In a small village in rural Kenya, women weave cotton and eri silk into carpets and fabric, using looms donated through a connection with Moore’s former textile design department.
The looms make it possible for the women of Wote to pay school fees for their children, and to buy medicine. The project was organized by Marafiki Arts, founded by Christina Roberts ’89, Cynthia Porter and Lucy Lau-Bigham.
“The idea was to work with marginalized communities to empower women through our passion, which is textiles,” said Roberts, director of education at the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia. Porter is a teacher, spinner, weaver and sculptor in Philadelphia. Lau-Bigham is a textile surface designer with a business degree who manages development projects.
The connection between Wote and the Moore looms began to weave together in 1992, when Roberts met Lau, who came from Kenya to work as an apprentice at the Fabric Workshop. Roberts invited Lau back to Philadelphia in 2003 to coordinate an apprentice-training program for inner city high school students. The women also went to Kenya to meet with the Kamba community in Wote, where Lau-Bigham’s grandmother is from. Their passion to help communities led to the creation of Marafiki Arts there in 2004 along with Porter. Marafiki is a Swahili word meaning ‘friends all.’
“In the Kamba community, the women are really good at making a kind of woven basket called a kiondo,” Roberts said. “It’s made from a finely woven sisal material that grows locally and it’s handspun and dyed with natural dyes.
“What we’re trying to do is add value to the artisanal skills that they have, so that there’s a way for them to better their lives and empower them in a way that maybe they have a little income of their own and can make some of their own decisions,” said Roberts. Lau-Bigham moved back to Kenya in 2012 to work full time on the project. Along with her husband, Herman, she created Tosheka Designs, a fabric and textile company based in Kenya that makes products using the sustainable resources in Kenya.
At first, Marafiki Arts worked on developing a business with handspun cotton yarn, but there wasn’t a big market for it.
“That’s when we decided to introduce fiber that had a higher value, such as silk, and we found that we could work with eri silk,” she said. The plump, white, spiky eri silkworm grows in semi-arid living conditions and is very hardy. Its silk can be extracted without killing the worm. The Kamba women are now farming eri silkworms. They make textile products using the silk, hand-spun cotton, sisal, hand-woven cloth, silkscreen printed fabrics and natural dye colorants.
There is no electricity or running water in Wote. The Kamba women use spinning wheels, pumping their feet up and down to make the wheel go, as well as hand-held drop spindles. Roberts and her partners decided the women needed looms to create more products.
As it so happened, Moore’s Textile Department folded in 2012. Roberts’ beloved teacher Deborah Warner '69, who was a longtime faculty member at Moore and chair of the Textile Department, kept the looms in her home studio, and promised to donate them and her own personal loom to Marafiki Arts. In summer 2015, three 4-foot Macomber looms from Moore made the epic journey across the ocean in a container.
“We packed them up and we shipped them to Mombasa, then they went by a big tractor-trailer to Nairobi, then they went by a little truck to Wote,” Roberts said. “They have a new life in Wote.”
The following year, two 10-foot Cranbrook looms, one donated by Warner and one from former Moore Textile faculty member Lewis Knauss, were shipped to the women of Wote.
“The looms are being used every day, hard, and they are producing handwoven carpets using the handspun cotton, they are producing handspun eri silk fabric,” she said. “The demand is so high, it’s hard to keep up.
“We’re at this very crucial point where we need more support, we need more looms and we need more spinning equipment, special spinners that can spin this eri silk so that we can keep up with the demand of the eri silk production.”
Roberts has been visiting Wote every year since 2004. Each time she goes back, she sees Warner’s name on a plaque attached to her Cranbrook loom. Warner passed away in 2012.
“(Deborah) was so thrilled to donate it,” Roberts said. “She gave me my founding education. I’m continuing her legacy because I’m giving back what I learned at Moore. All the things we learned in the textile curriculum at Moore are all the things we are doing here.
“I love Moore and I love the fact that our looms have another life in Kenya,” she said.
The story of the beginning of Marafiki Arts and the work Lucy Lau-Bigham is doing with the Kamba women has been told in a documentary called Lucy Has Worms. See a trailer of the film here.
Read more about Lucy Lau-Bigham’s work in Kenya here.