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.

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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.

 

How A. Bernadette is Sustainable

“Sustainable design is a philosophy that seeks to maximize the quality of the built environment while minimizing or eliminating the negative impact to the natural environment.” Jason F. McLennan The Philosophy of Sustainable Design

How do we maximize quality while minimizing negative impact?

Short Term Solutions

Zero Waste: A. Bernadette uses recycled and natural materials to make beautiful garments, accessories and housewares. We accept donations of fabric from individuals and corporations. We bring these materials to Uganda and use every single piece.

Sometimes it’s easy. Our Butterfly Dresses has a simple design that uses the entire width of the material. The one piece that is cut away for the neck hole is used as scrap to stuff pillows that our tailors make and sell in Uganda.

Sometimes it’s more challenging. Our towels are made from recycled bath towels and donated material. In their first design, we removed the edges and the rib of the towel and cut them to make 11 x 11 inch squares. This resulted in thin pieces of scrap which were used to stuff pillows, but they weren’t really used. For our second order, we decided to fold the entire towel into 6 or 8 pieces to make a set. This means some towels will be a bit bigger than others, but size doesn’t matter, reducing the amount of waste does.

Long Term Commitments

We know the artisans we work with and are committed to working with them. When we find a new product we like, we give examples to artisans and hire local experts to teach new skills. It would be easier in the short term to buy crafts from any of the numerous artisans in Jinja, but we don’t.  We trust the artisan groups to work together and with us as full business partners. When we have questions about a design or are negotiating a price for a new item, we know who we are talking to and trust in our long term relationships to be honest with artisans and know that they will be honest with us. Our business is based on these relationships we are committed to people: we pay our artisans fairly and collaborate with them as equal partners and present our customers with the highest quality products and services; planet: every single item we design and create reduces waste and emphasizes function and beauty; profit: we are committed to profit sharing and transparency with customers and artisans. As we profit, we will expand and increase our product range to offer more fair trade products to customers and more opportunities for artisan groups.

If these walls could talk they’d say “We’re so bored.” Sitting at a cafe in Jinja waiting for good coffee.

Table 1: A British man in his late 60’s with a northern accent and two Ugandans: a big man who does all the talking and a smaller, silent partner, discuss religion. The big man says, “You know the Muslims are 15% and the evangelicals are 10%. They are leaving us for the Pentecostals now. The Rastafarians, you know the ones with the long hair and the drugs, took over entertainment with the homosexuals. The parents want to help keep their children clean, so they tell them to go to the Pentecostals for entertainment. We are losing members.”

 

Table 2: American backpackers discussing their recent raft trip. “I got stuck under the boat. It was crazy, I definitely thought I was going to die.” One girl’s voice is significantly louder than the others. She uses the phrase “developing country” in every sentence.

 

Table 3: A white woman and her chocolate toddler.

 

I’ve sat at each one of these tables before and participated in all of these conversations. I’ve argued, stupidly, with old men about religion, trying to explain my point of view, that gay people presented no threat and in their own Ugandan history, before Western involvement, kings had both wives and husbands.

 

I’ve been the girl with the loudest voice at the table, blathering on and on about various near death experiences in developing countries.

 

My demographic now (single, educated, 30s woman) is chocolate baby territory. Many Ugandan and Western women choose when to have babies, husband or not.

KISS – Keep It Simple Stupid

It’s the small things that make the difference. I don’t know about you, but I am deeply affected by simple, daily events. If I don’t get a good night’s sleep, I am going to be grumpy the next day. When I’m not sure what I am supposed to be doing, I become depressed and realize that my life is meaningless.

I left my home in New York City at 4pm on Thursday and arrived in Jinja, Uganda at 7pm Saturday. My flight was delayed out of Newark. We stopped in Lome, Togo for a few hours and weren’t allowed to get off the plane. I missed my connection in Addis Ababa and the airline sent me to a strange hotel for the night. None of these things bothered me. I enjoy the liminal space and the expectationlessness of travel. The directions are specific: stand here, line up there, take off your shoes, give me your passport and ticket, fasten your seatbelt, eat this, watch this. If I stand in line long enough, I will get to where I want to go, most of it is out of my control.

So I finally arrived and things got difficult. I needed money, food, and a local cell phone number. I had to make decisions: use the ATM or wait for the bank to open on Monday? How much to withdraw? Which will give me the best rate? Eat fried chapati or negotiate for vegetables and cook? Which cell phone company? Buy a cheap phone or put a SIM card in my American phone?

Each decision is followed by another. The $100 bills aren’t the newest and will get a lower rate. Do I still exchange them? The vegetable lady is definitely overcharging me, but it’s only by $2. Do I argue? The phone is registered, but stops working after an hour. Do I go back to the same woman on the street who I bought it from or throw myself against the masses at the actual store?

The decisions multiply and become more challenging. I go from bank to bank to see which has the best rate for the old bills. I negotiate with the vegetable woman, who doesn’t lower the price, but throws in an extra tomato. I go to the cell phone woman again and again, each time thinking the problem is solved only to have the phone stop working a few hours later. Then I shove my way to the front of the line at the store, declare my problem in a loud voice, and am told I have to get a passport photo and a copy of my driver’s license in order to register my phone.

My accomplishments are unfortunate. I get Ugandan money, bring it straight home for safe keeping, and don’t put enough in my wallet to buy what I need. I shop and cook and eat all the food immediately. No one answers my phone calls.

I can’t sleep. I go to bed at 10pm and wake up at 2am and fall back asleep at 6am and sleep until noon. I’m inadequately feeding myself, making unanswered phone calls, and staying in my room for more than 12 hours. I am at the functional level of a 3 year old.

Through the grace of the Internet, I meet with Gerald and talk about work and family. He tells me Group B has already scheduled a meeting for the following morning, no phone necessary. I put money in my wallet and drink nice coffee. Harriet from Group A answers the phone. Betty from Group C answers the phone. Joyce the tailor calls me! Betty and Kymbi answer the phone. I sleep through the night. I find the tiny purposes of my life: walking around a strangely familiar tropical town, talking with my friends about the work we will do, eating a peanut butter and banana chapati, and somehow, it’s enough.    

5 Obvious Things That Have Changed in Uganda

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  1. More construction and more traffic! The ride from Entebbe to Jinja. I saw widened highways, new overpass construction, and new traffic signals. It took more than 5 hours during the day on Saturday. Let’s blame Kampala.
  2. Doing business on Sunday! A big chunk of the market and most of the supermarkets were open. And clothing stores. And nearly everything on Main St., Jinja. Watch out Sabbath, commerce is here.

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  1. Nice cars! BMWs and Volkswagens and even a Hummer…in Jinja! Most driven by Ugandans. Assuming people are coming over from Kampala for the weekend.
  2. Internet! The house I stay in has (mostly) functional wifi! Boda drivers are taking calls on their smartphones…while driving! (Someone please donate headsets) Tinder is in Uganda!
  3. Big buildings! Five stories and more. So much scaffolding, I feel like I’m in Midtown Manhattan.

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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.

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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. 

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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?

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