My daughter, Carolyn, graduated from Notre Dame in May with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Industrial Design. Before she starts her “actual” job in Chicago in August, she is spending 10 weeks in Kathmandu, Nepal, with one of her college professors and two other Notre Dame students. They are working with a fair trade group, the Association of Craft Producers (ACP), to design products that can then be made and sold by local craftsmen and artisans in Nepal. Last year, the ACP netted $800,000 from the products made with the student’s designs, no small sum in that desperately poor country. Carolyn regularly writes a blog detailing the highs and lows of her experience, some of which is excerpted in the following paragraphs.
We start work around 10 am, sometimes 11, if “traffic” is very bad. Including a lunch break around 1 pm, we spend the rest of the day laying out patterns and colors, running back and forth between the felt, leather, and ceramics departments, and getting lost in the sea of fabric in the textile room. So pretty normal, right? But every so often, something will happen that reminds us, “Oh, yeah, Nepal.”
For a lot of sons and daughters in Nepal, life is very hard. We ride a bus to work every day that is conducted by a boy between the ages of 8 and 11. The boy collects fares in exchange for a few bites of food and a place to sleep at night (inside the bus). He will never receive an education, visit a dentist, or eat a meal cooked by his own mother. One bus boy the other day, in particular, made me think of my dad. As I handed him my fifteen rupees, I saw that he had a small sixth finger on the outside of his right thumb. My dad has operated on similar malformations while on medical missions to Peru. He tells me it is a very simple procedure, but I doubt the boy on the bus will ever undergo the operation.
Since I can’t run outside, I do these silly little Insanity-type Nike Training Club workouts on my iPad in our apartment common room, until I have sufficiently sweated through my one remaining clean shirt. Then, I take a cold shower, always keeping an eye out for cockroaches. We eat breakfast at our Nepali parents’ house next door (rice, mango, fried bread, or ramen noodle soup), and then walk to the nearest intersection to catch the bus. Best case scenario: we share the hollowed-out back of what would be considered a sedan in America with ten to twelve people. Worst case scenario: we squeeze onto a city bus with about sixty other people. Sweatier and with more contact than The Backer on a football weekend, and smelling just a little bit worse.
ACP recently received a visit from Mary McKenna, a 2012 ND grad and representative for Piece & Co., a start-up based in Chicago that works to source fair-trade and artisan goods to big companies, such as Madewell, Ann Taylor, and Anthropologie. Apparently, J.Crew is interested in using some of ACP’s shibori dyed fabric. Rachel Brandenberger, another ND student, introduced shibori to ACP when she came to Nepal last year, and it has been very popular with buyers ever since.
We worked all of Monday to reproduce the samples J.Crew had sent us. Their samples were unlike anything we had ever seen before, so we employed some pretty creative measures, including binding the fabric with strips from bicycle tires, wood blocks and vise grips, and something we called “sushi-bori.”
When we untied the dyed pieces on Tuesday, we were very happy with the results. Now we just have to wait for word back from “Mr. Crew,” as the people at ACP say. If they like it, it’s 110 yards to the States by July 4! Fair-trade or nah, welcome to the world of fashion, where deadlines don’t budge and impossible means nothing.