In 2002 Beverly Edwards-Sawatzky saw some sweaters that had been knitted by impoverished women in the city of Cochabamba, in Bolivia, the poorest nation in South America. The sweaters had been brought to Canada by volunteers working for Save the Children.
Edwards-Sawatzky decided she had to help too.
First she flew to Bolivia, to make sure that the money from the sale of sweaters really was going to the knitters, not to invisible marketing agencies. Also, if she was going to represent these women, she wanted to know them personally.
Then she started organizing sweater sales with volunteers in Edmonton and now in Lake Country, here in the Okanagan.
So far, through her efforts, nearly $600,000 has gone to help lift 45 families out of poverty.
Twenty-five years ago, Save the Children Canada brought together a group of displaced women—mostly single mothers—helped them to organize themselves into a knitting cooperative called Minkha, which means “women working together” in the Quechua language.
All through the Andes, women knit soft alpaca wool into traditional patterns. Women knit while bringing produce to market, while herding livestock, while tending children.
But the Minkha garments are exceptional and different. Renowned clothing designer Kaffe Fassett was so impressed by the quality of Minkha work that he personally donated some patterns to the women.
“Their skill is amazing,” says Edwards-Sawatzky. “I’ve sent them photographs of sweater designs, I’ve taken them through markets, and I’ve asked, ‘Could you knit that?’ They study it for a few minutes, and then they can do it!”
In Canada, the sweaters—also vests, shawls, ponchos, and scarves, for men and children as well as women—typically sell for $35 to $250 each. “It sounds expensive,” admits Edwards-Sawatzky, “but in Canada it would cost that much just to buy the alpaca wool unknit.”
In addition to alpaca, the Minkha women also knit the garments using Peruvian pima cotton, which Edwards-Sawatzky calls “the Cadillac of cottons.”
Minkha knitted garments will be available April 26, at Winfield United Church in Lake Country, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Many sweaters, vests and wraps will be available for immediate sale. Others can be ordered. It takes about three months for a custom order to be delivered.
The profits go directly to the women in Bolivia. All Canadian services are donated.
The sales organized by Edwards-Sawatzky and her team of volunteers have changed the women’s lives.
“When I used to knit for the Bolivian people,” recalls Alcida Callejas Quevedo, “I could use my payment to buy two pounds of sugar. With the payment from Canada, I could buy 104 pounds of sugar!”
Another woman, 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 has come back to serve the people of Cochabamba.
Bev Edwards-Sawatzky is currently in Bolivia, catching up and working with her friends. She will return in April, with many stories and sweaters, for the sale at Winfield United Church, April 26.