Cari Clement | Knitting Pattern Designer Helps Rwandan Women Support Families
Fiber and Craft
Skeins of yarn in every color of the rainbow paint Cari Clement’s Vermont office from floor to ceiling, appropriate for a designer of knitting patterns. But look more closely and you’ll find colorful photographs, too: In one, dozens of Rwandan women dressed in brilliant clothing and head scarves look on intently as Cari demonstrates how to use a knitting machine; in another, the women smile broadly, showing off newly spun caps and sweaters. Cari has traveled to the central African nation a half dozen times since 2003 to orchestrate the donation of hundreds of these knitting machines, which look like small high-tech looms. The women knit in order to rebuild their families and their country, one stitch at a time, in the wake of a horrible civil war.
“The women must not tell you if they are Tutsi or Hutu,” says Cari, referring to the country’s new laws following the genocide that left an estimated one million dead and left in shambles an already fragile agricultural economy. “But most of the women are widows, and many suffered rape and torture. And now they are knitting up a storm, and smiling.”
Cari learned to knit from her mother and later earned a degree in textiles. In the early 1980s, while designing patterns for magazines, she discovered an inexpensive knitting machine. She eventually partnered with its British inventor to distribute it in the United States. During the 1990s they sold thousands of machines, and in 2003 they sold their business to industry giant Caron International. Cari signed on as director of fashion and design.
“I’d always had the thought in the back of my mind of helping start a collective,” she says. Her mom once worked for the United Nations in its early days. “I grew up knowing that you need to do something for others.”
Through the United Nations refugees program, Cari followed a shipment of 60 knitting machines to Rwandan refugee camps to train Congolese and Burundian women displaced by the region’s ethnic conflict how to use them. The Rwandan government took note, and Cari, with a grant from the United States Agency for International Development, delivered several hundred more machines to Rwandan genocide survivors over the next three years.
Now Cari’s work goes far beyond simple training on the machines. “We teach the women how to be businesswomen, how to find markets for their products, how to train others, how to design their own patterns, how to make a profit,” she says. “They knit everything from soccer caps to sweaters to go with school uniforms.”
Cari says the toughest part of her work has been dealing with large, slow-moving aid agencies, so patience has been key. But by doing what she knows, and following her instincts, she has given hundreds of women hope for the future in a hopelessly impoverished country.