TOAST has collaborated with KOCO (Knit One Sweater, Change One Life) to create a hand knitted bobble sweater. KOCO was founded in Australia by Danielle Chiel and aims to empower rural communities of women in Southern India, teaching them to read and write and equipping them with traditional hand knitting skills. We spoke to Danielle about her pioneering work and how KOCO came to be.
How did your journey into knitting begin?
One day, when I was sick with the measles and home from school, my great aunt taught me how to knit. I'd always had a mathematical bent and was immediately hooked by the patterns and stitches. From then on, it became my passion. I'd knit garments but also large wall hangings and objects I never knew any parameters so would always experiment.
I wanted to go on to textile college, but my academic mother had other plans, and off I went to university. After obtaining a PHD in music theory analysis, I became a professional musicologist. Though I loved music, knitting remained my true passion. On my fortieth birthday I realised that I might be turning one of those people who thinks I always wish I had, but So I took the decision to leave music and opened a yarn store in Sydney. We travelled the world with our yarns and grew the store to become the largest in Australia.
After selling the yarn store you decided to start creating hand knitted sweaters, why?
I've always believed that there is something unique about a hand knitted sweater. It's as if the passion and dedication of the maker transfers to the wearer and a special connection is created. At first, this was the driving force: to create beautiful sweaters using traditional hand knitting techniques. When I met my team in India, it became about what I could do for them.
I had heard that there was a group of ten knitters in a small village in Tamul Nadu in Southern India. On my first visit there was no translator present. Instead of talking, the women took me by the hand and lead me through their village. Showing me their homes, their children, their gardens, where they cooked. It was such a tactile and meaningful way to enter a community. Going home on the plane, I thought I need to make this work, so that I can help these women and their families. They became part of our first knitting hub the ten has now grown to two hundred.
How has KOCO changed the lives of these women?
We have been able to change the lives of these women in ways I never thought possible. The majority of the women we employ have never been to school and have previously depended entirely on their father and husband for financial security. They had no employment prospects beyond that of seasonal labour and though they are mothers, daughters, wives, they had little sense of themselves as individuals or of their own value. By bringing these women together in knitting hubs, they are able to earn a stable income, to afford to send their children to school and, stitch by stitch, their confidence has grown. We train each woman we work with and the skills they have developed are remarkable, they have become artisan hand knitters in their own right and they now understand their potential. It has been the most rewarding thing of my life watching these women blossom. And it has changed me, too. I know what a force for good business can be and my ambition and hope is to keep changing more and more lives.
What role do you think knitting has played?
Knitting is such a communal process and so conducive to talking. By creating these knitting hubs our women are able to spend time away from their domestic chores, and to build sisterhoods. In our knitting hubs we talk about everything - family problems, husbands, births, deaths, marriages. The women share the most intimate details and this has only strengthened their ties. I think there's something about the rhythm of knitting the methodical pattern that is good for the brain. I know it's been well documented that music has positive effects, but I honestly think that knitting does, too. And similarly to music, it's like a language. You just need to learn it and then you can create anything. I call it the clever woman's hobby.
Your work with KOCO is pioneering, do you think of yourself as a pioneer?
Through this journey I have learnt so much about myself, and the skills I didn't know I had. I suppose I am a pioneer. But I look at my eighty-five year old mother and I think that she's a pioneer too. She wanted to be a pharmacist and she became one. She was the only female on the pharmacy course and at twenty-one she packed up her bags and moved from Australia to London. I think she's always been a role model, someone who doesn't see boundaries and has a propensity for challenges. I guess I'm the same, my children will say there's no such thing as no' for mum.
Shop our Hand Knitted Bobble Sweater.