Bolivian women knit themselves to prosperity

These Bolivian families have gone from total poverty, to owning and operating their own business, to becoming professionals.

The first time that Oyama resident Beverly Edwards-Sawatzky saw the sweaters knitted by the Minkha Co-operative in Bolivia, she knew she had to get involved.

Sawatzky herself has a passion for colour, textiles, and design. And she could recognize immediately that these sweaters were special.

That was in 2001, when she was still living in Edmonton. The next year, she flew to Bolivia, the poorest nation in South America, to make sure that the profits from Canadian sales really were going to the knitters, not to invisible marketing agencies.

She came to know the knitters and their story personally.

Until the late 1980s, most of the women had lived in Oruro, site of one of the world’s richest tin mines. Then the world tin markets crashed. The mines closed.

In that machismo culture, the men abandoned their wives and children, and left in search of new jobs. Relocated to Cochabamba, lacking education, employable skills, and incomes, the women eked out an existence on the streets.

Save the Children Canada knew that women all through the Andes knit constantly — while walking, while talking, while riding the bus, while taking produce to market, herding livestock, and tending children. A volunteer organized a few of these displaced women into a knitting cooperative, called Minkha, and brought some of their beautiful hand-knit garments to Canada.

In the local Quechua language, “Minkha” means “women working together.”

That’s when Edwards-Sawatzky got involved. She has organized displays of Minkha knitted sweaters, shawls, vests, and wraps in Edmonton, Calgary, Cranbrook, and Lake Country.

Over the last 12 years, her efforts have resulted in more than $600,000 going to the Minkha Cooperative`s 45 families.

“When I used to knit for the local people,” recalls Alcida Callejas Quevedo, a single mother with three children, “I could use my payment to buy two pounds of sugar. With the payment from Canada, I could buy 104 pounds of sugar!”

Yola Nina Leon was pregnant with her first daughter when she began knitting with the Minkha Cooperative 18 years ago. That first daughter is now training as a nurse. Another daughter plans to become a human rights lawyer.

Another knitter’s son recently graduated as a doctor, and came back to Cochabamba to serve the community that gave him his start.

“In a single generation,” Edwards-Sawatzky points out, “these families have gone from total poverty, to owning and operating their own business, to becoming professionals.”

World-renowned clothing designer Kaffe Fassett was so impressed by the quality of Minkha work that he personally donated some of his patterns to the women.

In Canada, the sweaters – also coats, vests, ponchos, for men and children as well as women – typically sell for $125 to $250 each. “It sounds expensive,” admits Edwards-Sawatzky. “But in Canada it would cost that much just to buy the alpaca wool unknit.”

Other items like scarves, shawls, and children’s sweaters sell for $35 to $70.

The Minkha women also knit most of their patterns in Peruvian pima cotton, which Edwards-Sawatzky calls “the Cadillac of cottons”, a beautiful fibre with a silky sheen.

She will have a display and sale of Minkha knitted products Saturday April 26, at Winfield United Church in Lake Country, from 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Many sweaters, vests, and wraps will be available for immediate sale. Others can be ordered. It takes about three months for the finished order to be delivered.

The profits go directly to the women in Bolivia. All Canadian services are donated.

Kelowna Capital News

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Crews called to overnight fire in Ellison

Kelowna Fire first received the call around 9:55 p.m.

Kelowna RCMP make arrest in fatal stabbing of 16-year-old Elijah Beauregard

An 18-year-old woman is in police custody facing a manslughter charge.

Kelowna Firefighters douse suspicious hedge fire

A 30’ section of cedar hedge burned prompting an RCMP investigation.

West Kelowna director nominated for Juno Award

Johnny Jansen directed B.C. band Said the Whale’s ‘Record Shop’ video

West Kelowna Warriors edge Vernon Vipers 6-4

The teams meet again on Saturday, Feb. 22 at 6 p.m. for the final game of regular season

VIDEO: 2020 BC Winter Games wrap up in Fort St. John as torch passes to Maple Ridge

More than 1,000 athletes competed in the 2020 BC Winter Games

First win, fifth win highlight BC Senior Curling finals

Donna Mychaluk wins first title after finishing second five times; Wes Craig takes fifth crown

Still six cases of COVID-19 in B.C. despite reports of Air Canada passenger: ministry

Health ministry wouldn’t comment on specific flight routes

Violent ends to past Indigenous protests haunt Trudeau government

Trudeau adopted a more assertive tone Friday, insisting the barricade must come down

HIGHLIGHTS: Day one and two at the 2020 BC Winter Games

Athletes had sunny – but cold – weather to work with in Fort St. John

BC Senior Curling titles to be decided in Vernon

Wes Craig, Penny Shantz looking for fifth championships; Steve Wright, Donna Mychaluk into finals

B.C. money laundering inquiry to begin amid hopes for answers, accountability

Eby argued that most B.C. residents already know the previous government, at best, turned a blind eye

Most Read