Launching a consumer apparel revolution, one stitch at a time

BEIRUT: Tucked away in a corner of Sanayeh, Layla Totah is planning a revolution.

But instead of raging against the political process, her fight is with multinational corporations producing cheaply made clothes in sweatshop conditions.And rather than stage it with slogans and strikes, Totah’s revolution involves tea, cake and, most importantly, sewing machines.

Here in her living room in Beirut, Totah teaches sewing classes, guiding students to gain the skills they need to make their own clothes.

Totah began the classes in January, part of a decision to change the way she shopped after she moved to Beirut from London a year and a half ago. “I was buying clothes all the time,” she says. “And then I started thinking about buying clothes. I was hearing stories about sweatshops, and I wanted to stop buying from places that were evil.” After making her own clothes for a while, she decided she wanted to pass on the expertise.

The classes – with a price tag of $25 for five hours – cover a range of skills, starting from absolute beginner. Totah is adamant that even those who can’t thread a needle should not be discouraged, as she herself has only been sewing on a serious level for around three years.

“I think that’s the thing that puts people off, they think it’s much more difficult than it actually is.” And, she says, while it’s not as simple as buying your clothes ready-made, part of the pleasure is in the dedication the craft takes.

“It’s just like when you cook your own food. You do it for the joy of it, because you enjoy the process.”

The DIY trend has gathered momentum in the past 10 years in London, New York and other cities, and Totah is hoping it can catch on in Lebanon. Since the classes began, she has had a steady stream of interest garnered solely from word-of-mouth.

In an intermediate level class Thursday evening, Layla is teaching three students to create skirts and beach trousers from scratch.

Don Duncan, a 32-year-old journalist, says one of the best things about the class is the sense of achievement that comes with creating something you can take home with you. He decided to join the classes as a creative outlet from his day job.

“I wasn’t making anything with my hands, and I really wanted to change that,” he says. “It’s also really relaxing. And it’s more straightforward than I thought it would be. It’s a good boost to see that I’ve created something.”

For Claire Ross, busy making a polka dot skirt, one of the other great benefits is owning something unique. “I went to a party recently and counted three people who had the same dress as me,” she says. Her goal is to get to the point where she doesn’t have to rely on chain shops to buy clothes she likes.

The majority of the class’s attendees are, unsurprisingly, younger women, but Totah has had some older students. “They’re mostly women who want to relearn skills they once had.”

She is now branching out into classes for children, but her visions for the future are much bigger than simply reaching out to the next demographic.

“Ultimately, I’d like everyone to stop buying from multinational corporations, and they’ll all go out of business,” she says, before turning back to lead her consumer revolution, one stitch at a time.

For more information about the sewing classes, contact Layla at 71675702 or

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 04, 2011, on page 12.




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