The Sistagirls put the final touches on their outfits at the Batchelor Institute for the fashion show. (ABC News: Tom Maddocks)
A group of Aboriginal transgender women from the Tiwi Islands are learning to make their own clothing with a dream of selling their designs to tourists and locals alike.
In their first step towards developing a business, seven Sistagirls have undergone a two-week crash course on the mainland in textiles to create outfits they will model on the runway at the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair next month.
They have teamed up with local art centre Tiwi Design on the remote islands, about 80 kilometres north of Darwin, and are using the centre’s iconic screen-printed fabrics to create colourful outfits adorned with patterns that each tell a story of traditional life.
“Back at home we have a boatshed covered in sea life, exactly the same design as here, representing the ocean,” artist Margaret ‘Renee’ Kerinauia said.
“As long as we can keep carrying the old styles of the design on the fabric, we all love doing it.”
Pride in seeing culture reflected in fashion
The Sistagirls are using Tiwi Designs’ iconic screen-printed fabrics. (ABC News: Tom Maddocks)
Inside the classroom, shimmering fabric is strewn across desks and the rat-tat-tat of a sewing machine hums in the background.
Jamie Timaepatua points to her dress covered with a Pandanus palm leaf pattern.
“That’s my tribe, the one I made,” she said.
At first, the girls are shy in front of the camera but it’s not long before they volunteer to pose.
Ms Timaepatua holds up a dress resembling a jellyfish, with long trailing fringing, as the girls busily snap photos of their colourful new outfits.
With no sewing experience, it’s been tough going, and they are exhausted and homesick as they put the finishing touches on their garments.
“It has been challenging over the past week … getting the outfits together. It’s pretty hard, but [we’re] slowly learning,” AJ Timaepatua said.
“I’m definitely proud of myself and all the other girls. [It’s] a big achievement.”
Teacher Brigida Stewart (right) shows Sistagirl Jamie Timaepatua how to pin a dress. (ABC News: Tom Maddocks )
‘They couldn’t sew a straight line’
Before the course, most of the girls had never touched a sewing machine in their lives, visual arts lecturer at Batchelor Institute Brigida Stewart said.
“They didn’t know how to thread a needle [or] put a button on,” she said.
“Couldn’t sew a straight line, had no idea what an overlocker was.”
Ms Stewart said despite lacking technical skill, the Sistagirls had a strong sense of style.
“It was so refreshing,” she said.
“It all came so naturally, we had lots of fun in front of the mirror.”
A workshop has now been set up and sewing machines have been purchased and eventually the Sistagirls want to sell their designs to tourists and locals.
“Who knows, maybe they could put one of their outfits into production?” Ms Stewart said.
The Country to Couture fashion show will be Jamie Timaepatua’s first time parading on stage.
“[I’m feeling] nervous,” she said.
But when she put on the dress representing millennia of Tiwi Culture that took a fortnight to make, she swells with pride.
“I just love myself with that outfit,” she said.