In Her Words: A Letter from Kyley Schmidt to Ibu Allies

In Her Words: A Letter from Kyley Schmidt

Dear Ibu Allies,

I want to tell you my story of becoming immersed in the silk trade in Madagascar. In 2003, I began as a Peace Corps health volunteer in a tiny rural village in the central highlands of Madagascar. Shortly after arriving there, a woman elder named Zety Be approached me with some rough-looking but intriguing cloth—it was handwoven wild silk and she wanted help selling it. Silk has a long cultural tradition in Madagascar—a sacred cloth traditionally used as long flowing silk wraps and as burial cloth.

Zety Be was one of the last remaining grandmothers still weaving traditional wild silk in her village. After selling her first six scarves to my Peace Corps colleagues, I brought the money back to a much delighted Zety Be, and word spread like wildfire as woman after woman began showing up at my door saying, I can weave, too. Can you help me?

Zety Be

Little did I realize at that time, but 30 years prior, the small village of Soatanana had been full of silk weavers. However, once cheaper synthetic cloth from the east became available, these women lost their local market and the cultural art form was dying away… along with their income stream.

My background is in textile technology and design, and the Peace Corps had no idea that there was a history of silk weaving in my village—I just happened to get that assignment. Something larger was at work. We founded a women’s silk weaving cooperative, and twenty years later I’m still helping them design and market their beautiful silk scarves.

L to R: Catherine Craig,founder of CPALI;  Mamy Ratsimbazafy and Lalaina Raharindimby; Aerial view of Ambinanitelo, a raffia producing village.

L to R: Catherine Craig,founder of CPALI;  Mamy Ratsimbazafy and Lalaina Raharindimby; Aerial view of Ambinanitelo, a raffia producing village.

In 2022, I was hired as the general manager for Tanana Madagascar—the product brand of the non-profit Conservation Through Poverty Alleviation International (CPALI) which provides an export market for Malagasy artisans. Founded by Catherine Craig, a conservation biologist that has worked with Madagascar silk artisans for twenty years, and with the help of the talented Malagasy husband-and-wife duo, Mamy Ratsimbazafy and Lalaina Raharindimby, CPALI formed a strong team of artisans and farmers in the rainforest of northern Madagascar and works to transform endemic natural resources, like wild silk and raffia, into unique products that support forest conservation, biodiversity, and economic development. 

Our Madagascar team employs twelve artisan women and four artisan men full-time in the remote coastal town of Maroantsetra. These artisans are in charge of processing all the silk cocoons and raffia material into finished products. They even invented a technique to craft the traditional silk cocoons into a new kind of fabric, by ironing the cocoons flat and sewing them together—I’d never heard of this technique or type of fabric before, and it’s gorgeous! In addition, we work with 20 women raffia weavers in the village of Arivonimamo who produce the raw raffia for Tanana’s placemats and table runners.

L to R: A Ceranchia moth; Workers at a silkworm host tree nursery; Women sorting silk cocoons.

L to R: A Ceranchia moth; Workers at a silkworm host tree nursery; Women sorting silk cocoons.

I love how Tanana’s process has impacted the silk farmers who are now planting more silkworm host plants which is helping with reforestation. Our Madagascar team travels to farmer villages to spread awareness about how to sustainably produce silk cocoons as a much-needed income stream. In addition, wild silk production encourages reforestation and habitat creation, counteracting the island’s shrinking forest habitat and its devastating effects on biodiversity. Currently, 360 Malagasy farmers provide access to six species of wild silk.

Susan Walker connected with Tanana Madagascar at the International Folk Art Market in Santa Fe a few years ago, and since then Ibu has been THE BEST supporter. When working in handmade, it can be really difficult to find wholesale partners who are repeat customers. Ibu has been consistent with repeat orders—and every order truly counts to support our artisans and farmers—giving us hope for the future. In addition, I sometimes send new product ideas to Ibu’s design director Marisa, who has served as a wonderful sounding board for what products may be attractive to buyers. She has also placed orders for some of these new products, which spearheads production. This type of product development and sales feedback is invaluable to a small (but mighty) organization like ours.

L to R: Mamameline sewing a wild silk cocoon table runner; Artisan hand weaving raffia.

L to R: Mamameline sewing a wild silk cocoon table runner; Artisan hand weaving raffia.

This work is powered by love—a desire to spread love and caring, to make our world, town, village, or home a more beautiful place, a place that we want to live. We thank all who support Ibu in your own special way. We could not do this without you.

With Gratitude, 
Kyley Schmidt 
General Manager, Tanana Madagascar