Bigirl Skirts is an Indigenous women’s monthly sewing day in Broome, Western Australia, that helps support the women involved, while reaching and inspiring many others living in the Kimberley.
Bigirl Skirts monthly meeting in Cable Beach, Broome WA
“Time to sew some skirts,” says Joyce Hudson, as she clears the table on her balcony.
It’s a Sunday afternoon in the far north of Western Australia, and a dozen Kimberley locals and several dry season visitors have gathered at the Broome house for the monthly Bigirl Skirts sewing day.
Despite being the middle of winter, the sun is beating down and the air is heady with the scent of frangipani. After a lunch of satays and freshly picked tomatoes, it’s time for the sewers to retreat indoors, under the comfort of the spinning ceiling fans.
Inside Joyce’s Cable Beach home, the kitchen table and lounge room are jam packed with machines, which whir like crickets chirring at dusk. Reams of colourful fabrics featuring bold designs are piled high on chairs and on the arms of couches.
The group works on machines that have come from various sources – two were donated by a TAFE college in Perth, while others have been offered up by sewers who upgraded their machines.
Handmade skirts made for and by Indigenous women
Today the cheery sewers will make 15 to 18 garments, taking their total count to more than 1100 since they began threading needles in 2012. Each completed item bears the label: ‘Bigirl Skirts – handmade in Broome’.
Co-founder Solange Rousset says some skirts are sent to remote communities to be sold for $10, while others are sold through Broome’s Australian Red Cross Shop. All the money collected is used to order more fabric and elastics.
“The large skirts are very popular with community women and sell at a great rate,” says Solange, who works in the health sector. “It’s not uncommon to see Indigenous women in Kimberley communities strolling around dressed in clothing from the not-for-profit outfit. “Some women love them so much they have 10 skirts.”
Indigenous women have been part of Bigirl Skirts from the start, explains Solange. Some of the Aboriginal ladies have kidney disease and are staying at a Broome hostel while they undergo treatment.
“It’s as much about making clothing as it is a regular get-together that provides a social outlet and activity for Indigenous women undergoing treatment far from home. We all enjoy the atmosphere on a Sunday – the talking, the homemade cake. And it’s a chance to catch up.”
Clothing made for life in the Kimberley, WA
Co-founder Joyce Hudson says her interest in the group began when she was volunteering at Broome’s Uniting Church Op Shop.
“Indigenous women would come in, but they couldn’t find what they were looking for,” says Joyce, a Broome-based linguist. “They would tell me that all the skirts were too short, too tight or too hot. They were looking for modest clothing, skirts that were wide and long enough to cover their legs when they sat on the ground. And they needed large pockets, big enough to hold their phone and some grocery items.”
Without any clothing stores selling this simple style of skirt in the Kimberley, Joyce started sketching designs. Together with Solange and two friends, the Bigirl Skirts team settled on a design made from two metres of fabric and 96 centimetres of elastic waistband, featuring two double-stitched patch pockets on the front.
“When we first made the skirts and trialled them in one of the communities, the women asked us to make the pockets larger, so we did. I usually cut the material and then one of our sewers, Lola Jones, takes the cut-outs home to sew the pockets on, then brings it back to be made.”
A welcoming community for Indigenous Kimberley women
From behind her sewing machine, Pingali ‘Mary’ Nellie reflects on what the group means to her.
“It’s nice to come along, doing all the sewing with the people here, talking, having cups of tea. We don’t have anything to do on Sundays, so I like to go sewing,” adds Pingali, who will stay in Broome until a renal dialysis chair becomes available in her hometown of Fitzroy Crossing, 400 kilometres east of Broome.
Three times a week Pingali is picked up by the Broome Renal Health Centre bus and taken for treatment, which involves being hooked up to a machine for three to four hours to cleanse her blood.
“Sometimes I feel dizzy and get a cramp. I watch TV and have tea and a sandwich. I want to go home but I’m not on the list yet.”
Fellow dialysis patient Dianne Manson, from Billiluna Aboriginal community, located 825 kilometres east of Broome, is also part of Bigirl Skirts. Today she’s busy ironing fabric that has been donated by a Melbourne-based friend of the group. The fabric is too stiff to make skirts, so it’s being used to make bags instead. Experienced dressmaker Lola Jones teaches Dianne how to make the tote bag by sewing simple French seams.
“This type of seam is really strong,” says Lola, who calls Broome home after her passion for the revival and maintenance of Aboriginal languages brought her to the Kimberley. “It’s great to be able to teach others a few things about sewing. And even if they can’t use a machine they can thread elastic or iron.
“Many of the Indigenous women who come along end up buying the skirt they’ve worked on – it makes them feel proud when their friends ask where they bought the skirt from.”