Knitting for life: Ricefield Collective

I must apologise to any blog readers, as I haven’t written for quite some time. I’ve been super busy with organising various events, fieldwork and reading. It’s funny, second year and ‘collecting research’ – I’m just not sure what to share on this blog space – I don’t want to give too many ‘spoilers’ but mostly I’ve just been quite busy and figuring our how to make the space for my blog in my time. So when I heard about Anna Maltz’s latest project I thought meeting with Anna for tea and discussion would be the perfect post to get me out of my blogging black hole

I met Anna at ‘In the Loop 3’ and we’ve kept in touch since. We’re currently collaborating on a project involving lost/found knitted gloves, and ‘craft walks’ through the City of London.  It’s a work in progress but here’s a sneak peek of stash so far!

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Happily, there are fewer lost gloves now the weather’s improving, which works out well as Anna will be visiting the Ifugao region of the Philippines for next three months for the project “Ricefield Collective” – the topic of our discussion when we met last week.

The project is collaboration between the indigenous people from Ifugao region, knitting teachers and designers from the U.S and Europe. The goal is to use handknitting as a way to generate income for those in danger of being forced out of their ancestral land through poverty. The plan is to make a knitwear collection, made by the women of Ifugao, with designs that reflect their landscape.  Anna’s role in the collective is both designer of knitwear patterns, and lead teacher whilst over in the Philippines next month. She says, “I’m really curious to see how easily the women will pick up their new skills. They work with their hands daily, so their manual dexterity will be advanced and comparable to mine.  Usually in London, I’m working with teenagers or women who are ‘all thumbs’ but want to try something new”. As the women of Ifugao develop their skills and their knitted creativity, it will be interesting to see how this is negotiated in the design process. In London, Anna was responsible for the sweeping ‘finger knitting’ craze at a local Stoke Newington High School – having showed pupils how to finger-knit; they eagerly shared their new skills with peers. Anna and I discussed this phenomenon in the Philippines – Meredith Ramirez (initiator of the project) taught her friend Jean to knit whilst visiting the Ifugao region and before long Jean had shared with her friends and their enthusiasm convinced Meredith and Jean that there was potential for knitting to help the community.  The ‘Ricefield Collective’ hopes that the project will provide a stable income to support the continuation of the community living in Ifugao. Anna stressed that there’s already been talks establishing the negotiation of farming and knitting commitments.

Anna is especially looking forward to observing the reception of knitting as a new skill and craft. Anna suggested that perhaps some of the reasons for knitting’s resurgent popularity in the UK and U.S are its nostalgic connotations and its associations with thrift and provisioning. However, in the Ifugao region, knitting will be a fresh, contemporary skill that will enable the preservation of community traditions and empower women through the extra income the work provides.

Ultimately, the Ricefield Collective hopes to share a positive story of production to their consumers – as Meredith states in the Kickstarter video – “you’ll know that each stitch is knitted by someone who is happy, which adds to the rich texture and warmth”. Anna spoke about her wish to find a rhythm in the production of knitwear that isn’t about meeting deadlines with panic and haste for the next A/W season but about fashioning a pace that is slow, meticulous, and as mentioned previously, negotiated with the commitments of farming, family and sustainability. In many ways Anna emphasised philosophies of ‘Slow Fashion’ movement – fashion that is high quality, with small lines, and fair labour conditions. Where each garment has a story and consumers have more appreciation and personal connection with their clothing (Johnasson, 2010). Slow fashion is not about time, but about choice, identity, symbolic expression, as well as durability and long term engaging, good quality products (Fletcher, 2007).  Attached to each item of the Ricefield Collective collection, will be a swing tag with a picture of the woman who made the item along with a tag that’s signed and numbered by her.

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(Source: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1597899565/ricefield-collective-knit-4-life)

Perhaps it’s just the circles I’m in at the moment, but wool and knitwear is on trend (see Wool House held at Somerset House last month). Given the nature of knitting as a skill, its history in the gift economy (both as a skill and the items produced) knitted craft gives the chance to reflect well on the stories that accompany our clothing (See Amy Keep and Share for more work on knitting sustainable fashion). What I like so much about the Ricefield Collective is how much the geographies of Ifugao region are reflected in the products – the pattern of the landscape, the everyday geographies of women, the making of global connections between of the collective’s founders Meredith, Anna and Jean, designers such as Stephen West in the U.S.  There is no wool production in the Philippines, so the wool itself is American wool from Quince & Co. in Portland, Maine, which is made from natural fibres and produced in a labour friendly way. Anna hopes that “though questions have been raised about the location of the wool produced, I see it as we can help another company this way, and they can support us”.

I’m so excited to meet with Anna again after her first ‘knitting school’ in the Philippines, it’s great to chat in anticipation but the best stories will be how the collective comes to establish itself in the coming months, and the experience of establishing the collective beyond the planning stage. Please have a watch of the video, and help out if you can with your pennies or through sharing with friends – there’s just a couple of days left to support. The potential for creativity and sharing of craft and skills is both exciting and enduring – as this exciting project shows (& I look forward to getting my mits on of those spiral slouchy hats!)

*** Pleased to inform that the kickstarter funding ended at $73,045 with 1,235 backers – amazing feat from the $24,600 target funds, and amazing news for the project!

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