Tropical Felting

Learning an unfamiliar craft to earn income

From the main intersection in Verrettes, a dusty small town in the Artibonite valley, a dirt road leads to an open hangar in the midst of rice fields. Here, about thirty women are working on long wooden tables, laying out heaps of raw wool in geometrical patterns and carefully massaging and modeling the wetted wool until the fibers start to shrink and magically consolidate into a strong, seamless textile.

The women are creating their signature product -- handfelted sleeves from organic, plant-dyed wool for iPhone, MacBook and iPad. The McSocks have found many delighted users in the States and even impressed Susan Brown, textile curator at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, by their beauty and finesse.

Sheep seem more to belong in the rainy hills of Scotland, so how did wool arrive in the tropics?

A few years ago, the women met this Dutch journalist who was passing through and asked him to find a product they could sell abroad. The home market for their embroidery was drying up because of the economic downturn in Haiti. On her farm in the north of Holland, Claudy Jongstra, an internationally acclaimed felting artist, advised wet felting because it only requires hot water, soap, strong hands and no electricity.

But it is also an artisan’s skill that has to be mastered. Annie Arthur from New York and Ashley Helvey from San Francisco, who had worked with Claudy, came to Verrettes to teach the women felting. Wool from an organic sheep farm, the Thirteen Mile Lamb and Wool Company in Montana, was brought along, packed in vacuum bags, and carried past puzzled customs agents at the Port-au-Prince airport.

In the three years since the women learned felting, they had some big disputes. A major issue became whether the group should become a worker-owned co-operative or remain under the management of a local boss. The group broke up over the controversy and it took months to start a new collective.

With a grant from the government of Sevilla, Spain, the women – most of them illiterate -- learned how to set up a co-operative. Thirty women became proud members of Fanm Veret, Wi Nou Kapab!, Creole for The Women of Verrettes, Yes We Can Do It!

Then, on January 12, 2010, the earthquake struck. Although Verrettes was not damaged, the deaths of family members in the capital, the arrival of thousands of homeless, and a sense of doom -- one disaster striking after another – weakened the momentum of the cooperative.

Thanks to a steady flow of orders from Tekserve, the oldest Apple store in Manhattan, which supports good causes in Haiti, the resilient women of Verrettes are recovering. They are now working on beautiful iPad sleeves. These and other McSocks are for sale at Tekserve starting November 22nd and can be ordered online at www.turtletreefoundation.org.

The women are still facing many obstacles. But as Elcina Désulmé, one of the group leaders, sings with a little smile, “Piti, piti, wazo fe nich li.” Little by little, the bird makes its nest.

Freelance journalist and documentary filmmaker is the chairman and founder of Turtle Tree Foundation. He blogs in Dutch about the organization’s activities on http://www.laruta.nu/

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