Secondhand: Amberle and the Thrift Store


Like many teenagers, I didn’t want to spend time with my family. I regarded them as nice people with whom I was forced to cohabitate with until such time as I was released to pursue the thing I wanted most “My Own Life,” independent of other’s demands, desires, and transport limitations. Like many teenagers, they continued to demand my participation in activities with them, as if they didn’t recognize my difference, my purposeful growth and movement away from them. There were some family activities that I continued to enjoy, but was forced to express a general displeasure toward in accordance with my commitment to the code of teenage dissatisfaction. Often, on winter Saturdays in the season where the light returns and the cold remains, my younger sister would ask to go to the Salvation Army, our term for a motley collection of second hand shops in the neighboring town, again and again until our parents, serial home redecorators, yielded to her in exchange for her cooperation in a visit to Home Depot. My presence would be requested and I would begrudgingly agree to join. At the secondhand stores, I bought floppy flannel shirts that were miraculously in style, comfortable, appropriate for my body type, and available in vast quantities. I always bought at least two pairs of unstylish narrow leg jeans. My sister would buy gold lame anything, sparkly tops and acid wash jeans. My parents would consider large wood cupboards and over the years developed an impressive collection of “secretaries” desks with drawers and compartments with a folding cover. Back at home my sister and I would sit with our growing collection of sewing machines and bags of fabric, buttons, trims, and notions, while our parents wiped off their new piece of furniture and considered sanding and stripping it of its existing varnish and painting it a bright color. Let the deconstruct begin. I specialized in opening the out seam of the legs of the jeans and inserting large pieces of brightly colored material to create bell bottoms or adding the entire legs of a second pair of pants resulting in enormous, sweeping wide legs which were also, mercifully, popular in the 1990’s. My sister had (and still has) a great affinity for bedazzling, setting rhinestones, and grommeting, setting metal rings into clothing. On one occasion, when she was around 10 years old, she also opened the outside leg of her jeans, but employed a different tactic by setting a line of grommets from the ankle to the hip on each side of the seam and lacing them back together with a long leather strip. This style, while preternaturally fashionable for 5th grade, was deemed “too revealing” by her teacher and therefore for public use in general and sadly, she could only wear them around the house.
Our parents supported us not only in our quest for individuality, but introduced us to the supplies and skills we use with A. Bernadette today. Our affinity for and defense of “secondhand” or “used” clothing as the raw material for sustainable fashion, for fashionable fashion, is not an economic or superficial choice. We believe in secondhand clothing because it represents quality: we select materials that have lived before and show that they can stand up to even more wear and tear. It represents the environment: we are honoring all of the resources and labor put into the material and garment and delay that cotton, rayon, leather, and effort from becoming landfill. It represents connection: there are no true “raw” materials, even when we work with “new” materials we recognize that they were grown, designed, and manufactured, by many others throughout a global system. The understanding that everything is connected to and influenced by others whom we may never meet helps us value our materials down to the scraps swept up off the market floor and respect all those who contributed to our products.


Secondhand: Amberle & her Tie Dye T-shirts

When I was a child, there was a special day each year right after school got out in the magical few days before summer camp started when my sister and I were blissfully free. When we were young, one of our parents would have to take off work and stay with us or we’d get shipped off to the neighbors and ride bikes or, if we were lucky swim in a lake or pool all day. But around this time each year, we’d have tie-dye day: the magical opposite of buying school clothes day. First, we’d cut our pants and jeans into shorts. Then we gathered our light colored clothes from the previous year: white Tshirts, socks, pants, and even underwear. Out in the backyard we mixed hot water with dark colored powders to make steaming spackle buckets of tie dye. The entire family, my mother, father, sister and I twisted our Tshirts in small bunches around pebbles or coins and wrapped them in rubber bands. We folded our pants back and forth into pleats or pinched and twisted them into dozens of nubby appendages. We wrapped our socks around sticks and secured them with more rubber bands. Then we’d dip them into each bucket that looked to be the same dark brew, but in fact were the blue, red, and yellow RIT hot water dyes we chose earlier from the craft store. We’d soak and squeeze our misshapen clothes and then hang them on a clothes line strung only for Tie Dye Day festivities between the tree and the shed. We’d ask every 5 minutes if it was done yet. Our parents made us wait hours which felt like days that we spent in rapt suspense alternating between staring at the bundles on the clothes line and asking every 5 minutes if it was done yet. Finally, in the evening we were allowed to take down our still wet and cold formerly respectable, now artistic garments. We would squeeze and ring them in cold clear water with vinegar to set the dye. And finally, finally be allowed to unwrap our creations. Our cold fingers would struggle with the rubber band which had grown mysteriously tight. We could see the Reds, oranges, greens and blues emerging from the damp folds and after the last rubber band or coin or rock had been removed, shake out our shirts, socks, pants and undies to reveal bright swirls of color or sometimes muddy greenish browns if the ties weren’t tight enough. We’d proudly hang our creations back on the line overnight and in the morning dress proudly in full tie dye glory, from shirts and shorts to socks and even brightly colored undies fully completing our wardrobe, our uniform, identifying us as special, unique, one of a kind and certainly different from anyone else.


Thoughts on an Election (2011)

This is an exerpt from a 2011 blog. Still fits, I think…

“From a very young age we are taught that holding an election is a fair way to put a person in a position of power. At any age voting in America is seen as a right which allows us to voice our opinion in an open manner. Whether it is for captain of the football team, student body president, or president of the United States voting is always regarded as an exciting moment of change and freedom.

In Uganda elections are seen very differently. In a country where children often have no voice elections can often create an atmosphere of nervousness, and uncertainty.
This February the national presidential elections will be held in Uganda. Many Ugandans wish to simply keep the president in power without holding elections for fear they will cause instability and rioting. Men with sticks have even been hired by the president to beat people up who are speaking out against the current president.

Examples of good and bad election out comes are currently seen all over Africa. With the relatively peaceful elections that took place in Tanzania and Rwanda to the violent reactions after the elections in the Ivory Coast and the protests and demanding the ousting of presidents in Egypt and Tunisia there is no certainty to which way the scale will tip with the Ugandan elections.” 🇺🇬

Right now in Uganda….

Each afternoon, we meet with groups in Walukuba and Danida. We’re so lucky that our dear friend, Rachel, comes along with her camera to capture the magic.


The artisans ask many questions about what we’re doing in the US and our plans for the future. We have great discussions about small business development in Uganda, classes we’ll be offering over the next few months, and our shared vision for the future.


I reassure the groups that Andrea and I are selling and promoting their bags, bracelets, headbands, and other accessories every day and travelling to markets on the weekends.


I emphasize that creating beautiful accessories from recycled materials is important and valuable, but its not the only reason we are working together. It is not the answer to all of our questions, but only one piece of financial health and long-term success. I try to strike a delicate balance by reiterating our shared responsibilities and possible outcomes. I want to motivate artisans to work together and build strong group relationships that go beyond distributing supplies and sharing small profits.


We discuss each artisans’ goals for the future and how we can collaborate to create specific goals and objectives. The artisans have mixed feelings about their businesses and sources of income in Uganda. Some are raising animals and buying and selling fabric and crafts in local markets. Others keep asking why A. Bernadette can’t buy more products and “support their families.”


Each artisan is unique. Some have husbands who contribute money to the family, others are single parents. Some are employed by NGOs or work with local craft groups, others don’t have consistent sources of income and frequently borrow money to meet their basic needs. 



I’ve known these artisans for 7 years and our relationship has changed over time. They met me as a young, excited volunteer who played with their children, bought snacks for English class, and listened to their personal histories. They got to know me as a serious, decisive boss who problem-solved, paid them for their work, and pushed them to build strong relationships through open communication. Now, I am more a resource than a leader. I am asking them to manage their groups on their own terms and “drive the bus” toward their vision of success.


As much as I want to, I try not to present myself as the person who can “fix things,” because I can’t. I am very careful to talk about our relationships in real terms. When I say, “We are in this together,” the reality is that I live in America and am able to pursue higher education, find a well-paying job and live with basic material comforts. I don’t measure hope and reality as two sides of a scale, because we need equal amounts of each. I present a balance of collaboration and personal responsibility. What are the specific things we do to bring real, mutual benefits to each other and what do we need to manage as individuals?



The one and only, Friday May 9, 2014. Seriously, its the only one we’ll ever get.

This morning, like every other for the past week, was rainy. (Mental Note: Don’t come to Uganda in May if you’re looking for some pool time) I found a cloud break and headed to Flavours for a nice coffee. I planned to meet our Tukula friends at 10am, but the rain came and it came long and it came hard. It even came right up to my table


Finally, I dashed down through the muddy alley to meet the Tukula Tailors. We had a lovely chat. They even convinced me to buy some of their real, real honey from Arua. Hi Joe and Melissa! Wish you were here! (because you could’ve taken a better photo than my backlit mess) 


I went to the market bought some fresh beans and veggies from my favorite produce lady and cooked lunch with Kymbi. We love cooking and eating together.



Our second favorite activity is looking at old photos of ourselves cooking (Kymbi loved this one because Robbie the Cat was helping too) 


Kymbi took a nap and I worked on a graphic for a new design.


And now I’m having a glass of boxed wine.

Happy Friday!

You Can’t Take Baggage When You Time Travel

I met with Agnes and Joyce yesterday to discuss new products. Harem Pants. Tunic. Summer Scarf. Folding Bag. Samples. I think we were equally happy to see each other. Reconnecting consists of a standard greeting for each other’s families and remembering where we were and how we felt the last time we were together.


We met again this morning at Agnes’ little shop in Amber Court Market. I brought the beaten kitenge for tunics, some shiny stuff for trousers, and binding for folding bags. I sat on a (thankfully sturdy) bench along the back. We reviewed specs and measurements and samples. They asked about sales and what we do in America. I told them that we move from place to place with our rolling suitcase full of stuff and sell at little tiny markets that “pop up” for only 1 or 2 days. I told them the standard pitch that I give everyone who asks me about what I do.

All of our accessories are made by artisans in Jinja, Uganda. Our goal is to support our artisans as small business owners. We both want to find success in our local economies. We both have to understand our inputs and my outputs and how the money works.  We have the same goals and are partners in learning and growing. We believe small business is the foundation of a strong economy in America and Uganda.

Agnes and Joyce approved. The tailor group has taken the money they earned from selling Cookin’ Bags and used it as a revolving loan. One person “borrows” from the fund and repays with 10% interest. They are growing their group income and are able to lend out more. Joyce used her money to buy fabric at a low price in Kampala and sell for profit in Jinja.


I told them that we are continuing financial literacy education and business plan training. We talked about our personal and group business goals and what our dreams are for the future. Agnes said that her current shop location is not good because it is difficult for her customers to find her. She wants to own a shop in a busier location and increase her sales so she can hire other tailors. Joyce wants to continue trading fabric and other tailoring supplies from Kampala to outlying areas.

Sometimes I get nervous that we’re all just spinning our wheels and working really hard, but not going anywhere. I left Uganda in December 2012. Andrea visited for a month this past September. We don’t have much communication between America and Uganda. But the past two days were great because I realized we’ve still got it. Our relationships are what keep us together. Despite all the distance and past drama, we have trust. We have shared hopes and dreams and we’re not afraid to say them out loud. We’re all still here and we’re all still moving forward, together.  And today, that’s more than enough to keep me going.