I’m no Project Runway hopeful, but I’ll never forget learning the craft of sewing from both of my grandmothers or getting my first sewing machine for Christmas as a little girl; The feeling I get from wearing something I’ve created always keeps me coming back for more. That’s why I knew the local artisans and I would get along just fine and that the question of making a local dress for myself wasn’t if but, “What colors?”
The conservative nakwas are traditionally made in bright colors and designs to symbolize the vibrant environment in which the Ngäbe people live. The dientes- the teeth- are the triangles that stand for mountains and the rayas- the stripes- are for the rivers. You really can’t get too bright with these dresses, and it seems like every color goes together.
Though the nakwa is still worn in other regions of the Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé, it’s mainly used for traditional exhibitions here in Bocas del Toro. Even armed with the knowledge that my dress would be more of a wall decoration than a useful piece of attire, I eagerly appeared early one Saturday morning to a group of artisans I had never met. After a quick introduction- they had no idea who I was or why I was there- I asked the women if they would teach me to sew my own nakwa. Sensing their slight hesitation, I pulled out the fabric that I had already bought and gave my best “Please help the poor gringa” smile that I could possibly muster.
Something must have worked because soon I found myself hiking the 2 + hour round trip each Saturday to work with my new friends. Multiple times I was sure that I was just finishing up, and multiple times, just like my Mamaw, my mentors just smiled and told me to redo the mess I had made while rushing.
Thanks to a few missed workdays, I didn’t finish my nakwa in time to wear it for a trip to the actual Comarca. Eager to show off my new creation (and to be done with it once and for all,) I enlisted help from an experienced local seamstress who happily took the temporary place of my mentors back in Bocas.
As it turns out, I’m not the only volunteer with an affinity for sewing, and my friend Katie and I both wore our own handmade creations the same day! Though I have a much greater appreciation for nakwas than I did before, I do admit that I’m excited to infuse some creativity into this beautiful tradition. I’ve seen simpler, much more flattering dresses in keeping with the principle design, and I’m all too excited to work on product development with my ladies. The creator and marketer in me is going a little crazy and I hope to have an update to share with you soon!