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.

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