled a classroom in Diné College's north campus Sunday as participants learned how to sew traditional Navajo skirts during a weekend workshop.
Brenda Purley placed straight pins to pleat her skirt, which was made from green fabric with a peacock feather print.
"I like green and I have a lot of green tops," Purley said of the material she'd selected.
Students learned steps for making the garment, which Navajo women once wore each day but many now wear for ceremonies and special occasions.
Purley, a Shiprock resident, remembered as a child seeing her paternal grandmother sewing skirts, but using a different technique.
"I like this one, it's easier," Purley said of the method taught in that class.
The class was organized by the Office of Miss Navajo Nation and the college's Navajo Cultural Arts Program, which supplied cotton fabric and sewing kits.
Miss Navajo Nation Crystal Littleben and Sheryl Benally, administrator for the cultural arts program, learned alongside three students.
"When I was doing this – the gathering, the pinning – it was very calming to me," Littleben said while showing the blue fabric she was sewing.
Wilfred Jumbo, who taught the workshop, became interested in sewing after watching his mother sew attire for his sister, Winifred Jumbo, who was Miss Navajo Nation 2010-2011.
He does not follow a pattern for making skirts, but uses the method he learned from his mother.
In addition to teaching that process, Jumbo talked about the significance of Navajo skirts and how the current style – consisting of three-tiers of cotton, satin or velveteen fabric – evolved from traditional Mexican skirts.
"People say it's for grandmas, but it's not," Jumbo said about today's perception of the skirts.
Eliseo Curley was careful to guide a piece of fabric through the Brother sewing machine he borrowed from his sister.
"It shows who you are as a Diné person," he said about the garment.
Curley can hand stitch, but this was the first time using a sewing machine.
"I thought it was going to be uneven or sewn off here and there, but I think I'm doing alright," Curley said about his skirt, which was covered in a green and purple diamond pattern.
With three sisters, Curley said he will give the skirt to whichever sister asked first.
Group members teased him though, saying he was going to toss the skirt in the air and he will marry the lady who catches it.
Jaime Begay drove from Coalmine Canyon, Arizona, to attend the workshop because she wanted to see if a similar class can be utilized by the health initiative project she works for in Tuba City, Arizona. That, and she wanted to learn how to sew.
Among the challenges was operating the sewing machine, she said.
"I still don't know what all of these are," Begay said about the stitch knobs on the device.
Although it was her first time sewing, she was first to finish her skirt, a tan fabric covered with butterfly prints.
"It's a sense of accomplishment. You are making something with your own hands and not having to buy it. Also, I like these types of skirts," Begay said.
Littleben, who was the project coordinator for NCAP prior to winning the Miss Navajo title last September, said the program's purpose is academic and community outreach, both designed to transfer cultural arts knowledge between generations.
The skirt-making workshop was the last in a series that started in June and offered classes for powwow breast plate making, Navajo sashbelt weaving, silversmithing and leather feather wrapping.
Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.