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Back To Africa!

In 2001, I decided to travel through West Africa.  I had finished university, was ready for an adventure and I had dreamed of going to Africa since I was a child.  I started my trip in Paris, made my way down the Spanish coast, ferried to Gibraltar, crossed into Morocco, convoyed across the Sahara desert for 4 days through Mauritania, and on to 6 other countries – Senegal, The Gambia, Mali, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast and Ghana.  Those six months were life changing for me.  Africa was now in my heart and I could not wait for the next opportunity (or excuse) to return.

It’s twelve years later and now I own and run Ambler with my husband, Christian. Last year we were introduced to Landis Wyatt, an Ambler employee before we owned the company, who was living and running Universal Outreach Foundation with her husband in Liberia (a west African country I did not visit on my 2001 trip because they were in civil war). Back in the day, Landis was sewing and selling bags and thought bags could be a good fit for Ambler.  Ambler bags did not pan out at the time but the idea of creating and making bags came full circle when I met Landis. Landis was excited to see if a partnership could develop for Ambler in Liberia.  I was very excited because I had been dreaming of having bags made in Africa.  My reason was part selfish, wanting any excuse to return to Africa, but mainly because I knew there was a need for social enterprises in many African countries.  Not only that, Africa has such unique fabrics and sewing is a skill many Africans already have.

I arrived in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, on December 4th, 2012 with only a few other people, one being my friend Deb who I was travelling with.  Most people on our plane got off when we stopped in Sierra Leone, Liberia is not necessarily a destination for tourists.  Liberia has only been out of a civil war for 10 years and you can still feel and see the effects of years of war.  Approximately 250,000 people died during the war and now 85% of the population continue to live below the international poverty line.

As a tourist I was astonished at the prices!  I was paying more than I would in Canada for quite a few things.  I soon realized that it made sense since there is no electricity anywhere and everything is powered by generators which take diesel.  As you can imagine, imported diesel isn’t cheap either.  So either you do have the money to live comfortably or you make due with the little you have and live quite differently.

The reason why I went to Liberia is because relationships with the people we work with are very important to Ambler.  So I spent my time in Monrovia with our new partner, Jola House, a social enterprise trying to help generate income for Liberians.  It was wonderful to see where and who was making our new bags.  I also felt that it was reciprocated for the workers at Jola House to associate Ambler with an actual person who does care about them!

My time in Liberia was very intentional because I was only going to be there for a short time.  A week somewhat felt like a month because of all the things I got to do and see.  I went to markets looking for fabric, designed new bags, adjusted bags in production, worked on new product, ate Liberian food with Jola House staff, visited a beautiful Eco Lodge, swam in the ocean, rode motorcycles to get around town, talked with all sorts of people on the street, listened to church choir practices, danced with children playing soccer outside, experienced the daily difficulties of not having electricity to run sewing machines, learned more about tie-dye, listened to life stories and felt compassion for what Liberians have gone through.  Even through these huge trials, I am in awe of the abundance of joy, trust and hope Africans still have.

One of my favorite memories from this trip was asking people, “How da body oh (How are you doing)”?  The response was, “Praise God”, which means, I am doing very well.

Until the next time…

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Needles in Nepal

The following is a guest post from our knit designer, Kelly McClure of BohoKnits, recounting her recent trip to Nepal to teach our producers about our Fall 2012 knitting patterns. Sounds like Kelly learned a few things of her own! (photos: Kelly McClure)

I traveled to Kathmandu to spend a week teaching knitting and crochet workshops with women who will be mass-producing my hat designs…a surreal experience to say the least. I packed everything I needed to teach knitting in my carry-on just in case my luggage was lost between Calgary, Amsterdam, Delhi and Kathmandu. I brought needles of all sizes, patterns, tiny “plane-friendly” scissors, tape measure, needle gauge, stitch markers, calculator and, of course, projects to work on while traveling.

Garlands

I design for a local company, Ambler hats, and spent the week at the Everest Fashion house and offices right in Kathmandu. Everest Fashion makes all kinds of knitted, crocheted and felted wholesale items for customers all around the world, including Ambler. Their compound is made up of about four buildings, including the house, offices, storage and production space. While the city is busy, polluted and loud, the Everest complex is quiet and spacious, with lots of vegetation and small gardens.

Workbooks

The Everest workforce is over 90% female and many of the women knit hats right from home, allowing them to make extra income for their families while still being able to care for their households and children. They are paid more than fair wages and are paid per piece to increase productivity. My main job for the week was to perfect specific designs with the “group leaders” who then go on to teach the design to 30-75 women. Although there was an obvious language barrier between us, we got by with exaggerated gestures, thumbs up signs and dramatic facial expressions. They are wonderful, genial women and I love being around their colourful, sparkly kurtas and bright smiles.

Learning a pattern at Everest Fashion

During a tour of the complex, I learned a lot about their production techniques. I watched them create pom poms in seconds, wind tangled yarn into balls from their ancient looking wire swifts, and haul massive bags of fibre around as if it was no effort at all. The compound buzzes with creative energy, greetings (Namaste), and there are mounds of brightly coloured fibre and projects everywhere.

Drying fiber

On another day I visited a home called Peace Rehabilitation Center. This is a home for girls and women who have been rescued from human trafficking (see website for more information and stories). Many of the girls come from small villages and are recruited or bought by pimps who then try to smuggle them into India. Fortunately, some of the girls are stopped at the border before they are lost forever. At PRC, the girls are taught all kinds of skills so that they can one day be independent. They learn things like gardening, jewelry making, cooking and, of course, knitting. I was warned before arriving at the home that their skills are very basic and that teaching them something new may be challenging.

at the Peace Rehabilitation Centre

To my surprise, when I arrived, there was about ten girls sitting on mats around a huge pile of yarn, all knitting away like their fingers were on fire. None of them speak English, so teaching without an interpreter would have been fairly difficult anyway, but to my embarrassment, I find that their skills at least match my own. Their technical and finishing skills are outstanding and they easily crank out a perfect fingerless mitt without batting an eye.

I have never felt so quintessentially “Western” as I did while I was in Nepal. The smog, garbage and traffic of the city is a major contrast to our open spaces and clean air in the mountains that I’m used to. While attending a full-moon festival, I was clearly the only Caucasian in a crowd of hundreds, although I was graciously accepted. While visiting with the PRC girls who had been sold by their own families, beaten by pimps and worse, I was painfully aware of my own charmed existence. Despite all these differences, I was mostly struck by the similarities between East and West. Namely, the fact that knitting provides a universal language – knits us together, so to speak. Even if you can’t communicate with words, wool is the same, knitting needles and crochet hooks are the same, and even instructions and techniques are the same. A knitted stitch is the same in Nepal as it is in Canada.

Kelly, labeling Ambler poms

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Ambler in Ladakh

Our friends Carole & Peter spent some time trekking in Ladakh and brought some Ambler samples along with them to give as gifts. Here are a few of the great photos they brought back.

If you ever have a chance to go to Ladakh we highly recommend it. It’s a beautiful landscape with equally beautiful people.





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