Cover image: Jack Gordon | Written by Cameron Walker
Can a silk scarf change the world? For the women of a small village in Madagascar, it has changed everything. Textile Technology alumna Kyley Schmidt ‘00 put her degree to work during a tour with the Peace Corps, helping the rural community of Soatanana turn their tradition of weaving with wild silk into a sustainable industry. With her support, they honed their skills, organized into a cooperative and have increased their household income by 70%.
When she returned to the United States in 2005, she founded social venture Peace Goods to sell the silks stateside, and went back to school to learn more about running a successful business. She graduated in 2008 with her MBA in Sustainable Enterprise from the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School.
We spoke with the Waxhaw, North Carolina native about her company, her experience with the Peace Corps, and how the Wilson College of Textiles at NC State helped her acquire the skills she needed to set this all in motion. Read on for her story.
Tell us more about your company, Peace Goods.
It began when I was working in Madagascar [an island nation off the coast of East Africa] as a Peace Corps health volunteer. Shortly after moving to my assigned village, I realized a lack of income was one of the biggest impediments to improving the area’s health. People couldn’t afford all the things they needed to live a healthy life, like a variety of healthy foods, medicine, health services, soap, proper clothing, fuel for cook stoves to boil and sanitize their drinking water, and secondary school for their children. It was a frustrating realization.
At that point, a respected woman in the community named Zety Be approached me with some fabrics she had made. I wasn’t sure what they were made of — they looked very primitive — but I found out they were scarves woven from wild Borocera silk, a rare species of wild silkworm that lives in the native tapia forests in the central highlands of Madagascar. Naturally I was intrigued, as I studied textile design at NC State and have always loved fabrics. So I took the scarves to a local city, showed them to other Peace Corps volunteers, and all of her pieces sold instantly.
When I came back and handed her the money from her sales, word spread like wildfire. There were women showing up at my door left and right, telling me that they could weave, and asking if I could help them sell their silks. So I organized a meeting for all the women who were interested in working with me. There were so many women at that meeting that they were climbing on top of each other to fit in the room. At that point, I knew we were on to something. Over the next two years, we worked together to form an all-woman cooperative of about 100 weavers [called the Solidarity Cooperative] and revived the village’s silk weaving industry through selling scarves and shawls to new markets such as tourist shops in cities around Madagascar.
In the beginning, most of the women were no longer weaving, as they had lost their local silk market decades ago due to the influx of cheaper synthetic fabrics from India and China. In order to sell, we had to drastically improve the quality and design of the fabrics to make them softer to wear and to be visually more appealing. We needed to do trainings to improve the women’s skill. Some women were good at one thing, but not another. At first, the women did not want to share their trade secrets with each other; however, I asked them point blank, “What do you have to lose? You aren’t selling anything now.” After thinking it over, they agreed, and began sharing their trade secrets. We did numerous trainings where the women could learn and share their techniques on spinning, weaving, patterning and natural dye techniques. Plus, I taught them how to critique their work, all of which lead to amazing improvements in the silk’s quality. We marketed their story using hangtags in English and French, so tourists visiting local boutiques could grasp the uniqueness of the fabrics. Sales began rolling in.
Along with in-country sales, we wanted to build an export market as well. So I contacted a former professor of mine from NC State’s Wilson College of Textiles, Philip Dail [founder of the nonprofit Together We Can], who began importing the silk and selling them in the U.S. Our ability to ship internationally was established, which was a big milestone in a country where everything can seem difficult.
Once sales got going, I noticed the women were wearing better clothing, their children seemed healthier and more well fed, and many of the mothers and grandmothers were able to send their children and grandchildren to secondary school, which filled all of us with pride. Their confidence grew and so did my commitment to these amazing women.
After returning to the U.S. in 2005, I founded Peace Goods to wholesale and retail the silks in the U.S. I wanted a way to stay connected and help them continue their success.
The goals of Peace Goods are [as follows]: provide much needed sustainable income for the weavers in Madagascar; revive the cultural art form of silk hand weaving, which has existed for centuries in Madagascar; and do this work in an environmentally sustainable way so as not to damage the area, but to improve the area. Our work reviving the silk industry in the central highlands has drastically and visibly improved the quality of life for these weavers, their families and community. We have estimated that this social enterprise is responsible for approximately a 70% increase in household income for the weavers. These opportunities give the women confidence and the ability to provide for their families, which means a lot in an impoverished area that had traditionally relied on subsistence farming.
My sales approach has included many craft shows in North Carolina (winning Best in Show at Cary Lazy Daze 2018), wholesaling to numerous boutiques and marketing the silk on Facebook. Peace Goods’ silk is currently offered at The Artisan Market at 305 in downtown Durham. I’m creating an e-commerce website for Peace Goods, which is scheduled to launch Spring 2020. Online sales are the future for Peace Goods, as well as partnering with retailers to create custom pieces. Although the online world is important for growth, word of mouth and making personal connections will always be our roots.
Tell us more about the process. Is it true that you design the patterns and then the scarves are woven by the artisans in Madagascar?
Over the years, I have taken a greater role in designing the scarves and shawls. Now I design almost all of the pieces I sell. I begin by sketching designs from inspirations, or with a goal in mind. Each design is carefully considered, sometimes having multiple rounds of adjustments, and I include technical weaving notes for the Malagasy weavers. This design control allows the silk to stay modern and relevant, and I can inventory specific designs to more easily fulfill online sales.
Once the weavers receive the sketches, they purchase the wild Borocera silk cocoons from local silk collectors. Then the women spin the yarn using drop spindles; they prefer drop spindles to spinning wheels because they are easy to carry around during the day, and they can spin a little here and a little there, as time allows. Next, they skein the yarn and dye it using mostly natural dyes including leaves, bark, clay and even rice paddy mud (for black). They use eucalyptus leaves, salt and ash to fix the natural dyes — and they do not run or fade.
After the yarn is dyed, they soak the yarn in rice water to give it a stiffer, stronger starch coating for the weaving process. Then they create the warp and finally weave the fabric on simple wooden floor looms. All of the patterning is picked by hand. After weaving, the fabric is washed, dried and ironed, then finished by knotting tassels.
What can you tell me about the women who make the scarves and what their lives are like?
The women live in the central highlands of Madagascar – it’s a mountainous area near a town called Ambohimahazo (their tiny village is called Soatanana, which translates to “Good Town”). The people primarily rely on subsistence farming for their food. Their main crop is rice, which everyone grows; other common crops include beans, tomatoes, onions, cassava and sweet potatoes. The people are poor but very hard working. They are extremely friendly, humble and love to laugh.
The women are traditionally silk weavers, and the men are traditionally woodworkers who make beautiful hand-crafted oxcarts. Their houses are made from wood and clay, and sometimes clay bricks. There is no running water, electricity or indoor plumbing. However, over the past several years they have gotten access to cell phone networks, allowing them to use smart phones and go online. I’m able to communicate with them via Facebook Messenger now! However, keeping their phones charged is sometimes a problem, as they have to use solar chargers, which often aren’t able to fully charge the phones. The good solar chargers can be very expensive, I’m told.
Tell us more about their traditional wild silk weaving.
The history of Madagascar silk is fascinating. “Lamba landy” (silk cloth) is considered the highest quality textile, and has dressed Madagascar royalty for centuries. In 1886, Queen Ranavalona III of Madagascar sent two beautiful silk textiles to U.S. president Grover Cleveland as a gift of friendship. The wild silk is also used for ceremonial burial shrouds in a time-honored tradition of ancestral worship (famadiana) where they wrap the dead in silk cloth, a tradition which continues today.
Is it true that wild silk is becoming more difficult to source due to habitat loss, and if so, has that affected the weavers in the co-op?
Yes, deforestation negatively affects the weavers big time. The Borocera silkworms, which are only found in Madagascar, are a “wild” species, which means that they have to live in the wild in native tapia forests. Some locals burn the hillsides to clear the land for cattle grazing, or cut trees to collect wood for cookstoves. This loss of habitat has decreased the supply of the silk cocoons and caused the price of the cocoons to increase substantially over the years. It also threatens the existence of the Borocera silkworm species. Ideally, I’d like to partner with a non-governmental organization (NGO), which could help us with forest conservation and education of the locals. We can use the silk’s income generation as a financial incentive to protect these natural areas. We need to get the community on board with protecting these forests and silkworms, which are a precious resource and an important part of the silk culture in Madagascar.
Let’s go all the way back. What drew you to the Wilson College of Textiles? What did you learn in school that you still use today?
I’ve always loved fashion, textiles and making things with my hands. Studying textiles at NC State enabled me to express that passion through my career. Without my textile background, I probably wouldn’t have had the confidence to take on building a silk cooperative, and I wouldn’t have had the tools to help the weavers improve their technical skills. Understanding how yarn and fabric composition affect the “hand” and look of fabric is absolutely key for my work. The weavers have taught me so much too; we benefit by sharing our different knowledge with each other.
How did you get involved with the Peace Corps?
The Peace Corps idea just struck me one day like a lightning bolt, and I knew I had to do it. It was the biggest challenge I had ever taken on, but it was exciting and it felt good to pursue something big. The Peace Corps allows volunteers to weigh in on the continent(s) they’d prefer to be placed in; however, I put “no preference.”
After a year of waiting, I was offered a health volunteer placement in Madagascar and I jumped at the chance. The main thing in the Peace Corps is flexibility — if you can keep an open mind, tough things out and keep a positive attitude (most of the time), you can do it. The reward is getting to help people in need while helping yourself grow into the person you want to be.
Describe your time in the Peace Corps. What do you remember about your time in Madagascar?
My time in the Peace Corps was hard and wonderful. It challenged me in ways that I had never experienced before; it took me completely out of my comfort zone. I learned many things: how to speak the Malagasy language, how to “slow down” and connect with people I passed on the street, how to take care of myself without running water, electricity or indoor plumbing. There were no distractions (television, cell phones, etc.) so I had to entertain myself with reading, music, journaling, mountain biking, writing letters — things that felt deeper and more real. It was a time of reflection. This time showed me I was tougher and more capable than I had realized.
There were quiet, and sometimes lonely, times at night where the sky was so dark blue and the stars were millions bright in every direction. This quiet time opened up a connection to the earth and life around me which I had never known.
The things I missed the most were family and friends — and food that I was used to. I dreamt of eating cheeseburgers and I’m not even that big into meat.
What is your advice for those who want to make a positive impact on the world?
Don’t wait for the perfect opportunity, just take a step in a good direction. Paths are windy in life, and those are usually the most interesting journeys. Be brave and honest, put yourself out there, and the stars just might align. Volunteer, donate or get involved with something meaningful to you.
Also, vote with your dollars. When you can, buy things from companies or people you want to support. It makes a difference.
What did I not ask that you want to share?
Travel and experiencing other cultures has made me appreciate our country so much more. I hear a lot of people criticizing our country for one thing or another, and it’s certainly not perfect; however, we are so lucky in so many ways. We have public services that so many do not. We can pick up the phone and call “911” and someone comes to help. This is not the case in many places in the world. I encourage everyone to travel and spend time in places to get a sense of them. It helps us appreciate the positive (and improve on the negative) within our own home.
What is next for you?
I’m trying to take Peace Goods from a craft industry side project to a complete sustainable system that can last. This includes growing Peace Goods into a thriving e-commerce retailer so as to make it more financially sustainable, looking for funding opportunities and partnering with a non-profit in Madagascar to help with forest and silkworm preservation.
Apart from Peace Goods, I want to supplement my income by working part-time for a company I believe in (I’m still searching this one out), to continue being a busy mom of two, to be brave and not doubt myself (a work in progress), and to make time for adventure.
You mentioned a redesigned website — when will that be up?
The weavers even created their own Facebook group! I’m extremely proud of them — they have become true entrepreneurs and come so far. You can follow them at https://www.facebook.com/groups/748987845595445/ (Zanak’i Soatanana)
Follow the Wilson College of Textiles: