Slowly, as each one became more and more proficient they began to take their work home; just coming into the studio when necessary to pick up materials and deliver finished products. Over the last few months I’ve been taking assessment as to how well I utilize – or need – this big space. Most of the time it’s only Jum and me working here. It’s a great place to meet customers and give tours, and I LOVE my studio! It’s so close to NC State campus, Whole Foods, my favorite coffee shops, etc. But it’s just not economically and environmentally sustainable.
So, at long last, it’s my turn to move back home. I’ll do the cutting and kitting of materials from my bright sun room. I’ll do my administrative paper shuffling from my home library and I’ll get an hour back in my work day that used to be spent driving. I’ll save tons of money on gas and lattes – I’m really going to miss the lattes! But I’ll be able to take breaks and tend my garden, chickens and refrigerator whenever I want to.
Nothing will change for my customers. They’ll still get the same beautiful organic and up-cycled fiber products from us. Our 34 colors of organic cotton thread will still come from Jose in Holland, Our organic cotton braid will still be made by Jim in Rock Hill, SC. But, Jum will be spinning our knitting yarn and embroidery floss from Beacon Lake Drive. Klum will wrap cording for our baskets from her new Habitat home. And H’nam will be at home knitting organic shawls when Saran’s bus drops her off.
Thanks to mobile technology our phone (919 612-3765), email (firstname.lastname@example.org), web site (www.fiberactiveorganics.com) and Etsy shop (http://www.etsy.com/shop/FiberactiveOrganics?page=1) will all stay the same. And I’ll still go salsa dancing on the weekend.
Whether it’s work or play, it’s like Dorothy said, “There’s no place like home.”]]>
I was sharing the booth with a friend who does machine knitting and on Saturday she brought her 80 year old mother with her for the day. My friend’s name is Manju, she’s from India; her mother’s name is Malti. Malti is still very sharp and enjoyed sitting in our corner watching all the goings on. She toured around with her walker through part of the day, but when Jum began her demonstration she watched intently.
Jum set up her spinning wheel called a “roi”, on the floor in front of our booth. She looked very exotic sitting on a colorful blanket that I had put down for her and she drew quite a crowd. Malti watched from her corner for hours as Jum spun and invited people from the crowd to give it a try. Several children wanted to do it, but it was the rare adult that was willing to sit on the hard cement floor and feel foolish making little knots of cotton instead of beautiful strands of yarn that Jum was creating.
After the crowds had died away late in the afternoon I saw Malti get up from her seat and make her way across the booth over to Jum. It was difficult, but she lowered herself down and sat on the blanket next to Jum. Malti had lived through the Ghandi era of cotton spinning. As a young girl she had spun cotton on a charka wheel that operated much like the roi that Jum uses.
I saw the two women speak to each other briefly, but neither one really understood the other’s words, Malti is a native Hindi speaker and has quite an accent. Jum’s Plei Grak Jarai accent is quite difficult to understand if you’re not used to it. But their communication didn’t really need words. Malti wanted to see if she could still spin cotton.
Jum put the roi close to Malti and held it until the older woman could stretch out her leg over the cross bar as Jum had done. Malti does yoga every day, so she is more flexible than most 80 year olds. Malti grasped the peg on the wheel and began to spin, but her old hands couldn’t close around the tuft of cotton like she needed to. Jum saw that Malti’s hand couldn’t close so she gently enclosed the older hand in her own. The two women pulled back a strand of cotton, the wheel turned, a yard of thread was spun and loaded onto the spindle. Then another and another, and that was enough.
Smiles ended the spinning. Jum helped Malti up off the floor and back to her corner. I was overwhelmed with the confluence of cultures. Ancient India and the jungles of Vietnam met on the floor of the State Fair Grounds of North Carolina. What rivers had to flow to bring those two together for that moment?]]>
This winter another intern from NC State is taking up where Danielle left off. Her name is Sarah Curlin and she’s a Textile Engineering major. She’s doing research right now, finding out how the North Carolina pioneers dyed their cotton. She’ll interface with farmers and gardeners to collect the plants we need and she’ll coordinate “picking trips” when mulberries and other dye plants and fruits are ready to be collected.
I’m getting some help from Sandi Kronick, ceo of Eastern Carolina Organics. She works with farmers all over the area and she’s putting me in touch with those that grow crops that are on our “shopping list”. I’m also growing some of the crops myself. I’ll be putting my back lot to use for growing indigo this summer. I got seeds from the Fiber Shed in California that are suited to our climate.
Of course all of this is old stuff to my Montagnard women. They were picking dye plants from the jungles around Plei Grak (their village) from the time they were little girls. I show them photos of the plants we’re going to use and some they know (like indigo) and some are, dare I say…foreign, to them. They’ve gotten to know some of the berries we’ll be using and these women are the most efficient berry pickers I’ve ever seen! What takes me an hour they have done if 15 minutes. That comes from picking food for survival instead of recreation.
Mulberries will be the first of the fruits we’ll harvest, they make a beautiful purple dye. Since the mulberry season is so short, we’ll only get a small batch of products dyed that color. There will be many colors that will be offered when their plant is in season and when it’s gone, it’s gone till next year. I think that makes this product line really exciting and special.]]>
I’ve been toying with the idea of weaving with them for about a month now, but the Christmas rush has been in the way. Now that the new year has begun I have time and incentive to develop new products – always got to have a smattering of new products each spring. I know there must be a way to weave these ribbons into place mats. They’d be great! The ribbon is absorbent, nice and flat, lushly colored and washable.
The construction of these mats should be easy enough; Tuat and Jum were master weavers in their lives back in Vietnam. They can weave anything. The woven ribbon place mats seemed to be the perfect fit for a new product that fell well within the Montagnard women’s capabilities.
My idea for weaving ribbon into place mats involved pinning lengths of ribbon to a large block of styrofoam, weaving them together then binding the edges with one long piece of wide ribbon. Tuat enjoys hand work more than machine sewing, she’s fast and strong; so I selected her for the prototype making. She dutifully if not doubtfully carried out the instructions I gave her, but couldn’t understand what I was trying to get her to make until the very end. At that point we had a lop-sided, scrunched up “place mat” that made us both laugh.
A few months ago, Betsy Renfrew, a free lance writer from Greensboro, NC. Did a project on Montagnard weaving. www.youtube.com/watch?v=BWk-RY9Gij8 She got a grant for a local Montagnard man to make back strap looms from North Carolina bamboo; the looms would be given to local Montagnard women so that they could continue their traditional weaving and pass the techniques and patterns on to the next generation.
When Betsy heard about my group of Montagnard women she got in touch with me and soon brought us looms for each of the women. Jum and Tuat accepted the looms with a mixture of nostalgia and revulsion. The reason for the nostalgia is obvious, but revulsion? Imagine a day when you got up before dawn, walked for two hours to get to a farm where you labored until dark in a rice field. Then you walked back home only to cook your families meal and then, by fire light, you sat down to weave. Weaving was the women’s job, inescapable. They grew their cotton, cleaned it, spun it, gathered plant materials and brewed dyes, then dyed the yarns, and wove them on a back strap loom.
The Montagnard women I work with didn’t make clothing, they made slings. A sling is the way Montagnards carry their children, on their backs. A child lives in its sling till it is too heavy for the mother to carry. Your sling is your blanket, your coat, and sometimes your clothing. And when you die, you’re buried in it.
Being able to weave slings again meant a great deal to my women, but it was also a craft and a duty that they thought they had left behind. Jum warmed up to hers first and gratefully took it home. Tuat looked at hers like it might bite. It stayed in the studio.
I looked at that loom often and tried to think of a way to get Tuat into it without bringing back those memories of exhaustion, oppression and starving children. The ribbon place mats seemed the perfect answer. I got out the loom and the light came on in Tuat’s eyes. When I got to work the next day, she had already been there for hours putting the ribbon warp on the loom.
We haven’t got the place mats perfect yet. But Tuat made peace with a little part of her past. There was no denying the look of satisfaction among the women to have one of them sitting in a loom. Tuat’s hands move with the sureness of hundreds of hours of weaving; weaving in a way that goes back through all the generations of her people.
Once the weaving was done. We started talking about my ideas for spinning organic cotton yarn. Tuat’s smile said “Bring it on.”]]>
I could do that. But knowing where Richard Burr stands on environmental issues, I’m not going to waste my time writing to him. I don’t have to write to David Price I know he’s going to stand up for green thinking. The thing is, trying to influence the government to do the right thing is like spitting into the wind. It doesn’t change a thing and I end up feeling rather messy.
So how do I keep the oil companies from drilling? By not using so much oil. Yes, I will continue to drive my car. But I drive a small car that gets the best mileage I can afford. The thing is, driving cars is only one of the ways that Americans soak up oil. Do you realize that there are petroleum products in almost everything we walk on, sit on, drink from, brush out teeth with, ad infinitum?
In my line of business, I’m quite familiar with the more than 50 different petro-chemicals that are used in growing, harvesting and processing cotton around here. There’s nothing natural about conventional cotton fabric; that’s why I call it “chemo cotton”. Everything from the fertilizer that’s put on the ground to the pigments that color the fabrics give those oil companies more reasons to suck that black goo out from under the ocean. I don’t know the exact figures, but I’d bet organic cotton production uses about 100 times less petroleum than the chemo stuff.
If I don’t want to see an oil rig next time I go to the beach, I need to stop creating a demand for oil. A while back I decided to stop buying “chemo” clothing. It’s a hard thing to do because there aren’t any organic clothing stores at the mall. In fact there aren’t any in my whole city. Oh, I can get a few assorted items at my local Whole Foods, but I’m a little on the hefty side, and their clothes don’t usually fit me.
So, I do a lot of shopping on line now and that’s fairly enjoyable. It’s fun to sit by a crackling fire in my organic jammies that I bought from Gaiam and see what’s new at BTC Elements, Cotton Field USA, or Mountains of the Moon. The thing is clothing is not the only way I’m using petroleum either. I have look at the labels and know what everything I buy is made of, or I get sucked into the oil pipeline. It’s not only in the stuff that we think of as “chemical” either. I spread it on my hands when my skin is dry, I shampoo my hair with it, color my lips and eyes with it, even tooth paste contains petroleum products.
Think only your car consumes oil? Think again. Cool Whip is a petroleum product. Make you feel sick? Don’t reach for the Pepto-Bismol; it’s a petro-chemical too. How about those healthy vitamins? The capsules are made from oil. Chew on this, or rather don’t, Goodyear supplies Wrigley’s with much of its gum base. And they’re not the only ones. Got a headache yet? Don’t take aspirin – yup, it’s made from oil.
I look around my house and see a hodge-podge of petroleum products. I refuse to rip up my chemo-carpet and replace it with wool, but you can bet when it’s ready to be replaced… Well, you get my drift.
I’ve known for a long time that I didn’t want to clean my house with toxic chemicals. But in doing my research for this article I found out that the wholesome vinegar that I clean with is also made from petroleum. The only brand available that’s really made from plant materials is Heinz. Guess what. Heinz has a new customer in me.
OK. I can’t take all the oil out of my life in one fell swoop. But every time I make a change I slow down my consumption just a little more. And every person who reads this and makes a change or two slows down our national consumption a little more. And one person after another making those little changes will make it less and less likely that America or the rest of the world for that matter, will need those oil wells.
I’m against off shore oil drilling. So maybe I’ll just stop them. Or maybe, it’s not a matter of stopping them, it’s a matter of stopping us.
Here are a few places were I got my information.
Mom was very picky about her Christmas trees and we had never been allowed to do more than watch her expert selection process. This year, we had been given the illustrious assignment and we would perform our duties to the best of our abilities. We circled every tree, discussing its merits and how it could be displayed in our house. When we were finally frozen, we settled on a five foot tree that had very few branches on one side, reasoning that it would fit up against the wall and conserve space in our living room. We thought Mom would be so pleased. Dad tied our tree to the top of the car and we rushed home to see the delight on our mother’s face.
We got home Dad went right to work untying the tree. When he put it on the ground Mom came out the front door. I remember the rush of anticipation, wanting to hear her exclaim what a good job we’d done.
As Dad turned the tree for Mom’s inspection her smile melted into a scowl. Anger changed her hue and a flow of hateful accusations flew at Dad. She detested the scrawny tree with the bare side that would never make a decent Christmas tree no matter how much we decorated it. He had spoiled Christmas and it could not be rescued. She stomped into the house and back to her room. We poured our own luke warm cocoa and Dad helped us limp through decorating our miserable tree.
My mother had a very shallow idea of Christmas. It was about as deep as a Christmas card or a Norman Rockwell painting. It had to look perfect, but don’t scratch the surface because there was nothing underneath.
In later years I’ve struggled with Christmas. All the years of over-the-top holiday shopping and watching Dad deal with credit card bills left me with a hollow happiness at Christmas time. I’ve had almost five decades of life experience since then; year after year I’ve studied Christmas and tried again. Mostly I’ve done Christmas the way I was taught, with shopping and tinsel. I’ve thrown in more religion hoping that that was the missing ingredient that would make it the most wonderful day of the year. But it never is.
This year, sitting at the kitchen table trying to plan for Christmas day I have no desire to repeat the past. But at first I had no idea how to make the day as grand as I believed it should be. Then the clouds parted and the sun shined in; Christmas is exactly equal to what you have done with your life the rest of the year. No amount of decorations will dress up a day that’s just another in a meaningless year.
Christmas is twenty four hours long, its square on the calendar is exactly the same size as every other square. No matter how much you write there, it won’t get any bigger.
There isn’t love on Christmas if there wasn’t love all year long. There isn’t happiness in December if you didn’t share yourself in friendship in March, July and September. There aren’t warm hearts to share if you haven’t held someone when they cried, or taken a hand when you were in need. There’s no joy in giving if you haven’t given of yourself in other seasons. There’s no loving family around the dinner table if that same table has been empty every other night of the year.
This year, I’m going to undo Christmas. I’m going to surround myself with the people that I’ve grown close to in the joy and suffering on all the other pages of the calendar. I’ll have Christmas dinner on December 24th this year with my Montagnard family and our loving support team. We’ll bask in the glow of the fire with the new baby, new driver’s licenses and the anticipation of our first high school graduation in the Spring.
On Christmas day I’ll be with my son, of course, and I’ll talk to my sisters on Skype and take a peek into their homes electronically instead of running the airport gauntlet. The candles will be brighter because they’re burned halfway down. They’ll glow with the smiles we’ve shared over them on other nights. I’ll toss leftover rice to my chickens and listen to them cluck with delight. Those will be my carols. And the wind in the trees will answer with soft applause. That square on my calendar this year won’t be sore from all the trying and remembering and wishing. It will be pure white, because the rest of the year was so full.]]>
Participating in these markets is a natural for Fiberactive. Our products are all hand made, local, support refugee women and help the environment. But we get some extra benefits from having the Montagnard women help staff the booths; they actually get to meet the people that buy their wears.
Each of the women has thought I was crazy when I got them to make napkins, they couldn’t believe people would buy a piece of cloth just to wipe their mouth on. But they went along with my whims and made the napkins and other unfathomable products I asked for, always with the feeling that they hadn’t done their assignments right. If you don’t understand a product, then you have no idea of what makes it good or bad, pretty or ugly, so they’re always in doubt.
Seeing someone pick up a fabric bowl and lovingly caress it, pay for it and tuck it into their bag to take home, let’s them know for sure that they’ve done well. Seeing customer after customer tick off their Christmas shopping list at our booth is really gratifying. Watching the stacks of napkins, pillows and platters dwindle down makes us all itch to get back in the studio and make some more.
Jum was the first of the women to attend a market with me; it was fair trade market four years ago. She spoke little english then, but I wanted to expose her to American shopping customs and let her hear other people speaking english. She’s a brave person, she’s faced snakes bigger around than her thigh, heard tigers hunting in the jungle around her and withstood days of questioning from cruel Vietnamese police. But Americans shoppers were an unknown entity; space aliens would have been no less mysterious to her. With some trepidation she agreed to go.
You can imagine that a market full of vendors who are focused on helping those in need would be quite pleased to meet a refugee woman starting a new life. She was welcomed with lots of smiles and hand shakes. Only a few tried to break through the language barrier; but it was enough to make Jum feel that she had made some new friends. By our third market of that year, Jum was used to the routine and was making her first stabs at being a salesman. When the season ended, she was hungry for more.
Tuat and I went to a market at a lovely little church in Chapel Hill, NC called Evergreen. We had a round table so there was no sitting behind it; we had to be out there exposed to the people. The trouble was, there weren’t many people. I came prepared for long stretches of sitting by packing my knitting with me. But Tuat had nothing to do. I’m afraid I sort of set her up; because I know she can’t stand to have nothing to do. I talked to one of the other vendors who was crocheting hats to raise money for the church. Her name was Debbie and she was a congenial, warm hearted woman who loved her craft. I asked her if she would be willing to show Tuat how to crochet hats; I told her how shy Tuat is and that she would need lots of encouragement. Debbie agreed to watch for Tuat and pull her in if she could.
Watching me knit was pretty hard on Tuat; she was desperate to do something with her hands. I didn’t tell her about Debbie, I just encouraged her to go look around. Finally she did. And about an hour later she came back with a ball of yarn, a crochet hook and a big smile on her face. She worked at it for a while then didn’t know how to continue, I denied knowing how to crochet (ok, I lied) and sent her back to Debbie. After four trips back and forth Tuat was crocheting well, but more than that, she was comfortable. And for the first time, she actually talked to customers that came up and asked how our things were made. If we hadn’t sold a thing the whole time, that breakthrough for Tuat was worth all the effort!
We only brought in about $200 that day, but the value of our adventure was immense. Tuat thanked Debbie one last time on our way out of the church and even hugged her. I think Debbie thought all she did was teach Tuat to crochet that day…if only she knew.
This new thing is old, or rather this old thing is new to many. Those of us that have been living in the Fourth Sector for a long time just never settled on a catchy name that fit all of us. We called ourselves “mission based” or “triple bottom line”, “fair trade”, “eco-conscious” or simply “sustainable”. We’re hoping that what’s in this name is all of that and more.
Last month I was privileged to speak as part of a panel at the Governors Entrepreneurship Summit on the topic of Fourth Sector business. The session was called Pushing NC’s Leadership in the Fourth Sector. That title doesn’t mean that we’re “pushing” our agenda on the rest of the world, far from it. The Fourth Sector includes so many different ideas of doing business and doing good, that there is no single agenda to be put forward. What it does mean is that we are “pushing” for room to grow. We’re elbowing this sluggish economy out of the way so we can show the rest of the world what flourishing looks like.
In August North Carolina joined six other states in establishing a new business designation called the L3C. The L3C is a hybrid legal structure combining the financial characteristics of an LLC, with the social purpose of a non-profit. An L3C runs like a regular business, but it does much more than make money. An L3C can accept donations from corporations and foundations just like a non-profit. Tom Sullivan of Scrutiny Hooligans explained it like this. “The purpose of the L3C is to assist small businesses that might not be able to get off the ground if they had to pay investors a commercial rate of return … For the socially responsible investor, this is a way to do good — including put people back to work — and make a few bucks along the way.” The L3C’s creator, Robert Lang, calls it “the for profit with a non profit soul.”
In a world where corporate greed has ruined many lives, it’s time for soul to come to the rescue. There’s no downturn in the economy for the Fourth Sector. If anything, this is our time of greatest opportunity. If I measure my success by how many people I empower, then this down trodden society has possibilities everywhere. If I measure my success by how well my company supports the environment, then this era of global warming is the perfect climate for creativity and invention. If I measure my success by what I’ve done rather than what I have, then the time is ripe to roll up my sleeves and dig in because there is plenty of work to be done.
In this time when money is so hard to come by and every dollar is precious, Fourth Sector businesses are offering quite a deal. At Fiberactive Organics, (soon to be L3C) business is booming! We have more people working more hours per week than ever before. We’re prototyping new products for other Fourth Sector businesses almost every day. We’re sending a young girl in Vietnam to school to become a teacher so she can go back to her mountain village and teach her people to read.
We’re hosting ESL classes. We’re keeping some great stuff from being tossed into the land fill by turning it into useful and beautiful new things. We’re making children around the world healthier because we’re creating a market for organic cotton so their daddies won’t pour poison on the fields around where they live. We’re providing a place where women can gather and work together like they did in their home country. And we’re doing it all under the light of the sun instead of an electric bulb.
The Fourth Sector. We’ve been around for a long time, but now we have a name and a nod from the rest of the world.
Bamboo is an extremely hard material. It’s used for flooring, furniture and all sorts of products that benefit from its solid and enduring properties. Imagine what it takes to make something that hard into a soft sumptuous fabric. What it takes is extensive processing in some extremely nasty chemicals that extract the cellulose from the plant. Then it’s mixed with some more nasty chemicals that make the cellulose stick together and reconstitute it into a strand that they call a fiber. The “fiber” made from bamboo is actually rayon, exactly the same as rayon made from wood; and the processing of both is extremely damaging to the environment.
The US government has recently mandated that fabric made from bamboo be labeled as rayon because of the decptive advertisement of it as an ecologically sound material. In the past bamboo fabric was advertized as being anti-microbial or anti-fungal. These claims were made because bamboo itself does indeed resist microbial and fungal degradation. However, once the processing has been done, the fabric made from bamboo no longer possesses those redeeming qualities. The Truth In Advertising laws came into effect about a year ago and those claims had to be removed from labeling and advertising of bamboo products. Sadly, the myths are hard to dispell. Maybe we need to sick the Myth Busters on it.
In comparison with organic cotton, well – there is no comparison. Organic cotton is grown without chemicals and needs no processing to make it’s fiber usable. It is simply washed, combed and spun without the need of chemicals of any kind. Furthermore, cotton is grown all over the world, including right here at home. Bamboo is grown in China and must be shipped to customers on other continents, making it’s carbon footprint quite large.
The difference between the environmental impact of these two materials is vast. Bamboo is FAR from being a “credible alternative to Organic Cotton”. I, personally, am looking forward to the day when I can walk into any eco-conscious retail store and not see products made from bamboo fabric.
Let’s get the word out!