A homemade sweater12/24/2014
“Why thank you. You are so kind to think of me. A homemade sweater. Yes, those are bright colors you knitted. Neon, aren’t they? Wow, look at that size. No, I’m sure I’ll grow into it.”
My, oh my. A gift of love to be sure. Perhaps given to you by your Aunt Edna from Boone. No doubt your favorite aunt. But a homemade sweater? This is a gift nightmare. The sleeves usually are long enough to multitask as both arm coverings and a neck scarf at the same time. Sort of a straight-jacket look for the young urban professional. Then there is the problem of mass and gravity. “Competing in the super heavyweight division on the center stage at Wells Fargo Arena is… The Homemade Sweater.” And, yes, you do have to wear it to the family holiday party on Sunday. Smiling. Grateful. And so overheated and itching that the family will assume you are having some type of flea attack. Yup, nothing says the holidays better than a little mange.
So, I had to check it out when I heard that down in Peru there’s a group of women who knit amazing jackets, gloves, sweaters and whatever else there is to knit. The web site, www.chirihandmade.com, called them the Ñaña Knitting Collective of Peru. A knitters’ circle. Rumor had it that they were not making the proverbial homemade sweater. Rather, their sweaters are beautiful, well-fitted, stylish, feather-light. And with a local connection to boot.
“When I say we make handmade sweaters, you think of something with a bunch of animals on it and it’s like 17 colors and shaped like a box and about an inch think,” says Lexi Wornson Young as she smiles at me patiently, recognizing that I’m a victim of past sweater trauma.
“And when I say it is a fair-trade sweaters, the image is even worse,” she continues. “From the very beginning, we committed that this was going to be fashionable apparel. It’s going to be current. It’s going to be very high quality.”
“It’s all based on women knitters in Peru who are in a cooperative,” she shares. “The group I’m working with is 18 women. It’s a wide range of ages. Some grandmas in their 60s and some young women in their early 30s. There are always babies and small children under foot causing mayhem.”
“When she lost her husband at a young age, Eliciana turned to knitting to support herself and her two children.”
Young buys from this cooperative and then wholesales the items in the U.S., including at Back Country. But that doesn’t really explain her relationship to the cooperative. She and her partner have invested in these women. They are part of their lives. And Young is more than a buyer — she sizes and designs the sweaters, then goes to Peru to iron out any bugs in the production. She works hand in hand with the women in the cooperative.
“Her artistry isn’t limited to knitting, though; Beatriz also has a captivating voice and loves to sing traditional huaynos, both happy and sad.”
“I’d like to get to a point that we are selling enough sweaters that we are able to sustain this group of women year round with consistent work and they can start to add more women to their group or a second group,” she says.
All these hopes pinned on a homemade sweater?
“I’m aware that I work with a group of women who each own probably not more than three outfits when they’re making these sweaters,” she says. “But I don’t think clothing is silly or supercilious. How you dress is how you express yourself. It’s a service these women are providing to women in the U.S.”
“When she was a teenager, Edith knitted garments with her mother to sell at the market in her hometown of Juliaca. Now she has three children of her own.”
“There are all sorts of marginalized populations around the world” she says. “Wherever you look, women are struggling a little bit more. And there is strong evidence that supporting women supports community. When you look at all the social science, if you support women entrepreneurs, women community leaders, the resources end up back in the community so much more.”
Young brushes back those bangs that want to disguise one eye, and looks directly at me with her Peter-Pan smile that asks me to climb up on the sill and jump with her out the window.
“Epifania has her hands full raising five children and is grateful that her work as a knitter allows her to earn the money she needs to support them while also letting her spend time at home.”
“When you buy a Chiri garment, it actually has the name of the person who did it on the tag,” she says. “You can go onto the website and look it up and read about her and see her portrait. I would love to close that circle and in my wildest dreams we would invite some of the people who own the product to come to Peru and take some knitting lessons and spend a couple of days with these women.”
“Frida is pure spunk. You can count on this feisty woman for anything, as her younger siblings will testify. With no children of her own, Frida at one point took on work as a construction worker to help send her brother through school.”
Hmmm… Eliciana, Andria, Amelia, Frida, Graciela, Juana, Edith, Hilaria, Ines, Marleni, Paula, Yolanda. Mothers and grandmothers and caring women. A knitters’ circle.
So there you go. A gift for you. A homemade sweater. CV
Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events in Des Moines on his blog: www.joesneighborhood.com.