A Word of Thanks

“Gratitude is an art of painting an adversity into a lovely picture.”  ~Kak Sri

As the season of gratitude arrives – and before the sometimes chaotic season of giving and receiving quickly follows – I wanted to pause and reflect upon the theme of thankfulness.

Over the last few years, I have experienced gratitude in its purest of forms, and the lessons on gratitude most striking to me are during my times with the refugee artisans.  “Thank you” seems to be one of the first English phrases they pick up in their ESL classes, and a phrase they use freely, which doesn’t water down the value of their gratitude one bit.  Each thank you is sincere and is accompanied by a smile that belies the fact that most came from a history of deplorable poverty, violence and persecution.

Here’s an example of their notion of gratitude: I’ve had many an opportunity to visit the artisans and their families in their humble homes.  A typical visit entails them thanking me for visiting, for drinking the tea they’ve taken the time to prepare, for allowing them to host and serve me.  What an amazing world this would be if we could all view gratitude as a natural part of the act of giving, and not only as an obligatory etiquette of receiving.

From these interactions, two insights on gratitude emerged for me: 1. Gratitude is an infinite and catalytic resource; one that brings forth and nurtures acts of giving and of receiving. 2. The spirit of gratitude is magnified when it comes from one who has experienced times when there were no gifts to be thankful for, other than the act of surviving.  Indeed, our artisans are proof that “gratitude is an art of painting an adversity into a lovely picture.”

That “lovely picture” is the beautiful pieces of arts and crafts they produce and sell through the program certainly; but it is more so the “lovely picture” of a new community they have built by connecting to other refugee women and to the many individuals who’ve walked by their side, encouraging them.

One of my fondest memories of the program was at our very first artisan orientation session. Through an introductory exercise, we asked each artisan to tell us a little about herself. Time after time, we heard the familiar refrain of, “Hello, I am (name), I am from (country of origin).”  But, then we’d hear, “and I am happy to have made new friends.”  By joining The Cloth, they were, of course excited about the prospects of making needed supplemental income; but they seemed more excited to have connected to other women and “new friends.”

Over the last two years, The Cloth has morphed from a program into a true community.  Whether a generous donor, a community or retail partner, or an amazing volunteer, all of you have contributed to the success of the program…and for that, we are so grateful!

Thank you for helping the refugees transition from giving thanks for the mere act of surviving to being able to “wake at dawn with a winged heart and give thanks for another day of loving (Kahlil Gibran).”




Not Just Another Trip to The Houston Galleria

The quickest way to know a woman is to go shopping with her.  -Marcelene Cox

There is something enjoyable about browsing the beautiful shops of The Houston Galleria without having to spend a penny. That is just what The Community Cloth volunteers and talented artisans did this past September. We went on a quest to take in all the fall fashion lines, to note the colors, textures, and combinations of trends in order to inspire some fresh craft ideas.  For some of the women this was their second trip to bustling downtown Houston and for others it was their first. It was nice to watch how the Galleria veteran artisans guided their first time friends on how to quickly cross the street when the crosswalk light turned green, how to avoid bumping into others in the crowded passages of the stores and even how to take the perfume samples offered as we passed through the beauty and fragrance departments!

The escalators no doubt brought some smiles to the faces of these lovely women and as we browsed women’s jackets, blouses, accessories and everything in between, the artisans took mental notes and shared ideas of what they could do with their own yarn, thread and know-how. My knitting group left a little early to have time to stop in our favorite yarn store, Hobby Lobby, to pick up supplies in the colors and textures we had just seen on display. It was fun helping the artisans fill their baskets and carts with loads of yarn and even more fun to see how far they have come as they checked out and paid for everything on their own. Each artisan of The Community cloth is eligible to apply for seed grants twice a year as needed. The artisans repay the seed grants by producing products which are then sold on their behalf.

Escalator and artisans

Let me ask you, what do you see when you look at a skein of yarn or a bunch of threads? Do you see what they can become? I continue to be impressed with the women’s ability to work their needles or looms to form unique and precious items that are proudly worn by individuals in Houston and beyond. With patient practice The Community Cloth knitting and weaving artisans have created some amazing scarves, hats, bags and accessories. These items we wrap around our necks, put on our babies heads or throw over our shoulder stand for something incredible. Each fair-trade item sold exemplifies a refugee women’s talent, shares a story and allows for the empowerment of women. I look forward to seeing the items created by the artisans for this fall and winter season. They are even making crocheted rugs now! Stay tuned as we are also about to kick-off online sales through Etsy. Keep in mind, The Community Cloth calendar still has openings for in-home sales events, so book one for you and your friends today! It is a perfect opportunity to get together for some holiday shopping and celebration. Please Email thecommunitycloth@gmail.com if you are interested.

This month, we will be participating in The Hearts and Hands Holiday Art Market at Memorial Drive United Methodist Church  from October 24 – 28, 2011. Stop on by and visit with us to shop the latest Cloth items and much more!


The Community Cloth Has Valuable Community Partnerships

stan the t rex at HMNS

Friendship is essentially a partnership.  -Aristotle

This month, we’d like to spotlight one of our community partners that helps spread the work of The Community Cloth. We have been blessed to partner with so many outstanding Houston institutions, like The Downtown Club, The Zonta Club, Brazos Bookstore, Kuhl-Linscomb and Contemporary Handweavers of Houston, but the one that is most meaningful to me is our continuing partnership with the Houston Museum of Natural Sciences.

I spent a large portion of my childhood roaming the halls of HMNS.  One of my earliest memories of Houston is of the massive Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton that greets you in the main exhibition hall.  With its cavernous mouth facing the doors, taunting you, threatening to turn you into a midnight snack, it was an image that burned itself into my nightmares.  Being a nerdy child born to nerdy parents, nearly every birthday was celebrated at the HMNS.  For my seventeenth birthday, my friends and I dragged ourselves out of bed at five in the morning to be one of the first to pass through the Lord of the Rings exhibition, and did not regret our decision (although we all took naps once we returned home). For me, the HMNS is a must-see for any Houstonian; I take my adult ESL class there every semester, and every one of them falls in love.

Last spring, we had the opportunity to partner with The Downtown Club for their weekly “Jazz and Juice” events.  We thrilled at the opportunity, for it provided a chance to spread our name and hopefully meet movers and shakers touched by the stories of The Community Cloth.  Stephen Sachnik of The Downtown Club was one such mover and shaker.  He also happens to be the CFO at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, and a self-proclaimed textile-phile.  Gently examining the soft, hand-woven Karenni scarves, he immediately appreciated the craftsmanship and skill used to produce them.  At this point, many people had already praised the talents of the artisans, but Stephen was the first person we encountered who had considerable knowledge of weaving and textiles, and his excitement was euphoric.  Not only did he suggest new product ideas, like placemats, coasters, and napkins, but he offered to pass a few of the items over to the museum merchandiser, Jennifer King, who immediately ordered some colorful Karenni scarves for the main entrance gift shop.

This was our first step into retail, and The Community Cloth was floored by somehow managing to end up in a major Houston museum.  Even better, the gift shop was remodeled a few years ago, and now houses some seriously fabulous pieces.  To be sold amongst such stunning and unique pieces was, and is, a tremendous honor.  But for me, it’s personal.  After spending a lifetime immersed in the HMNS, somehow being a part of it is surreal.  Even though many of the artisans have not yet walked through the museum, they are also a part of a Houston landmark.


If you haven’t been to the Houston Museum of Natural Science yet (or it’s been a while), you should check it out at: 5555 Hermann Park Dr. (Be sure to pick up one of our Karenni handwoven scarves!)   Follow the museum on Twitter at @hmns.


Forming Circles through Summer Stitches

The stitch is lost unless the thread be knotted. -Italian Proverb

The table in the middle of the room was covered with all kinds of yarn, crochet hooks and completed projects accompanied by their patterns. As the crochet experts moved around the room assisting in forming a knot and then the over and under motion of the crochet hook to the yarn took over as they created a chain with each stitch as the artisans began to grasp the patterns for themselves. The other volunteers in the room just watched in admiration. Conversations were buzzing and eyes and hands were focused on perfecting the technique as quickly as possible. I was amazed watching how the women manipulated the yarn into the desired patterns and am eager to see the finished products that will be available for sale at our upcoming fall events. If you’d like to see a video on the basic steps to crocheting, click here.

This past Saturday was a busy day for The Community Cloth. We started off in our wonderful workshop in the Day Art Studio at Baker Ripley Center where seven of our knitting artisans spent time learning different crochet techniques from generous volunteers, Karen, Janet and Sapana.  Some of the artisans had just come from a citizenship class which was exciting news and some had to leave a few minutes early to get to their jobs. Later in the afternoon, several of the volunteers prepared to beat the summer heat and enjoy the art, culture and community hosting The Community Cloth booth for the fifth annual White Linen Night in the Heights (WLNH). This was the second year we have participated in the summer fun of WLNH and it was a fabulous opportunity to share the story of our artisans.  Keep in mind every Community Cloth purchase supports local microenterprise and 100% of profits go directly to the artisans. For WLNH, there was a huge turnout of Houstonians decked in their finest whites strolling the crowded streets. For the first time this year people were also donning hues of pink on “Pink Street” ( on White Oak between Oxford and Columbia) to support breast cancer awareness and the Breast Health Collaborative of Texas. Of course, The Community Cloth had an assortment of accessories that would complement white, pink or any color for that matter! Our booth was set up outside of a hip, new restaurant on White Oak called Happy Fatz. You should check it out!

At the end of this month we will take the knitting and weaving groups on a product development outing to the Galleria to peruse all the shops and discover what colors and styles are popular and fashionable this year. They are already so creative in their designs but this is a perfect opportunity to give them fresh ideas so they may create similar handmade items for the fall and winter. So get ready to shop with us on September 17th for National Women’s Friendship Month at Ten Thousand Villages from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.


These Times They Are A’ Changin’

 Because things are the way they are, things will not stay the way they are.  -Bertolt Brecht

 If your last personal encounter with the Community Cloth was more than six months ago, you might not recognize us.  We are a changed organization, from top to bottom.  We’ve expanded our volunteer base (a volunteer info session was held this past Wednesday at the Baker Ripley Center Neighborhood Center); we’ve expanded our retail partnerships (you can now buy Karenni scarves at Kuhl Linscomb and Muse Boutique, along with the Houston Museum of Natural Science); we’ve regenerated our artisan line-up (this one needs a bit more explanation). 

As Krista mentioned last week, Narmaya, Lachi and Radhika recently began working together in a new setting—at a garment shop in Houston.  While obtaining a textile-related job (and working with friends) is serendipitous, employment is hardly a novelty among Cloth talent.  In our nearly two years (two years!) as an organization, almost all of the original artisans have found jobs.  In order to stem camaraderie, we divided the Bhutanese knitters into small groups based on their apartment locations.  Now, we have lost the majority of an apartment community to full-time jobs and virtually all of the faces in the Karenni workshop are new. 

 Saying goodbye to artisans this way is hardly bittersweet; for us, there is no greater excitement than knowing that one of the women is earning a better living.  To be sure, the Cloth was never about providing primary income.  We always intended the sales to supplement meager incomes, never to be the sole support for a family. But for many, the thirty dollars handed to them in an Amegy Bank envelope meant survival.  It paid for another supply of groceries, or it paid the water bill; or it was tucked away, the start of a miniscule savings account.  But that cannot compare to the paychecks they bring home now.  Now, they can move out of dangerous, crumbling apartments into newer, safer complexes.  They can provide more support to their families still lingering in the camps. 

Those that stay take on the welcomed role of mentor (and many times translator).  Narmaya was and is the perfect example of this.  She was not just one of the original members of the Community Cloth, she predated it, participating in a knitting group organized by a non-profit I worked for.  Genial, hospitable and possessor of the sweetest smile, she was a cornerstone of our burgeoning enterprise.  As many of her colleagues left for work, she—and others—became the old salts to the newest participants, helping explain procedures.  One of the women she took in was Radhika, her neighbor.  Needing extra money, she talked often with Narmaya and fellow artisan Pabitra to understand the workings of the Cloth and to find a way to join.  She even tagged along on yarn-buying excursions, using her own money so that on the day she officially joined the Cloth, she would have items to sell.  Before she was even a participant of the Cloth, she looked to Narmaya as a guide.  I’m thrilled that they both now work alongside each other, and I’m unspeakably proud of Narmaya. 

The Community Cloth is not the last step for the refugee women that bless us with their talents.  We are not the end of the journey.  We are the next step.   Sometimes the first step.  But never the last.


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