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Cushions weave their own story

Needs more cushions

Cushions with their own story to tell are being sewn by former refugees using artisan-crafted textiles in a new Wellington venture.

It is a project designed to support former refugees on their journey to financial independence and to bring the overseas textiles to a broader audience, both to keep alive traditional weaving skills and to provide sustainable income.

An alternative to mass production

Jill McKenzie, who describes herself as a cushion-obsessed interiors addict and blogger, was inspired by a United States organisation called Gaia for Empowered Women, where former refugees turn vintage and artisan-made textiles into accessories.

As a result, Jill founded Needs More Cushions as an alternative to generic, mass-produced homewares that often end up in landfills as interior fashions change.

We want to start a slow interiors revolution, like we’ve seen in fashion.

“There’s huge awareness now about the human and environmental cost of cheap clothing, which is great, but no-one talks about the impact of cheap homewares, which are just as harmful. We’d like to change that and we hope that our cushions are just what style-conscious but ethically-aware consumers are after,” she says.

Jill has sought out traditionally-made textiles from remote communities around the world. Current sources include Mali and Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) in West Africa.

Muna, centre, marks artisan fabric with chalk around a plastic template watched by Fairooz, left, a cross cultural worker at Red Cross who does interpreting when it is needed, and Needs More Cushions founder, Jill McKenzie, right.

Muna and Nubia’s story

One of the women who sews the cushions is Muna, a widow, who came to New Zealand as a refugee from Syria about three years ago.

Muna had years of experience sewing curtains and upholstery in Syria. She learned about Needs More Cushions through the Red Cross Pathways to Employment team following an approach Jill had made them. Language is often a barrier to employment for the refugee women, and Jill says their sewing skills are often overlooked.

As Muna speaks Arabic and only a little English an interpreter is arranged when she and Jill meet to discuss work.

Muna says her paid sewing work gives her emotional fulfilment because it makes her feel productive. She enjoys the sewing and also the stories behind the fabrics she works with. The extra income helps her support the four children who live with her.

She has five daughters and two sons in New Zealand, aged 14 to 29, with a further three children in Syria.

Muna also works five hours a week at Wellington’s Pomegranate Kitchen, a catering business that employs refugee women and is whetting local appetites for Middle Eastern food.

Nubia is another woman who sews for Needs More Cushions.

Originally from Colombia in South America, Nubia is an experienced seamstress and machinist.

She has worked and supervised in a number of garment manufacturing factories, making leggings, clothes and uniforms.

These textiles are made using age-old techniques that have been passed down through generations. The materials are often dyed by women and woven by men on narrow looms and the strips are hand-sewn to make a wide fabric. For this reason many cushions are limited edition ones.

Jill McKenzie hopes these cushions are just what style-conscious but ethically-aware consumers are after.

Cushions are made in two sizes: square 50 cm x 50 cm, $135; and lumbar 50 cm x 30 cm, $120. They include a cruelty-free Fairydown brand feather inner.

Cushion covers can be bought without the inner at a discount.

Each cushion came with a thank-you card signed by the person who sewed them.

There will also be a gift voucher system so the recipient can choose the cushion they want.

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