Hand Embroidered Cocktail Napkins from Rwanda

In the daily work of Ibu, I sometimes see the heavy arm of war sweep over our projects. Our production team faces questions like how to get materials to stranded artisans in Gaza, and how to get design training safely to the women in South Sudan. We've had products buried under the rubble of a suicide bomb in the Kabul airport. We've worried over artisans in Kashmir, in Nigeria; had group leaders skirt violence in areas of Afghanistan, or para-military forces in in Colombia - just to get product from the hands of the makers to Ibu.   

Just an hour outside of Kigali, Rwanda, a group of 300 women were once thriving embroiderers under the tutelage of two Belgian nuns. And then .  .  . the genocide of 1994. 800,000 killed. When the sisters escaped, the embroidery stopped; the embroiderers, forgotten.

War kills more than human life. It kills livelihoods, culture; sometimes, hope.

Almost 20 years later, two blood sisters from France went looking for the forgotten embroiderers of Rutongo. Véronique and Pascale found that the women still lived in the area, but had no market, no customers, and, as a result, no work. Touched by their stories and realizing the immense potential of these women still living in precarious conditions, the sisters chose to stay and with the remaining embroiderers, reopen the workshop. That was 2013.

A space was offered by a family - where years of debris were cleared and walls were scrubbed and tables arranged and work begun. Veronique brought design ideas, but it was the women of Rwanda and their skills - more exquisite than could have been imagined - that led the day. Fine, meticulous work. Breathtaking really. And so, together, they began.

It's hard to believe, sometimes, what treasure lives within us, unnoticed, unharvested, hidden even from ourselves. What brilliance we are capable of is often never known, especially for women who have no capital, no market, no fighting chance. Sometimes women simply soldier on, long after the war is over, silenced by the enormity of their losses.  

And yet. And yet. Look what is there. Power is there. Creativity. Imagination. Brilliance. A new generation is there. All just waiting like a skein of thread to be unwound and made into something glorious.

I have an obsession with cocktail napkins, let me say right now, in a very different vein. There is something dreamy about a tiny square of fabric carrying the exquisite best of women's creative work from all over the world - a platform for brilliance. Even if you won't buy a dress or wear our chunky beads, I have set out to make Ibu the first place you turn for a gift to your host or mother or friend. Cocktail napkins - crazy, casual, elegant, or fun - cocktail napkins from all over the world are in the works at Ibu!  

Here, in our studio, Jamie studied fancy shoes worn in faraway lands and drew sketches for the women in Rwanda. We're so excited about how they rendered these sketches in thread, we're already designing the next collection of global hats, and just wait . . . tiny coats of the world. 

Back in Rutongo, the women with almost forgotten treasure, the almost extinguished hope, are beginning again. War, even this gruesome horrific war, did not kill all. What was silenced is beginning to sing. What was lost, or some small remnant of it, is found again. 

For that, for that reason alone, I know I will never stop. Because . . . hope, living again.  

Susan Hull Walker