In June and July, the O’odham Piipaash Language Program (OPLP) held two, four-week classes for O’odham women to learn the skills for making a traditional O’odham dress. One class was for beginners and the other was for intermediate seamstresses.
“The class had been offered in the past,” said OPLP Multimedia Specialist Helema “Lema” Andrews. “We’ve had many requests to do another class, but for reasons here and there it wasn’t feasible at the time. I did the baiuka (beading) class last year, and I wanted to add to that with dressmaking, then next year maybe sandal making, to give the Community women a chance to learn how to make traditional outfits and accessories.”
Andrews asked Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community member Priscilla “Beanie” Jay to help teach the sewing part of the class, while Andrews incorporated the language lessons. Andrews taught the traditional O’odham words for greetings, colors and materials, such as Sosomakud (sewing machine), Iks (material), I:pud (dress) and the class favorite, bobbin—which was still “bobbin,” but the class would say it with a thick O’odham accent and laugh.
Begin with the Basics
The beginner’s dressmaking class started off focusing on the sewing machine. The ladies learned how to use the machine, make basic measurements and select material. Jay shared some information and history about how O’odham clothing has evolved throughout history, as settlers came to the area and as the people were introduced to new materials and styles. The dresses went from bark skirts to the satin dresses worn for performances and the traditional muslin top and plaid skirt worn for traditional ceremonies.
Jay even learned as she was teaching. She ran into OPLP Language Instructor Maria Garcia, who gave her a brief history lesson on the O’odham traditional dresses. Garcia explained to Jay that wraparound dresses for babies and little girls were called ali i:pud (baby dress).
“They wore it up to a certain age,” said Jay. “She (Garcia) didn’t say which age, but I think when the girls started to develop, then they changed to the blouse.
When you think about it, my grandmother and many other grandmothers had kids when they were 13 and 14 years old; they changed to the blouse because there was more room to nurse and work, because it was more puffy and pelted. The one-shoulder dress was for special occasions like a wedding; then the older women went back to wearing the wraparound.
“It’s fun to research some of the history and learn about how the dresses changed,” explained Jay. “It also reminds us to keep it traditional, and don’t get too much into the satin and those kinds of materials.”
Learning from Each Other
Jay’s knowledge of dressmaking didn’t come from only one person, it came from a community. She learned how to sew from her grandmother the late Daisy Baptisto; her mother, the late Ethel Baptisto-Parchcorn; and her aunt Shirlene Salazar.
“I have gotten help from other ladies in the Community,” said Jay. “Valerie Schurz has given me tips; if I am thinking about something, I will ask her a question and she will help me. Audrey Santo taught a class long time ago, so there is a little bit of what she does in how I sew today. I was lucky that I paid attention; just like with anything, all the ladies in the class will get better if they keep doing it. I can probably say I’ve made hundreds of dresses when I think back to all the ceremonies. My daughter has danced in so many [ceremonies], and I always made [her dresses].”
Jay said every little girl should have a dress when she is growing up. “If you start making [dresses] when [the girls are] little, they get used to it, so [when] they get a little bit older and start dancing, they will be used to wearing them,” Jay explained.
During the class, the women spent their evenings making a skirt for themselves or their daughters from a plaid or solid material. They then made a blouse out of muslin, cutting out patterns and sewing the pieces together. In the end they had a traditional O’odham dress.
During the last week of class, the students each crafted a pair of gigidkam su:sk (sandals). Assistant Director of Cultural Resources Roberta “Bobbie” Carlos came in and taught the women how to make the sandals. Many of the ladies had a hard time cutting the thick leather hide for the soles of the shoes, but after cutting their pieces it was smooth sailing from there.
The students really enjoyed themselves, and a few expressed that they learned a lot from the dressmaking class.
“I really liked [the class]; I didn’t know anything about sewing, so I am very proud of my skirt. I’ve been trying to ask my mom for a sewing machine,” said Elena Tarango. “Once per cap comes around, I will get my own sewing machine. I think it’s something I can get into. I like being here with the ladies, getting to know other ladies and seeing what they’re making.”
Jonell Kochamp also enjoyed the class. She said, “Beanie and Bobbie were very helpful and didn’t mind us asking lots of questions. I still need help with the O’odham words, but I’ll keep practicing. Now that the class is over and I have my patterns, I plan on using my new skill to make dresses for my nieces and daughter. I can’t wait for the advanced class!”
“Priscilla was a really good instructor, and I’m glad I asked her to help me with this project,” explained Andrews. “Once we started, teaching seemed like it came natural to her, and I think the students really enjoyed her sewing knowledge as well. She made the process seem really easy.”
Andrews added, “I’d just like to say thank you to Priscilla Jay for helping me with this project, as well as Raina Thomas, Daryl Lynn Jay, Kasey Jay, and Bobbie Carlos for her expertise at the end. Also thanks to the OPLP for allowing staff to hold summer classes. It really is a blessing to be able to learn things that keep us connected to the past. And last but not least, thank you to the ladies who participated in my first class. You all did an awesome job, and I hope you continue to use this newly acquired skill.”
The next class will be an intermediate class in August that will focus on design and appliqués.
“The response for the beginner’s dressmaking class was really good—we had a waiting list of 30 people,” said Andrews. “Because the response was so great, we’ve decided to extend the class into the fall to give those ladies a chance to participate as well. Unfortunately, the class will not be advertised and we are no longer taking names.”