April 14, 2013

Knitting Together a Community

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Ricefield Collective, founded by Meredith Talusan, is a campaign aimed to provide employment to a community of rice farmers of a village in the Ifugao region of the Philippines through knitting. Ricefield Collective sells hand knit products locally and internationally through its Kickstarter profile. Started in 2011, Ricefield Collective has grown beyond Talusan’s expectations and continues to empower employees in the Ifugao.

After growing up in the Philippines, Talusan was attracted to conducting fieldwork in a rural region of the country. On her first visit to Ifugao Talusan befriended a local rice farmer who was financially strained and considering leaving her home village due to the burden. Talusan knew she wanted to help.

The response to Ricefield Collective’s initiative has far surpassed Meredith’s expectations. Going into their first knitting lesson equipped with only seven pairs of knitting needles, the Filipino team has since grown to twenty employees and are now joined by other women in the community who picked up the craft independently. And, after pairing with Kickstarter over the winter, Ricefield Collective has found support in the form of hundreds of online donors.

Soon after joining Kickstarter, Ricefield surpassed its goal of raising $24,600. Since then, it has increased its goal to $85,000 by this Friday. Last summer, the team operated out of two knitters’ homes, but after the recent infusion of funds, they now aspire to create a facility for the program that may dually operate as a community center.

Kickstarter has recognized the value of Ricefield Collective’s project, as well: Ricefield was recently named Kickstarter’s project of the day.

“[There’s] this website that gets hundreds of thousands of people coming to it on a regular basis and you go to the homepage and this file that has been on your computer for the past month is suddenly on their homepage,” Talusan said. “It’s amazing that people resonate with what we stand for.”

Ricefield uses patterns by popular knitwear designer Stephen West, who created patterns for knit hats by drawing inspiration from the Philippine mountains. Many of the products feature cable and rib designs that cascade down the sides of the hat. From a style perspective, some of the cable designs are very basic, but others, such as those with diagonal rib patterns, are more creative and demonstrate more interesting craftsmanship. All of the hats are knit from thick American wool yarn that creates thick designs and a homemade appearance.

At first glance, Ricefield’s collection of heathered cable knitwear may make one wary of yet another collection of overpriced bohemian apparel like Toms, where the badge of conscious consumerism justifies donation to an inefficiently operated charity. Yet, by integrating the beneficiaries into the production process, Ricefield’s fashion collection seems to be the only logical model for meeting the campaign’s goals. Talusan says, “We wanted to give people an opportunity to give themselves employment and be able to have control over money that they make rather than being given things directly.”

Ricefield aims to provide Ifugao citizens employment, allocating revenue entirely to the workers wages. Talusan says, “I think, especially in the U.S., that [this] model isn’t very well understood because there’s definitely more emphasis on direct charity; you give money to a charity and the aid goes to someone else.”

Talusan’s goal goes beyond employing the Ifugao people. After working with the women of Ifuago Talusan has grown attached to the community, and is now personally committed to enhancing the lifestyles of it’s people. “It’s important that we employ them and provide income for them, but it’s also really important that the quality of their life improves apart from the money or financial aspect.” She notes that learning knitting skills allows parents to work from home and better care for children. Additionally, Talusan has used knitting instruction as a way to teach basic literacy and math skills to women in Ifugao.

Meredith credits Ithaca and the Cornell community for providing inspiration and support to Ricefield and its growth. In addition to the entrepreneurial advice of professors, the Cornell Filipino Association adopted Ricefield as a core philanthropic organization this fall, fueling the campaign with backing and courage to proceed. Ricefield has made an effort to involve the Ithaca community, placing pilot products at Art and Found. Talusan says, “[Ithaca] is the kind of place that values people and working toward a common good, not just profit, but peoples’ quality of life. That’s what we’re working towards.”

After completing her graduate studies next year, Talusan plans to continue growing Ricefield Collective beyond Ithaca and increase the presence of Ricefield within the community. She states, “You can still be local while thinking about some other place. Just because an organization is helping people out there it doesn’t mean that they can’t also be an integrated member of their local community.”

Original Author: Madeline Salinas