The Ricefield Collective: Knitting by a Rice Paddy

8 April 2013

Let me introduce you to Anna Maltz, textile artist and knitwear designer. She’s a bit fabulous for the following reasons:

1.     She’s an enviably quick knitter. Look! Look at the photo! Her fingers and needles are ablur with speed and intensity. All this whilst chatting away over a cup of tea. Oooh!

Anna Maltz. The fastest knitter known to this blogger.

2.     She’s knitted a mermaid costume. I am in awe of this feat of technical prowess and total whimsy. I think you should be too.

Carl, San Francisco, 2003. Chromogenic Print, 14” x 9 3/8”

3.     Anna and a certain Meredith Ramirez are on a mission to introduce an exciting spot of social enterprise to a small corner of the Philippines THROUGH THE POWER OF KNITTING.

I know there’s little that can top the thrill of Anna’s woolly mermaid ensemble but her proposed knit purl action near a rice paddy field just might do it. “How could this possibly be?!” I hear you cry. If you want a whizzy televideo answer then check out the Ricefield Collective’s Knit 4 Life Kickstarter. Carry on reading for an old fashioned, written clarification…

You see, the soon-to-be Dr. Meredith Ramirez was pottering about the rice terraces of Ifugao doing a some doctoral fieldwork.

For the geographers out there, here's a map of where Ifugao is.

Chatting with Jean, one of the local farmers, Meredith discovered that although families in Ifugao own the land and have done for generations, these rice paddies often only produce enough to feed a family. There’s little if anything left to sell.

The rice terraces of Ifugao
And beyond rice income is limited for the farmers of Ifugao. Cue the prospect of selling their land, risking the money on an internal (or international!) migration, the high chance of urban poverty, the slow disintegration of rural communities and erosion of the landscape as the abandoned terraces collapse.

This isn’t good. Not at all.

Would you want to leave this? Probably not. And if you could stay here and knit? That wouldn't be bad at all.
Whilst having this chat with Jean, Meredith was knitting. And then started teaching knitting to Jean and other local women. And then inspiration struck: by the power of knitting the communities of Ifugao - the women in particular - could have a source of steady income beyond the humble rice paddy. Economic diversification in action.

In addition the women could down needles during the harvest and planting seasons before picking them up again when the rice didn't need attention. They could also fit the knittery around their families and children. It would be proper flexitime for working mothers. Brilliant.

Meredith Ramirez (3rd on the left) with the women of Ifugao
There is one minor flaw that I am sure you have spotted. The Philippines are tropical and there’s not much call for a woolly hat amongst the indigenous community. However thanks to the world wide intermeweb…

… there’s a lot of chilly consumers in the West seeking socially conscious knitwear. And so the RicefieldCollective was born.

Western consumer seeking socially conscious knitwear, meet Filipina knitter.

It was at this point that everything got terribly exciting. Meredith asked Anna Maltz to join as chief designer of a small collection of knittery and finger puppets. Their plan was to visit Ifugao to teach a 6-week knitting course and produce the collection in time for the autumn of 2013.

This was only intended to be a tiny foray into the world of fair trade fashion. A sort of “let’s-see-if-this-could-work-and-it-would-be-brilliant-if-we-could-help-this-community-but-let’s-be-realistic-and-you-know-it-might-not-happen-but-at-least-we’ve-brought-knitting-to-an-interesting-corner-of-the-world” attitude.

This lovely hat could be yours if you support the Ricefield Collective's Kickstarter. You'll have to find your own dog though.
But then the designer Stephen West got excited and came on board, offering up a pattern or two for the collection. Luscious American yarn company Quince & Co are supplying the wool. In March the Ricefield Collective Kickstarter launched. And made 200% of its funding within 3 days.

Gosh. This could be a sensational initiative. Maltz and Ramirez might have an ongoing enterprise on their hands with a contented collective of Filipina knitters who can stay by their rice paddies. I’m rather excited at how deeply good this whole endeavour is. You should be too.

So if you fancy supporting this marvellously interesting venture (it’s worthy of an entire thesis of research, it's that socially, artistically, economically, anthropologically and interculturally fascinating) AND need a new woolly bonnet, wrist warmer or scarf come the autumn… then I’ll see you over at their Kickstarter. Hurry! It closes on April 19th


Wool House at Somerset House

2 April 2013

Oooh! Colourful Sheep! Hooray for Wool House!

It’s a jolly good thing March in 2013 has proved the coldest in fifty years. The Campaign for Wool’s pop-up of pop-ups, Wool House (March 13-24), couldn’t have asked for better weather to showcase the warm magnificence that is… well, wool. London’s Somerset House was where contemporary artists, crafters, fashionistas and interior designers showed off just what can be done with a bit of the fluffy stuff.

A rather impressive bit of "Crochetdermy" by the fair hand of Shauna Richardson. Yes, this bear IS made of wool.

There was some wonderful overlap between the disciplines. For instance knitter’s favourite, Donna Wilson, had a spot in the interior’s section. Toddlers dashed under barriers to get into her whimsical child’s bedroom, complete with knitted raincloud and a menagerie of her distinctive knitted animals. 

A dream bedroom by Donna Wilson.

The upcyclers amongst you would have approved of Josephine Ryan’s aran jumper’d arm chair. Comfy as anything and totally desirable.

The best way to upcycle an aran jumper. Thank you, Josephine Ryan.

The craft area was a buzz with activity. The loom of Jason Collingwood, artisan rug-weaver, was a popular focal point with an intrigued and fascinated crowd in constant attendance. I think a new generation of keen weavers was born in this corner of Wool House.

And as for the free events that were on offer… gosh, where to start! Beginners could revel in knitting demonstrations courtesy of the Sublime Design Studio and Rowan Yarns whilst Debbie Bliss herself was present to help improve the techniques of more established knitters. For the brave and experienced there were lace and Fairisle master classes with Sandra Manson of Jamieson and Smith at the helm. Beyond the realm of knitting, Tom of Holland was teaching his Visible Mending Programme (think of it as “darning for the daring”).

Keen knitters.

Meanwhile the soothing whir of spinning wheels filled the air. But this wasn’t something out of a fairytale, oh dear me no. Spinning is undergoing a renaissance. Exhibit A: Rachel Brown of Porpoise Fur and Allison Thistlewood of Champagne and Qiviut spinning a stunning DK out of a hot pink and neon yellow fleece.

Hot pink and neon yellow in freshly spun DK form, courtesy of Porpoise Fur

Indeed, that is as amazing as it sounds. I rest my case.

Feeling inspired yet? I certainly was. Imagine what delights await us for this autumn’s Wool Week (October 14th – 20th). This is only going to get bigger, better and hopefully more neon.

(Images: The Campaign for Wool & Zoë F. Willis)