Brooke Bobb reports for Vogue:
Why One New York Designer Traveled to Bolivia to Craft the Perfect Sweater
Every fashion lover has one—that perfectly soft staple sweater that is and always has been a trusted fixture in an overabundant closet. Nicole Heim, designer of the sustainable, New York–based clothing label Cienne, knows the joy said knit can bring to a woman come fall or winter. In her mind, however, a go-to piece of clothing should also come with a sense of empowerment, as well as a knowledge of how it was made. That’s exactly why she journeyed to La Paz, Bolivia, earlier this year to spend a week learning hand-knitting techniques from local female artisans. She teamed up with the Madres and Artesanas Tex S.R.L. cooperative, which helped her create the black-and-white striped alpaca Sylvie sweater that is the hero piece of Cienne’s Fall 2016 collection. She’d been conceptualizing the design seven months prior to her trip, with a silhouette in mind that was, “inspired by a 1980s sweater from one of our designer’s dad’s closets.”
“I chose to travel to Bolivia specifically for their locally sourced alpaca wool and the skill level of the artisans,” Heim explains. She was introduced to Madres and Artesanas by a friend and was immediately “enamored with their talent.” “The group is made up of mini cooperatives of almost 300 female workers—mainly mothers—who are highly skilled in hand-knitting, macramé, crochet, hand-weaving, and hand-looming.” Through the organization, these caretakers can either work from home while watching their children and extended family members, or work from a central workshop where they are able to bring their kids. In this instance, the children receive daycare and schooling while the women can receive technical training and emotional counseling in addition to fair wages.
Heim aims to continue this partnership, just as she’s done with other artisan groups she’s worked with in the past in countries including India, Ethiopia, and Peru. As she notes, “there’s nothing more refreshing than throwing yourself into a foreign place, especially if aspects of it are still relatively untouched.” Now, thanks to the designer, these Bolivian women have a small but relative place on the global fashion market, and that’s precisely what makes a simple piece of clothing so much more impactful. “There’s a great sense of pride for these women when they see their work on an international stage,” says Heim. “I feel that same sense of pride when my discovery process leads me to an artisan group whose work I admire—they are essentially an extended part of our design team.” Looks like the perfect staple sweater just found its real purpose.
Above, Heim shares her personal travel diary from Bolivia, highlighting the markets, the mountains, and of course, the brilliant women weavers of La Paz.