THE LANGUAGE OF TEXTILES

BY BILL THOMPSON

In the Malay language, the word “ibu” refers to a woman deserving of respect—a mother, an aunt, a teacher or, for that matter, any woman devoted to sustaining her family and community.

As the name adopted for an international movement founded by Susan Hull Walker, ibu could not be more appropriate, for it also suggests the value that should be placed on the work of female artisans. From its showroom on King Street to online sales and trunk shows, ibu offers exquisite textile wares and other handmade items whose sales help support women in 38 countries.

Walker, an accomplished fabric artist, is celebrating four successful years of ibu. Working with sales director Marisa Nemirow and production director Jamie Buskey, Walker is overseeing the challenge of managing ibu’s continuing growth.

What was the genesis of ibu?

I was a minister for 18 years before going back to school in textile art at the Savannah College of Art and Design. I learned that for most of human history textiles have been created by women, infused with their values and their stories. As a minister interpreting the Bible and other sacred texts, I always wondered how they would have read if a woman had written them—if they had had the ability to read and write, which through most of history they didn’t. But then I realized that they did weave, they did spin, they did dye, and that they were placing their values and their stories into textiles. I really loved this field of exploration and wanted to know these stories.

Are these traditions in danger of disappearing?

Yes. Because women traditionally have not been paid for this work, done mainly for their families. And if they don’t get paid, they are going to have to move to a big city and do factory work or something similar. It’s going to destroy their communities and displace their children.

It is not only spoken and written languages that are at risk of being lost. Aren’t textiles a form of literacy and communication, too?

Absolutely, and that language could die. So my first impulse was to help preserve these traditions, if possible, realizing that this is a particular skill that has never been valued to the point of elevating it and making it worth paying for. What I wanted to do was find the market of women who would pay for the real deal, not imitations, and that would allow the creators to stay in their homes, to have their children around them as they work, with the money coming in to them directly.

When women get paid for this work, what is the multiplier effect on family finances?

It can be huge. They are getting a fair price and a living, sustainable wage. Now they know that what they do is valued, that women in the West want to buy and wear what they create. When women start making money it changes everything: the way husbands and fathers see them, what they allow them to do and what decisions the women now make.

Is ibu’s focus chiefly on the developing world?

Yes, and there are 101 different co-operatives in the 38 countries in which we’re involved. If you add in all the countries that we sell to, that’s another 50 countries and 50,000 women who are part of this movement.

How does ibu function as a business?

Seventy percent of these items we sell we design ourselves, then they are produced by the women artisans overseas. Thirty percent are their own designs that we buy from them directly. Apart from the store, online sales and trunk shows in major cities, we also take our products to a wholesale market to find other retailers who will carry them. That way we can increase the amount of inventory and the amount of work for these women. Ibu is a for-profit business, because I believe in that model for helping women. Every time I ask a group what they need, they say more work. We buy directly from them like a wholesaler, then do a traditional retail markup, which barely covers all our costs. We have to grow because the only way to make it sustainable is to produce quality goods in quantity.

You’ve also started a nonprofit foundation. What is its purpose?

A lot of the groups producing these products may not have business or garment construction skills and may need classes. We want to sustain not only ibu’s business but theirs. We’re doing all the private fund-raising now and plan to launch next March on International Women’s Day.

What has been most gratifying to you about this enterprise?

It is inspiring, because the women we work with are so inspiring. They are our friends, a kind of family. This increase in appreciation for artisanship is also coming at a huge point in history when women are having their moment. I feel like I’m in a sweet spot where I am utilizing almost everything I’ve done prior to this, including the ministry. Certainly the actual weaving and textile studies I did at SCAD help me understand the artisans we’re talking about, what’s involved and what they’re capable of.

How has this work influenced your own art?

This is my art. It is all I have time for, 24/7. We are doing so many things right now that I can hardly keep up. I don’t have a formula for what works. I’m doing this straight from the heart. After all, these are handmade pieces that take months to create. They have soul and symbolism and stories. They are heirlooms that can be passed down.

Bill Thompson covers the arts, film and books.