4 September 2015
Words: Xandra van der Eijk
Photography: Xandra van der Eijk
Straight after Dutch Design Week, we departed for a trip to Bulgaria. As we had been sending samples up and down for Nikkie Wester, it was now time to meet in real life with this producer and visit some potential new producers in the area.
As I personally had never travelled to Bulgaria, I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the country. The smell of winter already filled the air, even though it was barely autumn. As I got of my flight, my travel company was waiting for me and moments later we were driving through a winter wonderland. It’s a strange thing arriving in a country you have never travelled to in the dark – somewhat magic even.
Giddy as schoolgirls we met the boss of the textile company in charge of the knitting project we connected Nikkie with. Nikkie made house socks with fishtails, a design derived from her project Stossen – a research into Dutch folklore and her own family history. As there socks had to be knitted by hand, we had started a year before to search into a possibility for production. With previous good experiences the appointment in Bulgaria was just to confirm the relationship and to overcome a language barrier. During the week we met several times, with the women who actually knitted the socks as well as the owner of the company, Slavka.
As this type of product was quite unfamiliar to her (she was otherwise much used to more conventional products for the textile industry), we started a conversation about the differences between our markets and the opportunities we can offer each other.
"These are peoples lives. This money is their rent, this money is their food. "
Poverty is high in Bulgaria and jobs are hard to find for women who have children or for women who need some type of flexibility – for instance for taking care of their elders. When a client first approached Slavka for a handknitted product, she searched in her surroundings for a solution. She asked some women she knew and offered them the job. At that time, for her it was just business – not realizing just yet what the impact of her little project had on the lives of the women she hired. It was not until payment day, she recognized the significance of what she had initiated. ‘These are peoples lives’, she said, ‘this money is their rent, this money is their food.’ She professionalized the project by setting up a structure. A couple of women came in to learn the pattern, returned to their villages and familiarized a couple of other women with the technique. Each of them would learn it to another something women – until there would be enough women working to be able to catch a deadline or fulfill an assignment. The women are allowed to bring their children to the office, do the work at home at hours that suit them.
All of us were moved by this boss’ perfect balance between business and compassion.
Since I have a passion for kelims and Bulgaria has a strong tradition in making them, we sought out some local kelim producers. It was a beautiful foggy day, with the scent of woodfire in the air and a lovely roadtrip through the countryside. We saw two workshops and were amazed by the quality these small businesses have to offer. The first one had us drooling over intense colours and family tree patterns, where the second one had a quite similar approach to business as our textile producer Slavka.
With great hospitality we were shown the workshop and offered homemade treats. One thing that has stuck with me is the strong community sense. Things that are a luxury or even ‘hipster’ in the Netherlands, are a basic reality and necessity in these villages. People live of their land and their trade. They depend on each other. As four elder women were working in a chamber next to the room we were received in, I asked them about their work. There was a major language barrier, but it was clear they were actually enjoying their work a lot. ‘They come here with their friends, chatting over the meditative handling of the loom while earning their money’, says their boss, again a lady. Their hands are shaped after the work, weaving with a speed that could only be obtained by daily practice. It is an inspirational site to behold. All of this, in a small room in an even smaller village in Bulgaria.
As we buy our samples and souvenirs to support the locals, we leave Bulgaria with a strong need to provide them with as much work as we possibly can. With no expectations about this country at all, my heart is now filled with the kindness of these people and the admiration for their way of life.