WORLD Crossing the Woolly Divide Yarns that heal nations and spirits. By Rebecca Klassen From political hot spots to your needles, Afghanistan and Israel are the most piquant points of origin for recent yarn arrivals to the U.S. knitting landscape. While these yarns—handspun by impoverished women in conflict-laden countries—chart different routes along the seas of supply to the shores of demand, they’re buoyed by the efforts of visionary entrepreneurs. I ing ’til night doing almost everything,” he says. “Between all of these jobs, the n Herat, Afghanistan, Abdul Basir Hotak leads the national cashmere women are spinning wool,” while “the husbands drink and tell stories.” The industry’s revitalization at his processing plant, where he installed a desert trips, while inspiring, also made certain divisions clear: the independent labor-saving dehairing machine last year with U.S. grant assistance. well-to-do women who were his clients, versus the Bedouin women who worked Decades of turmoil had collapsed many Afghan industries, not to menendlessly, versus the men who sat around the campfire. tion the trade infrastructure. Hopes are that high-value A third incident made the nature of power even clearer. commodities like cashmere will catalyze economic Sol was on a tour when a huge local man tackled him and growth. Hotak sends fiber to a group of thirty-five Kabul tried to sexually assault him. He escaped, but the wrenchwomen, where it’s spun before being shipped to Susan ing event made him empathize even more with women. Inglis of From the Mountain, a North Carolina–based What could he do for the Bedouin women? He wanted sourcing company, and from there to online retailer to connect their world to that of the wealthier tourists. Laurie Gonyea at Knit Outta the Box. Seeing that they spun rough fibers—sheep and goat—he Every three weeks, Sol Israeli, owner of Soul Wool, thought that if he could instead provide them with highcamouflages himself before dropping off roving and pickquality fibers, they’d create a product that modern women ing up spun yarn. During the daylong drive from his studio would want, benefitting both. He found a New Zealand in Karmiel, Israel, into the troubled Palestinian West Bank, farm (a source he still uses, seventeen years later) that raises he places a kaffiyeh on his head and a prayer rug on the merino sheep—brushed, not sheared, he says. dashboard before crossing the border to find the nomadic Sol learned to dye from a chemist at a natural-pigment Bedouin women he works with. After hand-dyeing the yarn, Sol sells it to stores in Israel, and as of last year, to company. He chooses the colors and bases—he uses cashthe Israeli American brother-and-sister team behind New mere, silk, organic cotton and other fibers—according to his York City’s The Yarn Company, Assaf and Tavy Ronen. mood that day. The varied landscapes of Israel also appear: The Ronens bought The Yarn Company last spring. desert grays and sand, Red Sea blues and coral reef To reenergize the thirty-two-year-old LYS, Assaf thought brights, and northern greens. Two Israeli women designers to bring in exclusive yarns produced through sociallywork with him on knitted, woven and felted pieces, and and environmentally-aware means. Tavy pursued a few three developmentally disabled young men help in the studio. leads on unique sources, but her biggest came through Severely disabled students from a Waldorf school do tasks a customer. “It was the funniest thing,” she says. “A such as labeling. He also reached out to immigrant comguy came into the store to buy yarn for his mother. Turns munities from Ethiopia and the former Soviet republics and out he was the Israeli ambassador to the U.N.,” Meron now contracts about sixty women hand-spinners. Reuben. It so happened that Tavy was headed to Israel The Bedouin he works with are nomadic, but he can Top right: Afghan cashmere goat shepherd. Above, top: Afghan spinner; bottom: Soul the next day, and Ambassador Reuben insisted that find them in summer and winter, Sol says. When picking up Wool yarn. she call on his mother. She did, and his mother in turn yarn, he brings clothing and toys, and the women dress up insisted she meet Sol Israeli: “She said, ‘He’s the one real hand-dyer in Israel.’” and bake pita bread. “It’s a celebration,” he says, “for them and for me.” Being income earners elevates them to “queen of the house,” and he’s observed the same happen in the conservative immigrant enclaves. “You see the difference in “Give each other a chance to be good” how the husband treats his wife. We’ve given [these women] a lot of power. Before finding his calling as a yarn man, Sol—we’ll use his given name for “We need to spread happiness all around,” he continues. “There are lots of clarity—endured a series of traumatic events. The scars, and the healing periods bad things in the world, so we need to strive for happiness as much as we can: that followed, wrought his current philosophies. The first happened while he to help, to support, to say good words. We need to believe in each other, give was fulfilling his mandatory service in the Israel Defense Forces: a helicopter each other a chance to be good. It’s also surprising—I go to my mailbox and find crash that killed fifty-four in his unit. The second was in Lebanon, when his checks all the time! And I don’t think anyone’s ever cheated me.” brother-in-law stepped on landmine; he died and Sol was wounded. After the army, Sol worked as a safari guide in Egypt’s Sinai region and wandered the desert, literally and metaphorically. The ecotourists, mostly Rebuilding women, were a comforting contrast to war’s aggressions. The sands soothed. Afghanistan may be the third largest cashmere producer in the world, but first, And the Bedouin women he befriended were “amazing. They work from mornsomebody had to tell the shepherds. A study on (continued on page 26) 24 Afghanistan’s cashmere by the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Accelerating Sustainable Agriculture Program (ASAP) in 2007 estimated that 90 percent of Afghan goats produce cashmere, but only a third were being harvested. Most farmers didn’t realize the fiber’s value or, if they did, where to sell it. For processing fiber and producing finished goods, national resources were few—handiwork, basically. And, explains Lauren Behr, a development contractor with expertise in the region, “there was no framework for export. You have a bunch of Afghan farmers. How are you going to connect them to buyers in Europe?” Cashmere is an undercoat. If shorn, it must be dehaired, which is timeconsuming when done manually. Demand for raw fiber—especially in China, which commands the cashmere market—is great enough that Afghanistan could export it in its greasy, unprocessed form, which is what Abdul Basir Hotak’s Herati Cashmere and Skin Processing Plant began doing in 1999. In that state, though, cashmere is at its least valuable. ASAP, alongside Afghanistan’s Ministry of Agriculture, sought to add value along the supply chain by educating farmers not just on cashmere’s potential but on better handling and harvesting methods to improve the fiber quality. If Afghanistan produced higher-quality fiber and participated further along the chain—manufacturing sweaters, for instance—it could increase revenue. Hotak’s plant began scouring, or cleansing, in 2007. Next stop, a dehairing machine. Before he got his machine, though, Hotak learned of projects in other countries that provide hand-spun hand-knitting yarn for the U.S. market. In 2010 he bought dehaired cashmere from a Chinese source and trained a group of western Kabul women, who were already spinning sheep’s wool for traditional carpets, on the more sensitive fiber. Hotak says he pays them ten times the wage they earned in the carpet industry. “They are mothers, even grandmothers, and many are the only supporters of their families,” he says via email. And now, “I don’t need to purchase Afghan dehaired cashmere from China anymore.” Last summer, Hotak installed the dehairing machine, the first and only in the country. The U.S. Department of Defense’s business task force soon visited with a group from retailer Kate Spade, launching a collection of hand-spun, handknitted accessories made using Hotak’s first lot of dehaired cashmere. Also with ASAP help, that summer he attended the SpinExpo trade fair in New York City. There he met Susan Inglis of From the Mountain, who is now importing the yarn. “It really is making a difference,” says Inglis, “because in Afghanistan women have not had many opportunities and too often, as a result of the war, have been left as heads of households.” In addition to her sourcing company, for the past two decades Inglis has worked as an international development consultant, including to ASAP’s Afghanistan project. Creating economic opportunities for mothers is close to her heart: The first business she started was a home-based hand-knitted sweater operation as a newly single mother of two. The future for Afghan cashmere is promising. J. Crew has bought the hand-spun yarn—they’re producing a sweater for fall—and new clients are in the works. Hotak will add two more dehairing machines this year, and he connected to a group of 800 women hand-spinners in the Badakshan province, trained by a German organization, that he wants to use when a larger order arrives. And, of course, there’s the hand-knitting yarn. A knitter herself, Lauren Behr was working on a separate Afghanistan project when she heard about the yarn and met Inglis. “I knew if I wanted to knit with it,” she says, “a ton of other people would love to get their hands on it.” Behr became an advocate, and her local yarn shop in Washington, D.C., introduced her to Laurie Gonyea of Knit Outta the Box, who became the first to carry the yarn. The spinners produce three weights in four natural shades, but only their worsted and sport weights are currently available for retail. Gonyea hopes to distinguish her company by creating a stable of socially conscious yarn lines. “I continue to believe that business can save the world,” says Inglis. “As long as we can provide a good-quality yarn and get it out of the country safely and at a reasonable price, it’s going to continue. This kind of business can make a difference in rebuilding Afghanistan. It’s not the only thing—we need to rebuild all that the war has destroyed—but being able to do business makes it possible for a family, a community, to rebuild itself. It’s about empowering folks.” Resources: Soulwool, www.harmonyspun.com; U.S. retail sale at The Yarn Company, www.theyarnco.com. From the Mountain, www.fromthemountain.com; Afghan cashmere yarn at Knit Outta the Box, www.knitouttathebox.com.
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