Specializing in Spiritual Stitchery

South African's clerical vestments benefit AIDS ministries
August 31, 2004

Years ago, Jo Tyers sewed clothing to sell in a shop she owned in Cape Town, South Africa. Now an Anglican priest, she's sewing again, this time clerical vestments whose sale benefits a diocesan AIDS ministry.

"I've always been creative rather than artistic, and I've always loved sewing. I loved handwork," she said during a recent visit to the United States. "For quite a number of years, I hadn't had a chance to do that. That creativity was sitting latent. So it was great when I started sewing again."
"I found in many ways my life has come full circle," she said.

A teacher, Tyers took a 10-year break to raise four boys. She spent part of that time running a shop, then returned to the classroom. She eventually began training for the ministry and became chaplain of an Anglican girls' school in Cape Town in 1998.

Her husband, Trevor, earlier had entered the priesthood as a second profession as well. The former businessman had served as archdeacon of Cape Town and was chaplain at the diocesan boys' school when Tyers was ordained.

The couple's schedule, with each working at a different school, was hectic. During a vacation, the two Tyers began considering life post-chaplaincies. For Jo Tyers, the idea of sewing vestments incorporating traditional African symbols and patterns gradually emerged.

Eighteen months ago, Tyers retired early from the girls' school and launched African Praise Church Vestments. She designs each vestment -- mostly stoles -- and several people help prepare, sew and machine-embroider the fabric.

The stoles use a finely printed blue, red or brown fabric as decoration or as a reversible lining. Often called "African print," or schweshwe, the fabric was introduced by missionaries who accompanied German settlers to South Africa in the mid-19th century.

"We grew up knowing it as `German print,'" Tyers recalled. According to custom, a groom has a dress made for his bride from this fabric, signifying her new status as a married woman.
"For a pure cotton fabric, it's quite expensive, but it's very popular with the African people," Tyers said. "It's quite a stiff fabric. When you buy it, it's like a thin cardboard. ... You have to wash it before you use it."

The print is a reminder of the days when she owned a shop. "I started with African print fabric. It was a fashion statement then," she said. "There was a sort of fashion craze for African print skirts. That's how I started out. I used to wash hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of yards of it. I'm back again with that print."

Women living with HIV/AIDS in Khayelitsha, a township on the outskirts of Cape Town, create the beadwork that decorates the stoles. A beaded AIDS ribbon is pinned to each stole. Some stoles also are reversible, with an AIDS symbol -- either a red ribbon or a cross with a ribbon through it -- embroidered on the reverse side, so they can be worn as a visible response to the AIDS pandemic.

While Tyers also crafts "traditional" stoles, much of her handiwork features African symbols or scenes. One stole, for example, depicts an African warrior's shield and spear. A traditional image, it can be considered symbolic of the sword and shield of the Spirit, Tyers said. More recently, Tyers also began marketing clerical shirts of African print fabric or another South African poly-cotton fabric that comes in various colors. Stoles cost about $125, shirts $40-$50, depending on the fabric.

The African-patterned stoles are brighter in color than traditional ones -- similar to the colors of Guatemalan stoles found in America, Tyers said. Response mostly has been "very positive," she said.

Tyers donates a portion of proceeds to Fikelela, the AIDS project of the Anglican Diocese of Cape Town. The project, whose name means "reach out," runs a center for HIV-positive children and AIDS orphans; fosters support groups; trains church members to provide home care for those with AIDS; developed an AIDS-awareness and prevention course for youth; and encourages church-based HIV/AIDS task forces to mobilize Anglicans to make a positive difference in the AIDS crisis.

Seeking to expand her market, Tyers recently displayed her vestments at an annual Christian Resources Exhibition in Esher, England. She then joined her husband in the United States, where he had been leading a Rotary exchange of young professionals from South Africa.

The couple spent several weeks visiting friends and family in the United States, Bermuda and Canada. During the trip, Tyers sought to make connections to market her stoles in the United States. She also presented one to a friend, the Rev. William Bailey, upon his ordination to the vocational diaconate in the Diocese of Newark.

Back home in Cape Town, Tyers will continue developing her business as well as serving part-time at a local church. Her husband, also retired from his chaplaincy, serves part-time at another nearby congregation.

Looking back at her career shifts, Tyers said, "I have no regrets. I think that God's timing is good timing. You don't see what is going to happen in the future." Making vestments, she noted, is not something she does instead of ordained ministry but as part of it. "The vestments are spiritual, as well. God is glorified through beautiful vestments ... offering our best to God."

For more information about African Praise Church Vestments, contact the Rev. Jo Tyers at africanpraise@telkomsa.net. To learn more about Fikelela, visit http://www.fikelela.org.za/.

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