Seated cross-legged on the floor, Fensy Feirani Mansur pins a batik appliqué of a shadow puppet character onto a tote bag. She stitches the appliqué on, making sure her whip stitches are evenly spaced, even as she chats amiably with her circle of friends. They have all gathered to make appliquéd tote bags for sale in Chow Kit, Kuala Lumpur.
Sewing patchwork and appliqué are new skills that Fensy and her friends have recently picked up at Umie Aktif, a non-profit social enterprise that aims to empower women in Chow Kit by opening up new opportunities for them to earn an income.
“Many women living around Chow Kit are marginalised and earn a small income. They include single mothers, refugees and the underprivileged who have difficulties making ends meet,” says Lawrence Anak Abus, who co-founded Umie Aktif with his housemate, Nik Sin Nik Man in 2016.
The idea to set up the social enterprise was first mooted when Nik Sin and Lawrence were volunteers at Yayasan Chow Kit Kids (CKK), an organisation which helps disadvantaged children in Chow Kit, home to Kuala Lumpur’s most marginalised and underprivileged communities.
They learnt that most of the CCK children’s mothers did not have a steady income. Some of the children are being raised by single mothers who have to take on more than one job to make ends meet.
Fensy, for example, was a nasi lemak trader in Cheras, Kuala Lumpur. But due to stiff competition, she gave up the business and switched to selling homemade biscuits and chips. Her husband is an odd job worker and their combined income is insufficient to feed their five children.
“While these women are domestically talented, they lack confidence to market their products. We decided to step in and teach them how to sew,” explains Nik Sin, a surveyor for the Department of Survey and Mapping Malaysia.
The duo wanted to help the Chow Kit Kids’ mothers use their skills for better returns. So, they decided to teach the women to sew, except that they did not know how to sew.
Turning to tutorials on YouTube, they managed to pick up some basic stitching techniques they could impart to the women.
“As many women cannot afford sewing machines, we opted to teach them simple hand-stitch techniques including appliqué and patchwork. Plus, sewing tools like needle, thread and scissors are affordable. For their first project, the women used recycled goods and leftover fabric,” recalls Lawrence, a lecturer with a private college in Petaling Jaya.
Umie Aktif sewing classes – held every Wednesday night – were conducted along the quieter streets of Chow Kit. For two hours under the dim street lights, 40 women learnt how to make the patchwork and appliquéd bags and blankets.
Their first project – making monster plush toys – were posted on Umie Aktif’s Facebook page (www.facebook.com/UmieAktif). The toys were sold for between RM20 and RM50, and were soon sold off.
“Through word-of-mouth, we managed to sell off their goods. The mothers were overwhelmed, especially when they received their money. It gave them a sense of gratification, and confidence, to improve their sewing skills,” explains Lawrence, adding that most women work on their sewing projects from home.
Today, Umie Aktif has 15 mothers from Chow Kit under their wing. Since last month, sewing classes have been held at the vicinity of Buku Jalanan Chow Kit, an NGO that runs literacy classes for the poor and children.
During the workshop sessions, Nik Sin, Lawrence and other volunteers monitor the quality of the women’s work. They would also brainstorm for new ideas.
These days, the Umie Aktif women have expanded their range of handmade items to table runners, key chains, fabric game sets, plush toys and travel pillows. Their handmade items are now sold at bazaars around the Klang Valley, priced from RM10 to RM200.
Each mother earns 60% from the sale of her handmade item. 20% goes into an emergency savings fund, and the balance is used to buy material for their next project.
“Instead of recycled fabric, Umie Aktif now uses batik sourced from Kelantan and Terengganu. Occasionally, we receive orders for plush toys, pencil cases and appliquéd table runners,” says Nik Sin who is from Kota Baru.
Thanks to Umie Aktif, Fensy now earns between RM500 and RM1,000 each month. She feels relieved as she is able to supplement the family income.
“Extra money is saved for my children’s education. I can finally buy better clothes and nutritious food for my family,” says Fensy, whose children are between five months and 15 years old.
To further empower these women, Umie Aktif has also started organising English classes for these mothers and their children. So far, over 15 women have signed up for these free lessons, which began in February last year. The two-hour classes, also held at Buku Jalanan Chow Kit every Saturday, are conducted by college lecturers who volunteer with Umie Aktif.
“With basic English speaking skills, they are able to communicate confidently, especially when selling their hand-crafted items at bazaars,” explains 31-year-old Lawrence.
The success of the Umie Aktif Chow Kit project has motivated Nik Sin and Lawrence to expand the programme. There is now UmieAktif 2.0: Kampung Melayu Ampang, offering free sewing class for homemakers in Ampang.
Last September, they partnered with the Kelantan Women Development Centre to organise Umie Aktif 3.0: Dewi Kelantan, a bi-monthly sewing training workshop to increase the income of Kota Baru housewives.
There are also plans for a weaving workshop for underprivileged women in Bintulu, Sarawak.
“The mothers from Chow Kit have come a long way. From individuals struggling with finances, they are slowly attaining financial independence. They are able to speak English and can confidently sell their products at bazaars. It is an achievement for these women,” says Lawrence, who hopes to open an Umie Aktif craft store soon.