Deep in Uruguay’s countryside, near the Brazilian border, the main industries are cattle raising, sheep breeding and growing rice. Yet delve deeper into this rural existence and you’ll find a rather more crafty industry: three co-operatives spinning and dyeing yarn for the worldwide Manos del Uruguay brand.
These co-operatives in Fraile Muerto, Reio Branco and Dragón support 20 workers who spin and dye the yarn, plus 100 more people in sister co-operatives charged with handknitting, weaving or loom knitting garments, accessories and rugs with it. The co-operatives provide much-needed income for rural women, who otherwise may have to leave their families and migrate to find work in the country’s capital, Montevideo, a five-hour drive away.
Says Pete Okell, the brand’s sales distributor for the UK: “The goal is to provide economic, social and cultural opportunities to all its members. Our objective is to supply a product that is socially and environmentally sustainable with high quality and creativity.”
The World Fair Trade Organisation appointed Manos del Uruguay as a member in 2009, stamping the brand with its quality trademark and acknowledgement of its fair trade principles, including sustainable development and guaranteeing the rights of small producers and vulnerable workers.
Fair trade roots
Manos’ story began in 1968, when five female ranch owners came up with an idea to help local families support themselves. They thought that the woollen products rural Uruguayan women traditionally produce, such as rugs, ponchos and horse blankets, could be sold in upscale markets for a profit. The idea was so successful that they organised production groups to make the products, which then developed into full-scale co-operatives.
At first Manos’ products reflected the traditional designs of the locality, but as business boomed the co-operatives added new techniques and designs to attract more customers. Volunteers helped transport the wool, provide spinning space and train the workers, making the yarn production a truly collective effort.
Most of Manos’s yarns are spun in the co-operatives, although some are imported and others are sourced from local mills. These initially go to the head office in Montevideo, and are then sent to the co-operatives to be hand dyed, three kilograms at a time, in small pots heated by wood kettles. Santiago, the company’s colour expert in Montevideo, develops the colours, with some requiring up to six different dye baths.
Next it’s time to dry the yarn, using a heated room in winter or outside in the back yard in summer. Finally the workers rewind the yarn, condition and tag it to be sent back to head office and shipped to stores worldwide.
Knitting all over the world
Maxima and Silk Blend are the company’s top-selling yarns. “Maxima is so soft and versatile - a basic yarn with a vast colour card. The simple roving single-ply yarn produces a clean knit that showcases stitches and cables,” explains Pete Okell. “Silk Blend is a beloved merino and silk DK-weight yarn, with a great depth of colour and a beautiful glow. It is soft, light and just so elegant.”
That said, consumers’ yarn tastes do differ from country to country, according to Pete. European knitters are drawn towards Manos’ thinner and ultra-soft yarns such as Lace and Fino. Colour-wise, blue, grey and purple sell well. Across the Atlantic, however, North American knitters go mad for worsted yarns and warmer colours such as saffron or honey. “We’ve also had a great response to our neon colours,” says Pete.
“In the southern areas of the world, there is a demand for not-so-woolly yarns such as our season-spanning Serena that combines baby alpaca and pima cotton. Over in Japan we sell mostly semi-solid colours, and in South America people like to knit with chunky yarns.”
New colours were launched for the autumn-winter 2015/16 season across Manos’s yarn ranges. Among these are seven new colours in Manos Alegria, including some amazing space-dyed blues and purples, and new colours in Silk Blend and Wool Classica.
There are also some brand new yarns hitting the shops in 2016. Throw in supporting patterns by designers Bristol Ivy, Christine Marie Chen, Corrina Ferguson and Mari Chiba, and there’s plenty to keep knitters happily occupied, along with the knowledge that they will also be supporting fair trade and social enterprise.
To find out more about Manos del Uruguay’s yarns and patterns, visit www.manosyarns.com
For UK stockist details, visit www.roosteryarns.com