Knitting isn't just for grandma anymore. Two Arcata sisters, both in their early 30s, are knitting their way to success - turning a profit and touring the world - via handmade sweaters.
Gayle and Andrea Shackleton started selling under their Hot Knots label in 1985. Both graduates of nearby Humboldt State University, Gayle majored in painting while Andrea was into textile arts.
While neither of them had a business background, it was relatively easy to find buyers for their handmade products. On the manufacturing side, the key to their success has been working with women's cooperatives in other countries.
Hot Knots sweaters are made in Arcata, but the sisters helped design two other lines of apparel by working with women in Nepal and Guatemala. Shipped back, the dresses, sweaters, backpacks and other items end up in boutiques across the nation.
Not only are the Arcata sisters making money, but they say they're helping create economic opportunities for foreign women.
"Working with people in rural areas - using traditional skills they're already doing - is a way to bring money to them without exploiting them," Gayle said.
Though knitting and weaving skills remain a traditional part of Nepalese and Guatemalan culture, women in those countries have a hard time making a living, Gayle said.
The creation of knitting cooperatives seems to be beneficial to everyone involved.
The Shackletons' first traveled to Nepal in 1991 after their Hot Knots designs caught the eye of officials with Aid to Artisans, a nonprofit organization that assists craftspeople around the world.
Once in Nepal, the Arcatans worked with a women's knitting cooperative called the Association for Craft Producers. The ACP knitters, after a short involvement with a business in Japan, had been left trying to sell snowflake-design sweaters on the streets of steamy Kathmandu.
Realizing that the small, conservatively designed sweaters would not sell well in Western countries, Gayle and Andrea created new designs based on objects found in the Nepalese culture. They created sweaters using detailed wrought-iron gate designs, prayer wheels and other religious symbols.
The Nepalese women thought the Shackletons were a bit crazy, but they agreed to knit larger-sized sweaters with bolder patterns to develop a Western market. The intricately designed sweaters are time-consuming to make (it takes a knitter about four times longer to put together a Hot Knots design than it did to make a Japanese snowflake sweater), but the knitters also make more money.
In fact, the ACP - which also includes women who work with ceramics, metal, embroidery and weaving - has made enough money to support its members and to purchase a building to house the group's cafeteria and wholesale store. The ACP also offers its members education for their children, peer counseling, savings accounts, and health and retirement benefits.
While making and selling traditional crafts is often the only source of income for a Nepalese family, most women have little or no control over family finances. The ACP is pushing beyond those barriers by giving the women control over their money and their time.
The sisters have been back to Nepal three times, expanding their designs to include cotton sweaters and rugs made from soft, embroidered stretches of merino wool. The line, called Tara after a Nepalese goddess, has proven so successful it now accounts for almost half the Shackletons' profit.
And the Nepalese knitting cooperative has increased from about 16 members to over 200, Gayle said.
Clare Smith, president of the Connecticut-based Aid to Artisans, said the organization is "intensely proud" of the Shackletons' work in Nepal.
"They've gone on to do what we always hoped with Aid to Artisans," she said in a telephone interview.
Smith added that although the organization regularly connects Western designers with craftspeople in poorer countries, relationships often end when the designers go home. Not so with the Shackletons, who realized the mutual benefits of such a relationship. The Arcatans have the marketing skills and boutique connections; the women in Nepal and Guatemala have the knitting and other craft skills.
It was early last year when the sisters went to the village of Totonicapan in Guatemala with a group sponsored by U.S. Aid for International Development.
They wanted to avoid developing products like the colorfully woven jackets and other apparel coming out of Guatemala for several years now. These items have glutted Western markets and provide little income for native craftspeople, the Shackletons said.
Instead, the Arcata women focused on other Guatemalan apparel and developed new styles merging American and Guatemalan designs.
The results are flowing cotton dresses with crocheted edges, small woven panels to hang on walls and cotton backpacks detailed with embroidery. The line is called Toto after the village.
It wasn't too difficult to overcome the language barrier, the Arcatans said. While working with Nepalese and Guatemalan women, the topics of discussion were knitting, crocheting and embroidery - all learned by watching and doing.
"It's a simple thing, but it's something that everybody knew how to do," Andrea said. "And it's a link with women around the world."
Along the way, strong friendships have developed.
"People are so much more open with their hearts when their hands are busy," Gayle said.
The sisters also work with about 25 local independent business women here in Humboldt County. Each woman works separately yet cooperatively to produce Hot Knots apparel. This arrangement allows some women to work at home with their children. Being home-based and parttime, this work allows time for other pursuits.
"It empowers me as a professional, not only as a woman," said Perri Jackson, who also teaches knitting classes at the Camel in Arcata.
The Shackletons said they respect the skills of the Hot Knots knitters and often collaborate with them on new designs.
"They're incredible women and they're trying really hard to create a way of working in the world," Gayle said. The competition between handmade items and mass-produced apparel is extreme in the United States. Machine-made apparel is usually less expensive because of the time involved and the fact that women's handiwork hasn't always been highly valued.
Hopefully, that is changing, they said. And they hope to expand to work with women in other countries as well. There are some stirrings in Russia and Peru, but Andrea said the sisters are so busy now they can't devote time to another endeavor.
"In the future, when there's time, we'd love to work with other cooperatives around the world," she said.
Neiman Marcus, the Dallas-based department store, may soon place a huge order, and although that kind of business contract was what the sisters originally thought they wanted, now they're not so sure. Andrea said she still loves the one-on-one relationships with boutique owners, who know the stories behind the sweaters and pass them along to customers.
And the Shackletons said they feel more secure in doing business with about 500 small stores rather than one huge department store chain. If one contract falls through, there are still hundreds of others to keep them - and their partners around the world - in business.
Whatever the future holds, Gayle and Andrea both said it's important they continue working with handmade crafts and bypass manufacturers who would - if possible - use machines to recreate those items.
"I think people respond to handmade things in a way you can't put into words," Gayle said. Those who knit, weave and embroider, are artists, she said, and therefore incredibly important in the long run.
"If a culture loses its traditional way of creating art, then a culture loses its image," Gayle said.
Karen Jeffries, a former reporter for the Times-Standard, is publications editor for the North Coast Coop and a free-lance writer.
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