Feeding Refugees in Fortress Europe

my latest venture, knitting for refugees. You can help.
my latest venture, knitting for refugees. You can help.

 

This weekend, my husband and I went with Act!on Food to a stopping point for refugees, to provide free food, tea, donations of warm clothes, and basic first aid. You can read Act!on Food’s tumblr post for more info on logistics. The five of us volunteered for two nights shifts in a row, from 10pm to 6am. Here are some things that happened.

photo from Act!on Food
photo from Act!on Food

 

We heard plenty of stories about police violence, and saw ample evidence of same. Most of the refugees were boys aged 16 to 20, from Afghanistan. A nice fellow with nerdy glasses and a big smile showed me his fat lip where he’d taken a stick to the face several days before. Another guy had scabbed-over dog bites on his wrist and ankles. There were lots of crushed purple fingernails, apparently from one particular police force’s special technique for forcibly taking fingerprints.

Afghans do not like oatmeal, and they claim to not like cinnamon in their tea, although if I snuck some in while they weren’t looking they seemed to like it just fine.

I learned that Bulgarian and Pashto share a surprising number of cognates. Conveniently for us, two of them were “soup” and “socks.” The popular hangover cure here in Bulgaria is a thin, tangy, beef tripe soup called shkembe chorba. As I served up vegan lentils on Friday night, a group of guys getting soup were talking in Pashto and I heard them say “shkembe chorba” repeatedly. “Shkembe chorba?” I asked them. They looked at me and laughed. “You mean beef tripe? This?” I motioned to my stomach and mooed like a cow. The guys went absolutely nuts, clapping and laughing.

photo from Act!on Food.

 

A young man was helped to our tent by some friends with worries that his leg was broken. He and a large group had jumped two stories to avoid being captured by police. The red cross tent was closed since it was very late, so I called an ambulance. The dispatcher listened to my request, and then without warning, transferred me to someone who began interrogating me. He asked if I was a journalist, why was I calling, was I with an NGO, what nationality I was. I asked if they were really sending an ambulance and when he confirmed that they were I hung up. The ambulance came surprisingly fast, in about ten minutes. An hour later some police rolled by, asking us questions. I wonder if the person who questioned me was a police officer.

Saturday night, even at a refugee checkpoint, can still be festive. Once they got soup and tea, plenty of young men just stood around by our tent, smoking, sharing stories. A few who spoke English ended up hanging out with us all night, which helped to pass the time and was extremely helpful to us. Lots of them asked us which country they should go to. We didn’t know how to respond but gave them a card with websites and resources on it.

Both nights, we saw one young man who smiled a great deal. He didn’t speak English and had a bandage on his face. Someone told us that he’d gotten his document already, which gave him the right to travel to the next checkpoint. This document can be had quickly, if you have money. Those who can’t pay might wait two or three days, sleeping outside and eating nothing but the lentil soup, bananas, and tea that us grubby leftists are handing out. There were rumors of people in the checkpoint, who were helping other people navigate the system to get their documents faster, in exchange for money. The guy with the bandage, someone told us, was doing it for free. He was free to go but decided to stay a couple extra days to help out other refugees.

The guy with the bandage sat next to our tent for a few hours on Saturday night, playing Afghan pop music from his phone. Some guys bobbed absentmindedly while they talked, a few sang along. A teenager who spoke English jokingly scolded, “This isn’t the time for dancing! It’s the time for crying!” But he smiled as he said it.

One guy we met had been an interpreter for the US Army. He spoke perfect English and told my husband and I that he was “glad to see Americans again!” He was very nice, and stayed for awhile to translate for us. He asked us if we knew which country in Europe would help him. We didn’t know. He told us that he left Afghanistan after someone from the Taliban threatened him. He didn’t go into detail, but the threat was serious enough that he left then and there, without going home to say goodbye to his family. He felt it would be safer if he didn’t.

During one busy period, a man came up to the side of the tent and got my husband’s attention. He handed him a bag of Afghani flatbread. The only bread we had was European-style white bread. We put out the bag of flatbread and it was gone in minutes.

Another refugee pressed a ten euro bill into Lorenzo’s hand, insisting he take it. We donated it to the volunteer group we were collaborating with, who will use it towards rent for their cooking space.

Plenty of people had harsh criticism for the Taliban. Lorenzo met two Kurdish men from Iraq. He overheard one of them say the name of the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, as the two men were talking to each other. Upon mention of his name, both men scowled and stomped their feet on the ground, cursing him.

I learned some basic first aid skills from another volunteer. I watched her rinse someone’s eye, after he was scratched by a tree branch. She washed her hands, put on gloves, and stepped out of the tent with a plastic cup of warm water. She asked the guy to lie in the street, where the streetlight was brightest so she could see what she was doing. The most common ailments were sore legs from running in the mountains, diarrhea from eating too much soup after a few days without a meal, and hands and feet that were cracked and swollen from dry skin and overuse. One person’s foot was particularly bad, after walking a long ways in old tennis shoes with no socks. Another young man translated for him, and washed his foot with warm water and a clean, disposable diaper that we gave him. The diaper gave everyone a laugh. Then the volunteer covered his foot with diaper rash cream, bandaged his toes, and gave him clean new socks.

I saw plenty of people without warm socks, coats, or hats. Many had blankets wrapped around their shoulders. A 16 year-old boy named Bilal spent lots of time with us at our tent. He was very sweet and spoke good English. He was skinny, and all he had was a thin turtleneck sweater and a peacoat that was much too big for him. He turned down the food we offered, but stayed to talk with us. Finally, one volunteer convinced Bilal to take a coat from our donation box, a sporty ski jacket with a hood. He thanked us, but offered the jacket to a man who was shivering, to drape over his knees. The next morning, though, we saw Bilal in his new jacket, smiling and looking much warmer. A volunteer sat him down in a chair, and despite his objections, forced a cup of soup and a few bread slices into his hands. We all snuck glances and noted that he was eating happily.

If you want to help, I’m knitting warm hats to bring to the checkpoint next time we go. With every purchase of something from my new shop, Balkanite, I’ll knit one item to donate. If you just want to donate a hat, you can do that too.

WANT: Lora’s amazing hand-dyed sweater

My dear friend Lora Angelova, who introduced herself on Ravelry, is one of my knitting role models. Not only does she have impeccable taste, but one look at her Ravelry projects and you can tell she’s someone who sweats the details, which I really admire. Every one of her projects is beautifully finished and fits perfectly. Take a look at her most recent FO and you’ll see what I mean.

lora_dessinemoiunmouton

Lora modeling her masterpiece
Lora modeling her masterpiece

The pattern is one I’ve loved for awhile, called Dessine-Moi Un Mouton. The designer describes it as “something cropped to wear over my everyday uniform of leggings and long tops,” which is already pretty irresistible.

DessineMoiUnMouton-21
original pattern photo from La Maison Rililie

Lora, though, really went deep with her version of Dessine-Moi un Mouton: she dyed the yarn for the stripes herself, using 100% plant-based dyes (and apparently, some strawberry-flavored high-fructose corn syrup, LOVE).

lorasweater4

Happily for the rest of us, Lora took beautiful photos of the entire process, and documented her work throughout on her Rav project page.

lora_sweater

lorasweater3
all photos courtesy of Lora Angelova, used with permission

Lora is a scientist who specializes in art restoration. Her writing is featured in the latest issue of Pom Pom Quarterly, where she talks about her job as something called a “Heritage Chemist.” Awesome!

New Pattern: Aitos

huelo_aitos
I’m so excited to show you my latest design: Aitos. I designed this exclusively for Verb’s Pro-Verbial Club. The yarn is called Floating, a blend of alpaca, silk, and cashmere that’s been indigo-dyed by Kristine Vejar.

This is the fourth of my designs that I’ve done with Verb yarn. Since working there two years ago, I’ve been a fan of Kristine’s naturally-dyed yarns. Designing for Pro-Verbial is especially exciting right now, because it coincides with the release of Kristine’s book, which I can’t wait to add to my library.

Modern Natural Dyer Kristine Vejar
The Modern Natural Dyer by Kristine Vejar

Lately, I’ve been tending towards rugged yarns, and stalwart, textural patterns. Aitos is a bit of a departure for me. It’s feminine, soft, lacy, maybe even frilly. I had originally planned a design that’s more “me,” something geometric and unisex. But seeing, touching, and feeling the yarn, I knew it needed to be something special. I’m super happy with how it turned out, and I’ve been throwing it over my jacket non-stop since I finished it.

huelo_first frost3huelo_first frost4

For now, the pattern is only available to Pro-Verbial members. If you’d like to know when Aitos will be available to everyone, just leave me a comment and I’ll send you an email when the time comes!

Toroni: A Super-Quick Shawl Recipe

IMG_8140

Life in Bulgaria has a very seasonal rhythm. Bulgarians love their four distinct seasons, and even in Sofia, there are palpable differences in how people spend their time from one season to the next. Summer is for eating salad and going to the beach.

Last summer, we had a thunderstorm practically every day. It made running errands a real pain, and meant a mediocre year for grapes, tomatoes, and other summer produce. What made the summer even worse is, it was following an unusually mild winter, and many people felt restive and somehow thrown out of balance.

“We used to have four seasons in Bulgaria and it was very nice,” a taxi driver said to me once (Thomas Friedman would be jealous of how many conversations I have with taxi drivers), “Now the climate is changing, so we just have a few months of cold and the rest is warm and wet.”

In the long run, this may bear out to be true. Every snowstorm, every perfect breezy day, every tree full of plums or bush full of rosehips might be our last. This year at least we managed to get our seasons. Winter was respectably cold and snowy, and this summer has been relentless; the days are hot and long. The tomatoes are what Westerners would call “heirloom,” the kind that would raise rents in the surrounding neighborhoods if they were sold in any farmer’s market in the urban USA.

In winter, the question people ask each other is, “What do you heat with?” Answer “electricity,” and you’ll get a groan of sympathy. In Sofia, steam is the most fortunate answer. Everywhere else, it’s wood.

In summer, the question is, “Are you going to the sea?” For two years, I lived within an hour of the Black Sea. There, we never asked each other this question, because everyone was already at the sea. Sofia is several hours inland, though, and trips to the seaside are relished.

summer in Halkidiki
summer in Halkidiki

My husband and I took our beach trip two weeks ago, to a quiet village in Halkidiki, Greece. For this, I needed some instant-gratification knitting. You know the kind. Something small, in a fun yarn. Fingering weight was ideal, because it meant lots of blissfully repetitive stitches. An off-center triangle shawl, started at the narrowest point, requires little shaping and practically no thought at all. The end result shows off hand-dyed and variegated yarns perfectly, without being too busy or overwhelming the rest of your outfit. A project like this is the tomato-soup-and-grilled-cheese-sandwich of knitting.

IMG_8228

Here’s my formula.

Toroni Shawl Recipe

IMG_8272

materials: 100g fingering-weight yarn (sock yarn works great). I used Republic of Wool Twist Fingering in color Thrasher, which I found at Twisted in Portland not too long ago.

US #6 needle; I like 24″ circular

gauge: doesn’t matter!

Abbreviations:

KFB: Knit next stitch through front and back. 1 stitch increased.

Pattern:
Using long-tail method, CO 11 stitches

Row 1 (WS): K2, P to 2 stitches before end, KFB, K1
Row 2 (RS): KFB, K to 3 stitches before end, K2tog, K1

Repeat Rows 1 and 2 until you’re almost out of yarn (leave at least 3 yards for bind-off). Bind off stitches using your favorite method. I recommend a stretchy bind-off like EZ’s Sewn Bind-Off (click for link to tutorial), or this pretty lace bind-off (click for excellent youtube video by Laura Nelkin).

IMG_8226

Note: Repeating these two rows will give you a stockinette-stitch shawl, which might curl at the ends. You might have also noticed in the photos that my shawl has some little purl ridges on the right side. You can achieve these purl ridges by working the wrong-side like this instead:

Row 1 Version 2 (WS): K to end, KFB, K1

Super-easy! Knit all the wrong-side rows, and your shawl will be in garter stitch instead of stockinette. I love how stockinette shows off the flecks of color in the yarn, so I mostly did that. Just for fun, every time I picked up the work afresh, I would knit the first wrong side row I worked instead of purling. This added a little planned spontaneity to the shawl, and created a little record of how much I worked at a time (the purl ridges got progressively closer together, as the shawl increased in size).

Once the shawl is finished, weave in the ends and don’t be afraid to block aggressively, especially if you’ve worked mostly in stockinette. I wrung mine out and stretched it on my clothesline.

IMG_8177
beach hair, don’t care

Does anyone else have go-to vacation projects? What’s your ideal instant-gratification knitting?

Fashion Revolution Part 2: My Summer İpek Dress Is Ready!

darling little pleats on my custom Fashion Revolution dress
darling little pleats on my custom Fashion Revolution dress

A couple weeks ago (okay, a month ago), I posted about my Fashion Revolution project: a custom dress, in collaboration with Mila Ateva, a local designer. Last week I went in for my first fitting, and yesterday, the dress was ready.

This isn’t my first item that Mila’s custom-made. She also made my wedding veil:

photo by Vesselina Nikolaeva
photo by Vesselina Nikolaeva

Since I wasn’t the one who made the dress, its creation seems a bit magic to me. In my head, I pictured the mandarin collar, the fitted shoulders, and the pleats above the bust. Mila suggested finishing the pleats with dainty little seams, adding a shirttail hem, and gentle slits along the side of the skirt. And then, there it was, just like I had imagined.

20150525_181038(0)
dream dress!

This was a big contrast from my usual shopping experiences at large retailers, where I set out with a specific idea of what I want, which usually isn’t on the racks. Often, I’m tempted to buy something that only mostly meets my needs, since I can’t find anything that’s 100% perfect.

Don’t get me wrong. I have some fantastic clothes that aren’t custom-made, and that I didn’t even shop carefully for. I recently scored a hand-me-down buttercream silk blouse, from my friend Vesi, that’s turned out to be the piece I never realized I had to have in my closet. One of my all-time favorite shirts was a flannel button-down that I found on the ground in Portland, and wore into shreds (which, in turn, was a replacement for the hand-me-down flannel from my mom, which she was wearing when she delivered me).

My summer dress is neither mass-market, or an accident of fate. It is 100% perfect, because I chose every detail, and because it was made to fit me, and me only, exactly the way I specified. The sensation of wearing it is hard to describe without sounding melodramatic. From the beginning, I wanted this project to be accessible, and to show bespoke clothing as something other than elitist and fussy. So I was careful to pick a durable fabric, and design something practical. Still, the feeling of luxury when I first put on the dress was inescapable. It fit. Not just in the sense that I could get it over my head and button it. It fit the way my most successful sweaters have fit, like little singing Disney birds had flown through the window and dressed me in it.

perfect back pleats. Slightly wrinkled after a day of wear; I hung it up and the wrinkles faded overnight.
perfect back pleats. Slightly wrinkled after a day of wear; I hung it up and the wrinkles faded overnight.

Experiencing the miracle of a perfectly fitted garment had another, unexpected consequence. My body looked great in it, which made me like my body better. Usually, a ready-made shift dress that fits in the shoulders will be tight and squirmy around my hips. Consequently, a dress that fits my hips will droop gloomily off my shoulders. When this happens, it’s easy to blame my body for being “wrong” or “weird.” “If my butt were just smaller, or my legs were longer, or my bust were bustier…” I’d wager that almost everyone’s had similar thoughts when shopping.

But seeing myself in my new dress, I wasn’t just “okay” with how I looked in it. I felt awesome. The front placket hugged my shoulders perfectly, while the body of the dress draped in all the right places.

Taking charge of our relationship with clothes, instead of being passive consumers, isn’t just smart or moral. It’s also an act of feminist rebellion. No really! Stick with me. Renouncing fast fashion, and demanding a transparent supply chain, is a crucial step towards ensuring that garment workers get the pay and treatment that honors their humanity, and their skills. Most of those garment workers are women. On the other side of the chain, women in the industrialized world can revolt against consumerism, which, by design, poisons people against themselves by enforcing rigid and unattainable definitions of beauty.

Whether it means making your own clothes, ordering a custom piece, or just taking your current wardrobe to a local tailor for alterations, I hope I’ve shown that there are alternatives to just meekly accepting what’s on the rack. I feel very lucky that I had the time and resources to commission this dress, rather than settling for something shoddy. Unfortunately, most people aren’t so lucky, and quality clothing has become a luxury, the same way healthy food has.

On an individual level, I felt it was important to show what I can do to challenge consumerism. Any effort helps, whether it’s replacing a button, or even washing your clothes less frequently (check out the fantastic #10WEARS1WASH project for more information).

Ultimately, I don’t think we can find a solution to the current crisis without dismantling the entire capitalist, neo-liberal framework that exists worldwide, and, increasingly, in our minds. For me, this project was one step towards creating the world I want to live in, but only a step. The real question remains, how can we shift the paradigm that is alienating us from the things we need to survive, and devalues human beings?

In the meantime, I don’t plan on buying another dress anytime soon. I have all that I need.

Fashion Revolution Day: Who Made My Clothes?

Spring is typically when New Year’s resolutions go down the drain. Unsurprisingly, the first one to be ignored was my resolution to blog regularly. But the great thing about life is, it isn’t all or nothing, so there’s no reason I can’t recommit to blogging after a two month hiatus.

It isn’t that there wasn’t anything to blog about. I went to Turkey, and Spain, finished a pile of projects and started a pile more. I also got involved with an awesome group of textile artists, and generally conscious, creative people who are leading the campaign for Fashion Revolution Day in Bulgaria.

Who made your clothes?
Who made your clothes?

If you want to know what Fashion Revolution Day is, and why it’s so important, there are already some fantastic resources for you to peruse. For me, it was imperative to use my blog as platform for this movement. Many people in this part of the world are employed as garment workers. As it has everywhere, capitalism has devalued the skills of these crafters and left them subject to exploitation, poverty wages and unsafe working conditions.

Being a knitter, for me, can’t be separated from my role as a community member and a citizen, or as some would say “a consumer.” As I’ve written before, having gone through the process of making garments has changed my entire perspective on all textiles and garment-making. I’m a classic only child; preferring to work on my own rather than in a team. Knitting satisfies all my weird solitary daydreaming needs. However, every knitting project is still a collaboration, between farmers, yarn makers, designers; everyone who contributes to a long and winding supply chain.

For Fashion Revolution Day, I wanted to branch away from knitting and focus on the collaborative aspect of making clothes, by shopping for, co-designing, and commissioning a custom garment. Having something custom-made takes more time and money than buying whatever’s hanging from the rack. However, it doesn’t have to be frivolous or elitist. It can also be an excellent opportunity to connect with crafters and designers in your community.

What I wanted was a summer dress, something I can throw over a bathing suit, but still nice enough to wear to a restaurant. The first thing I noticed is that, when planning the dress, my tastes changed in correspondence to the amount of effort I put into it. I’m not interested in buying two or three cheap dresses, so I need one dress to serve lots of functions. Immediately, my eye went away from trendy prints and fussy details, towards something simple with maximum versatility.

The first step was choosing fabric. I’m pretty picky about the materials I choose. I read somewhere, I think in the Merchant & Mills book, a great piece of advice. To paraphrase: a project is just as much work no matter what you make it out of, so it’s better not to waste your work on something that won’t stand the test of time. Use high-quality materials, and all that work goes into something that will be satisfying to wear forever. I also wanted the fabric to be part of the collaborative process, so I wanted something that I could trace back to its origins, and that was made by people who aren’t exploited.

Öz, camera-shy but super-helpful, at Refik İpekçilik in Beyoğlu
Öz, camera-shy but super-helpful, at Refik İpekçilik in Beyoğlu

In Istanbul I found a rugged, woven silk that was still easy enough to care for. It came from Refik İpekçilik, a textile store that is supplied exclusively by weavers in the far southeastern corner of Turkey.  I originally planned on cotton or linen, but then I saw the grey silk and thought about my materials mantra. It will be the same amount of work regardless of the fabric, so I picked the one I really wanted.

a street kitty snuggles up to the window display
a street kitty snuggles up to the window display

Sourcing the fabric from Turkey also meant that I could keep this project somewhat local, since I’m in Sofia. The next step was to take my fabric to my friend Mila to design my dress.

future sundress...
future sundress…

We sat down and Mila sketched out a design. She understood perfectly when I said I wanted something versatile and simply constructed, and added her own ideas for details that would make the piece really special.

Since I’m all about transparency on this blog, I don’t mind sharing the cost of this project. For two and a half meters of handwoven silk I paid about US$75. For a custom design and pattern, made to my exact measurements, and finished dress, I’m paying Mila another US$115. $190 is a lot more than I’d pay for a knee-length sleeveless dress at H&M. But, it’s a bargain when I consider that I’m getting a unique couture item, one that will fit me perfectly, and that will be an indispensable, all-seasons wardrobe piece for years and years to come. In that time, I could buy nine or ten flimsy dresses that will fall apart or look dated within a few months. More importantly, my dress was made by passionate craftspeople who are being compensated for their hard work. Those people, weavers, dyers, sewists and designers, are sharing their talent and skill set with me.

I’ll post again when the dress is finished, and include more reflections on Fashion Revolution Day and what this little project has done for me. The second installment probably won’t be ready by Friday, so it’ll be posted after April 24th has come and gone. But, to make a real impact on the clothing supply chain, and to change our relationship to what we wear (and most importantly, the people who make what we wear), Fashion Revolution shouldn’t just be one day a year.

There are lots of ways you, too, can be part of the Fashion Revolution. The first step is to ask, #WhoMadeMyClothes? Turn your clothes inside out, and post photos on social media, tagging clothing manufacturers and asking where your clothes came from. If you want to know more about how to get involved, check the site for events in your country.

Fiber Find: A stash of crochet and Bulgarian embroidery

R1012032
To bolster his Bulgarian skills, my husband volunteers at a charity center that helps single mothers. He makes needle felted crafts with the other volunteers, mostly older women, listens to their stories and pushes himself to tell his own stories.

The ladies know I’m into knitting, and invited me to join Lorenzo one day, and to paw through a bag of scraps. Someone’s grandmother had passed, leaving behind her craft stash, and anything I didn’t want would end up in the trash.

There’s something very intimate about going through a stranger’s unfinished crafts after they’re dead. The bag contained sharply creased linens, half-embroidered with pixellated traditional designs. One corner of the linen might be completely filled in, the motif fading outwards into a single thread.

R1012062

R1012059

R1012048

R1012045

Besides embroidery, this person also crocheted breathtaking little bits out of stiff cotton thread.

R1012014

R1012016

R1012015

R1012031

When she was tired of one, she’d stuff it into an empty candy box (which, post-Communism, are now artifacts in their own right) and start a new one.

R1012026

R1012020

R1012010

R1012027

There’s also an unbelievably exact little handkerchief with samples of different hand-stitched patches, which, according to the tag, might have been stitched by a third grader.

R1011993

R1011996

"V. Noshkova 3a class No. 14"
“V. Noshkova
3a class No. 14″

Sifting through this treasure trove has inspired me to blog more examples of local textiles. I’ll be carrying my camera around, so stay tuned for more fiber finds.

I look for crafts
I look for crafts
Emi looks for pigeons
Emi looks for pigeons