Fair trade knits made by and for women

Laura Berry, a local self-taught fiber artist, loves supporting women with her craft.

That's why she started LilBear-a Central Ohio company that sells knit blankets, scarves, wraps and more, handmade with fair trade yarn by low-income women.

"It takes on a different value," Berry said, "just knowing that it's supporting these people."

And she's sprouted another line from the business too: Hearten Hand Knits, a selection of special occasion pieces, such as capelets, boleros, wristlets and lacy fingerless gloves. Items range from $34 to $269 and are made to order.

We talked with Berry about LilBear's start and how it's helped women get back on their feet.

-Taylor Starek, @taylorstarek

Photo courtesy©Catherine Murray

How did you come up with the LilBear concept?

I used to be a sweater designer, and I loved making ski sweaters. When I was in my mid-40s, some of my friends had cancer or lost their mothers, and they were going through a difficult time. I would knit a shawl and write them a note and wrap it and put it on their front porch. It was just something for them to comfort themselves with. One day in August I was arguing with somebody over the phone on sweater pricing, and my daughter said, "I don't know why you're making ski sweaters. You should be making shawls." Then came LilBear.

But you wanted to help low-income women, too.

That's how it started. It's been a journey for me. I started just doing comfort shawls and went into a fair trade store in Delaware and decided to dedicate my company to using fair trade yarn. I work with organizations that support women out of poverty in third world countries, from Bolivia to India to Nepal. So they can send their children to school and help build schools, and it provides water and electricity for these women. As it grew, I couldn't keep up, and I wanted to work with women in need. I started doing research, and now I have women in Southeast Ohio and other places knitting these pieces too. I meet with them and keep my patterns simplistic, but it's done with high quality fibers. I get angora mohair, I get alpaca, I get silks. And they're just beautiful. They drape lovely. I design the item, and I write a pattern for it. I put it into kits, and I drop it off to my women and then they crochet them. I then purchase it back and market it for them.

How has it helped them?

They learn how to run a company, and it's a step up for them. It's portable, so they can take it with them if they have a job. It's something they can do in the evening while watching their children. We do everything through the mail. It's just a wonderful project that I've started. You can feel the love and empowering in every part of the steps we take. For the first time, one woman was able to buy school clothes. One woman was able to buy tires. It's helped pay for electrical wiring in someone's house. And these women provide me with so much strength and power to go on when I go through a difficult time. I get so much more out of them then they could ever get out of me. I can go to bed at night knowing I've helped someone.

Why is fair trade such an important part of LilBear?

To support fair trade, that just empowers women to know that they're going to get paid fair wages for doing what they're doing from the ground up. It's important to me because it supports them, and it's supporting what I do. It's an even exchange, and it honors everyone, from the producers to the environment.

How do you connect with disadvantaged women in the U.S.?

Word of mouth. Once you get one hook there's always somebody that has a friend that's interested. I have a lot of people waiting. I'm working with six or seven women now. It's important that it's sustainable. That's part of fair trade. It's not just placing one big order. It's continual support. They usually get around four kits a month. I have to spread it out so it's sustainable for them.