Taking it back: Rural Italy, Tibet, Family and mYak with Paola Vanzo
Today we’re taking it back, specifically to November 2016 to one of my favorite past episodes of what was then, the Woolful podcast. We’ll be re-sharing some of these highlight episodes over the coming months and I’m excited to re-listen along with you. Paola is an amazing woman with an amazing story, from growing up in rural Italy to immersion in Tibetan life to finding herself in Brooklyn, with a family and a rich history and future for her fiber and textile company mYak. Like with many yarns, mYak has a beautiful story and impact on our global fiber community and I hope you enjoy getting to know Paola and the mYak vision as much as I have. You can find Paola at mYak.it and on Instagram @myak_fibers.
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Ashley [00:00:05] Welcome to Making Conversation, a podcast where we celebrate making in all its forms from amazing stories of inspiring makers and people to behind the scene. Peeks of building a startup in the tech and craft industry. I'm your host, Ashley Yousling. Today we're taking it back specifically to November 2016 to one of my favorite past episodes of what was then the woeful podcast. We'll be resharing some of these highlight episodes over the coming months, and I'm excited to relisten along with you. Paula is an amazing woman with an amazing story from growing up in rural Italy to immersion in Tibetan life, to finding herself in Brooklyn with a family and a rich history and future for her fiber and textile company, mYak. Like with many yarns, mYak has a beautiful story and impact on our global fiber community and I hope you enjoy getting to know Paola and the mYak vision as much as I have. You can find Paula at myak.it And on Instagram @myak_fibers. And with that, here's Paula.
Paola [00:01:09] I was born in Italy in a very small village on the Dolomites. And I there's a place where I had a strong knitting and embroidery and crochet traditions. So both my grandmother and my mother where knitting. And so I start looking at what they were doing, start learning when I was very young, maybe like six or seven years old. I really liked embroidery more than knitting. Sounded more interesting to me with all the different colors. So I did a lot of cross-stitch embroidery for a long time, but then I got into knitting and I was trying to knit the endless scarves and and trying to look at a different type of school and different designs. My mother was really a great knitter, so I grew up with her knitted garments, me and my sister as well. But I do remember that early on when I was very young, I didn't like them. I felt they were too different from what my friends were wearing. And but when I got into it, I was asking my mother to design more and more things for me, and I really liked them. But then I really sort of lost touch with the whole knitting and crochet world all through my adult life. You know, I went on and did completely different things throughout my life, and I never touched a needle on knitting needle until a few years back, actually. And that came only because I had decided to start the Mallorca grind with this friend of mine. So knitting was really not part of most of my life. It was just when I was young, I liked it. I knew how to do it. And I learned I sort of lost a lot of the notion. So now, a few years back when I started my work, I started going back and try to remember, I suppose, and I thought it was okay. I learned I should know how to do it, but I is not as easy as I remember. And but now I enjoyed it very much again.
Ashley [00:03:37] Tell me a little bit more about growing up in Italy, maybe the influence that textiles there had on you?
Paola [00:03:43] Oh, the area where I grew up is is really a magical, beautiful areas where you you know, you open the window in the morning and you see a beautiful, snowcapped mountain and or greens and trees and flowers. And that's one of the image I always have in my mind. And it was one of the reason why I felt so at home when I start living and working on the Tibetan Plateau. Because you really reminded me a home grown up. There was a nice but very small constraint, and I always wanted to know what was on the other side of the mountain. You know, my always trying to go on the top of the mountain and see what was on the other side. I always dreamt of long journeys and going away to faraway places. But I, you know, I stayed in that little village until I was through high school, until I really I enrolled in university. In the university. I went to study in Venice at a Venice university. And ah, I remember when I had to choose my major, I went back home and I told my parents, especially my father, at a time that I had decided to study Chinese language and and culture, which was a bit of a shock to everybody. I think nobody had done that at that time. Now is very popular. Everybody's learning that that meant I had to go and live far away. You know, Venice is not too far, is just maybe three or 4 hours by train, 3 hours by train. But at the time, it sounded like really far away. And I recall my dad saying, you know, it was a shock to the beginning, but at the end they said, okay, you can do it as long as you promise you will never travel that far away. You would never go to China. And I said, Sure, of course, and never go there. But I would just say anything to just be able to get permission to to go and do what I wanted. So I really left. That's when I really left the place, my hometown. And I never looked back. I've been traveling since then. I've been traveling, you know, most of my life. I lived all around the world in a way, from Asia to the United States and out of. Part of Europe. And I think that make me feel that my village, you know, the place where I was born was still that magical place. Because when I go home, I feel really like I'm at home and I love it. But I'm happy. I don't live there, you know, all around. And I had opportunity to really embark on a long journey around the world from home to time that I told my dad that I was moving away. And, you know, I just I do recall the first year of university, I immediately applied for a scholarship to go to China. I think I was just a few months into the, you know, the first classes. And I went to China the first time in 1990, just soon after the big protests in Tiananmen in 89. And I start studying Chinese. I start living in China. I travel around China. And I think that's where my passion for textiles really started. Again, it was not really about the knitting because it was really not much going on there, but the beautiful textiles and the steel and the brocade. There was so much tradition embroidery at the time, a lot of which has been lost right now, but in those days was still very popular and I traveled to cities like Suzhou in the South. So there was really a rich culture of Silk or Yunnan again with all of that minority. And I start collecting all of these different colors and textiles and garments and always thought that I wanted to do something, you know, maybe one day. And but, you know, it was always in the back of my mind. I was busy with my studies and eventually I had to start working and make a living. I stayed in China. I never went back. I was just going back once a year to see my family spend Christmas with them. And then I would just go back to to China. Then I live, start living in Beijing. I, I was living in Beijing permanently for many, many years actually until 99. So it was quite a few years there. And that's when I then moved to the Tibetan Plateau. I moved to LA that the capital of central Tibet.
Ashley [00:08:54] I'm curious, kind of taking a step back. When you first moved to Venice and were doing school there, what was it like moving from a small town to that big city? And, you know, was there anything when you were there that kind of began to turn your wheels in? I mean, obviously cultural way, but, you know, an artistic way.
Paola [00:09:16] Well, it was very different from anything I had seen so far. You know, everybody looked different from from me. I was a very shy person, so I didn't really like big crowds. And I couldn't really understand a lot of the things that were going on in that, you know, in a bigger city, like like Venice. I felt more comfortable back in my room with a nice book and and some colors as well. I did like a lot of drawing at a time. But I think I was really I was really into art in in, of course, Asian and Japanese and Chinese art at the time. So I sort of I had a full immersion immersion in Chinese culture. And I was fascinated by the by the language in terms of how you right. Writing. So I took a lot of calligraphy classes with pen and brushes to try to learn how to write. And I got quite good in, you know, writing Chinese in Chinese calligraphy. I think a lot of that ink and shadows and colors and all of that fascinated me. And I never stopped from looking into the porcelain traditions to seal tradition, anything that was handcrafted. So I always looked at the artisanal things made by artisans in different ways from papermaking silk making and as something that would interest me. And I think a lot of that interest and that spark at the beginning of my studies or my university time really helped shape in my future interests as well. And also in a way, my artistic instinct and how I like design and how I surround myself by beautiful, simple but beautiful things. It could be more of, you know, artwork from young artists or calligraphy or simply something embroidered. I think I like to surround myself by these beautiful things.
Ashley [00:11:38] Where do you think your interest in Chinese culture came from?
Paola [00:11:42] That came. It's a funny story that came from my dad, actually. My father had a friend who was a missionary. I think a Jesuit Jesuit missionary back in in the small village of all places. And it was an old man who had lived a long time in China. And one day my father brought back a small book of poetry that this priest had translated in Italian, and he had those handwritten strokes of the I do Gramps are the Chinese words. And I looked at them and it was actually a small book of tongue poetry. And it just fascinated me. And I said to my dad, I just want to know what those words mean and why are they depicted like that? What is the meaning? And, you know, then I put it away and I never looked back. But one day I went to talk to this priest who passed away soon after. After. And we had this really interesting adventure in China. And, you know, coming from such a small place and where, you know, everybody, you know, every day you do exactly the same thing. You sounded so fascinated. So I think that's how that seed of that little book is what really brought me to think that I could do something different from everybody else. So I thought at a time I was still quite young. And as a matter of fact, I majored in Chinese poetry as well. I think that that little book stayed with me most of my life and made me maybe interested in the poetry in general, and I ended up doing my master degree on contemporary Chinese poetry.
Ashley [00:13:49] How did you end up in the Tibetan Plateau?
Paola [00:13:52] Well, that's where my life took a completely different turn from Chinese studies to Tibetan studies, in a way. I was working, living and working in Beijing, and I was already working with some small nonprofit organizations trying to help women in particularly and back in 90, in 92. I had taken my first trip to Tibet as a student, and I traveled by bus on food and spent a very short time on the Tibetan Plateau. I arrived in Lhasa, the capital, moved around in a period where no many foreigners were traveling, and I was simply fascinated by the people and the landscape, the culture, all of those cultures and the richness of this tradition that when I went back to Beijing, back to the big cities, I always thought that I wanted to go back to the Tibetan plateau and really explore, not as a tourist, but try to understand the culture and try to know more about the people and the traditions. So it was a few years later. In 99, there was an opportunity for me to go and work on the Tibetan Plateau with a big nonprofit organization based here in New York City Trace Foundation, which is still the organization that I currently manage, actually. So I went. To work. They sent me to Lhasa to, you know, they hired me and they sent me to Lhasa. I moved from Beijing to, to Lhasa. Try to look at different ways in which we could help with the help of the Tibetan communities in the area. The mission of the foundation was really to help Tibetans improving their their livelihood and to try to. Develop and maintain their cultural heritage. And this is how I really got involved in anything to do with the Tibetan issues. It was the best way to get accustomed to what Tibetan culture was. I lived in on the Tibetan Plateau for six and a half years, and that's when I did a lot of different projects from arts, rural development, education, training, teachers, building schools, working hand in hand with a lot of farmers and nomads and and school teachers and student and children. It was the best time of my life, really. We were achieving a lot. We were trying to improve a lot. And I spent summers on the Tibetan Plateau. We did different projects from dairy activities, cheese production, veterinarian training. And that's where I met my what is the co-founder of my bank, Andrea Domenici, who was hired as veterinarian consultant for a project that I was working on. We start together the journey in spending the summers in on the grassland with the groups of ornaments, trying to help them, improving their the health of their animals and trying to also make cheese out of this wonderful milk that is the female of the yak produces every day. And that's how we met. And after a couple of seasons, a couple of summers on the grassland, we were trying to think of ways in which we could we could help ease the nomadic communities and the nomadic families that we were working with, how we could help them more in a different way. Not, as you know, come in as a project and trying to do something for them, but trying to really put them at the center of an activity that would involve them and would help them sustain themselves in the long run. I do remember we were just playing with these yaks. You know, a lot of people think that they are wild. Of course they are some of the wild ones, but they're very tame animal, beautiful animal. And by being so close to them for so long, we you know, we were looking at the animal and this fiber and the nomads were telling us that the undercoat of the younger yaks, the baby yaks up to two years old, was so much softer that anybody thought about. We always had this idea of the adult, you know, this big, massive animal, the fiber being very coarse and is true. It is quite rough. But nobody were looking at the undercoat of the younger yaks, so that's really how it all began. We took a sample of this soft undercoat. We analyzed it in Italy. Andrea, the co-founder of My Yak, comes from the Torino area, which is the textile of Bella Torino, the textile area of Italy. So we had a lot of access to good labs for textile and fiber related research. We did analyze the little fiber that we brought and we were sort of amazed by the results and it felt almost like cashmere. So that's what we were told. And it was so soft and nice that it could be hardly distinguished with the some of the cashmere that was on the market at the time. So we went back to the grasslands the year after we started discussing with with annulments. And we. This. We thought, you know what? If we do something with this fiber? Of course, the yak is the most important animal for all of the for all of the nomads. Yet the yak is the animal is is that keeps the nomads everything from the meat, of course, to sustain themselves. The milk, which is very nutritious and wonderful from the milk. They make butter, they make cheese, they make wonderful yogurt. The coarse hair of the Atatürk they weave, it's the weave. It's to make their tents, their black tents that you can see scattered across the plateau. So and even the fuel that they use is produced from the yak dogs. So, you know, the Yankees really the yak yak. So really the wealth that the Nomads have. So trying to find another way of using part of the the animal was important to us and to them. But we want you to find a way that was not going to harm any of those animals. The good news was that the both the adult and the baby yak, they shared naturally every year. So there's no harm to the animal. And we start again collecting the fiber. The difficult thing at the beginning was how do we organize the herders? How do we work with them? If we want them to be part of the process? They need to be sort of not, you know, scattered family in different location. And at the time, the the Chinese government had just passed new regulation about cooperatives. So we formed one of the first cooperative of nomads on the Tibetan Plateau. And nobody has said really done it at a time was quite early on, I think was the first year the Regulation Act passed. So there's a lot of, you know, the bureaucratic process trying to do that. Once we have done that, we decided to create it to create a very short chain, production chain. We decided to not to use any middlemen, but to be the one that would purchase directly the fiber from the nomads. We have now a cooperative of around 800 to 1000 families that participates in that in in our venture. And we give them at the beginning of the year, we give them a cash advance, which is good for them because they don't really get cash from any other sources and then need cash to send their children to school to pay for health, medical medicines and health issues, and also to buy any of the daily things that they need. So we give them a cash advance. We tell them how much fiber we want for the year. Then they collect a fiber there and then, you know, the process starts. We go every year. Andrea is the person that travels three or four times a year and checks on the fiber sourcing. He looks at the quality of the fiber and you know, we purchase it from the nomads. Then we just take the fiber, the, you know, the raw fiber. We have to have it and wash it locally to make sure that we get the best part of this of this fiber. And then we ship it to Italy. And that's where the production of the of the yarn and also the spinning and the dyeing happens.
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Paola [00:25:44] I think the figuring out has been the most challenging, but also the most fun. If you think you know, you have a veterinarian on one side and are a development and nonprofit person on the other side. You know, we had come up with this great idea. I would say, okay, let's do it. What do we do? Let's create a brand. Let's be ethical, let's be sustainable. And we had all of these grandiose ideas, but then we had to put it into practice and none of us had to really didn't really have the expertize to start with this. So we were sort of, I think going back now know it's been four years now and I think we were like completely mad time to start something like that. We knew what we wanted to do. We wanted to help the nomads. We wanted to help the Tibetan mountain in their traditional way of style and give them all the support that we could. So I think that's what kept fueling us. And and we went into this journey together trying to separate our expertize. And Andrea really became the fiber expert is spend so much time with different mills and factories in Italy trying to understand how every step of the production would work. We luckily found small artisanal meals and bigger meals that we're really interested in working with. Yak because not many had done that, you know, until then. Now is much more popular. You have much more yak on the market to watch you you had few years ago but to be able to work with this yak fiber is just not something that everybody can do is a very short fiber compared to wall or cashmere and you need to mills with greater expertize. This is one of the reason we think that a lot of the yak on the market is mixed with other fibers. You have yak and bamboo, yak and rule, yak and merino yak and a lot of other things. But having the pure yak or or the baby yak even is kind of of unique. So we started thinking about doing some weaving. We went out with this wonderful meal in Italy that had a lot of expertize. And we design a sure, a big large shawl. We just the natural colors. That was another thing at the beginning. We only wanted to use the natural colors of the yak, which is this dark chocolate and a light gray that we call desert and and the white that we call oatmeal. So we combine the two colors, the the chocolate and the desert, and we created this herringbone stall, this large. Sure. And when we saw the result, we were so amazed and and so, like, happy because it was like nothing we have seen before. It was the most luxurious stol we have ever seen. It was so warm because the yak roll is warmer than cashmere. If you think this, you know, these animals have to stay at such a high altitude. And this the only the undercoat is what really keeps them warm. And without using any extra softener or any other artificial methods, we created this beautiful piece of fabric that we had in front of us. And so we were just happy. We just happy with that. And, and we thought that we had something special and we had to just decide how to market it. So we wanted to do we didn't want to be into the, you know, the ethnic kind of brand just because we knew that we could have a niche in the luxury market with the quality of the product that we had. So we started designing a few more accessories. We thought also accessories at the beginning were going to be easier to deal with rather than the full garments with different sizes. We thought about the stock and everything else, and so we launched our website with a few pictures and a few accessories and people start really liking that. We had a lot of interest from friends and family at the beginning. It was just a small startup. We brought back some of the. Compass to the nomads where could not believe what they had in their hands, thinking that the beautiful product came from there anymore. And I think that's part of the key of the success of my Yak, is trying to really put together two beautiful tradition, the Tibetan culture and our beautiful fiber with the artisanal skills of the Italian mills. And we knew that being Italian and having lived in Tibet, this is what we wanted to bring to to the customer, to the audience. So we want you to have something special that people would really feel wonderful wearing. And that's how the accessory line started. It was only a year after when some people, some knitters, friend of ours asked whether they could have some of the if we had any of the yarn to to do some knitting. And we thought, okay, let's try that. And when we we took some of the of the air. We tried to do some knitting. And then we washed it. And we saw that the five it was really blooming after we washed it. And we tried to do some little, you know, hats and little garments. We started with some children garments at a time. I actually I was pregnant, and that's when I went back into knitting. And all of a sudden I started buying all these knitting books and and I wanted to see what I could be able to meet as much as I could for, you know, for my daughter. I didn't really go very far, you know, just because there was like too many things trying to run the company and work full time and trying to think about the future of my child. But we had other people doing some knitting sample for us. And at a time that we had heard about Volk knitting in New York, and we thought, okay, let's just do it, you know, how difficult can that be? And so we really realized how complicated the world of knitting was. We literally put together the the skeins that we needed for the First World meeting in 2013 in a few months. And we only had two colors. We only had the natural chocolate. I knew, you know, I talk with different people and I had the help of our accessory designer. And just going back one step where we were designing the accessories collection I had, I was very lucky to be able to start working with a Brooklyn based designer, Tom Scott, who had also designed a few pieces, hand-knitted pieces for Vogue knitting. So it was, it was I went known in the knitwear world, boss, and knits and machine knit. And it was very, you know, it was such an amazing help and supporter of the brand. And not only helped us, we designed a future collection, which, you know, the current collection that we have on the accessories and the knitwear. But he also helped with the design in some of the first pattern for the hints and. When we start designing, you know, we had to we only had few canes to use for the samples. I remember we only had two colors. We had this chocolate, dark chocolate, the natural colors and burgundy like deep red, a deep, deep red. And the reason why we only wanted to go with the two colors is because we didn't have time to do anything else before the event. But also because mind the principles that we had at a time when we still stick to is that we didn't want to color the fiber, we didn't want to do any bleaching to this beautiful fiber, not to ruin it. You know, in the years, you know, the couple of years that we are still doing research on the on the baby yak and the yak, we saw there's a lot of yak on the market that was had colors from, you know, pink and purple. And and we felt when we touched it, that was something strange was not as soft, not as nice. And from what we had in our hands, a lot of people were telling us this because of the bleaching and the coloring. And we just thought about, you know, the kind of pollution that that that would have cause or whatever you were going to do that the coloring and the bleaching. And also in terms of when it on your own skin, I was thinking at a time, you know, would I want my baby to to wear something that was not natural? So we went against, you know, any any of that, too. We tried to stick with our principles. So we just did the burgundy on top of the chocolate. And I remember presenting a to do, said Mark Newton, which is these two colors and Baby Yak. And I spent the night before the Vogue Newton event sticking labels on these canes that had arrived just a day before from Italy. But when we went to to the event and my husband was there with me and my little child as well, that was born at a time was only two months. I, I just sort of people were completely interested and there was so much interest in, in the yarn and people were touching it. They said, I couldn't believe how soft it was and how different it was. And that's really how the knitting part started.
Ashley [00:37:08] Taking a little step back, you live in New York now. What what brought you to New York?
Paola [00:37:14] I came to New York when I left Tibet on request of the foundation, Trace Foundation that I work for. They asked me to come back to work in their headquarters. It was also a time for me to, you know, to move from the life that I had. I had a very nomadic, nomadic life, and I felt that I had to settle down somewhere. It was very hard to move from from Tibet to New York, you know, coming to New York for a couple of months in a year where you enjoyed the, you know, the movies, the theater and the food. And then you can go back and keep on the mountain, on the grassland with wonderful people. It was one thing, but try to move here permanently as been a big a big shock actually and something that I resisted for a long time. I didn't like it as much. I love my work and I loved, you know, what, I love what I was doing. But it was very, very difficult to live in New York for me at the beginning. It was only years later that I started appreciating the city for what you could, what it could give me. Now I like it. I live in Brooklyn right now. Of course, it helped that I found my husband and I have a wonderful child and I'm very busy and with with different activities. So. But leaving Tibet, I think, was the hardest thing that I had to do. Of all of the different places where I lived.
Ashley [00:39:00] What was that kind of new step into motherhood like for you?
Paola [00:39:05] It's very difficult to describe. It is I always worked trying to especially in Tibet, I always work with a lot of children. I was working with elementary school and kindergarten and trying to help as many children as I could, whether in improving their conditions in terms of where they were going to school or trying to give them a better quality education and trying to try to see how I could contribute to their lives. And I you know, I always knew that I wanted to be a mother, but it was never the right you know, it was never the right moment to know the right person to share it with. And Andrea, the co-founder of Mark, a few years back, actually five years ago, you had twins. And I just saw how happy he was and how wonderful father was and are and how he seems to be able to do it all. And then I thought, okay, maybe I could do it, too. So when my husband and I decided to have a baby, I thought it was a bit crazy because I was older. I'm 47 years old now, actually. 48 now. I just sent my birthday last week. So it was you know, I thought it was a bit crazy to start such a late in life, but I never felt I was old. I still had a lot of energy. And so I thought about what I could offer this child. And I thought, if anything else, you know, if she can have a life or to adventure as much as I had, it's worth bringing her to this world. And. And so. Ideas and trying to. Cope with everything together. It's been a bit overwhelming. I just want to make sure I always have time for for my little one. And she comes before everything. I'm very lucky in terms of the flexibility that I'm given at the foundation where I work and the fact that they, you know, they like and appreciate the fact that I have my own venture as well. Just because we have the same mission and it helps Tibetan is much the foundation. So there are two things that have Tibetans. So they are happy with that. And I think, you know, my little one is since day one, she was part of everything I did. She travels with me everywhere since she was a few months old. She is surrounded by, you know, a lot of friends and Tibetans. Above all, the first nanny that she had was a Tibetan nanny. And, ah, she she lives in a room that is filled with beautiful Tibetan artwork. And so I'm trying to put together everything and trying to already give her. A life maybe that I wanted when I was a child. And I grew up in a very strict environment. And very limited in a way or what I could do. So, you know, she's growing up as a little bit of a wild one trying to and she does what she wants and of course, and tries to be a strict as well once in a while. But I'm not very good at that. I also is good. You know, I'm trying because we are in a multilingual family. My husband is originally from Russia and I'm Italian. And of course, she's learning English at daycare. So we are trying to have this multilingual environment where she comes to the office and she is Tibetan and and Italian and Russian in English. I hope that, you know, the first full sentence that she will say is not what the heck have you been doing to me? You know, this is really is is fascinating and scary at the same time. And try and, you know, we are trying to teach her so much that she's, you know, like every little child, she's like a sponge. And so right now, she has this mix of languages that she speaks and. But, you know, I compare her with how Andrea's children as well. There's another reality that he has of living in another small village in in Italy. And and they live on a farm. They they are growing up with the you know, with cows and animals and tractors. And they are so wild spirited and they spend a weekend. So with Andrea trekking on mountains and there's such exceptional kids that I hope to be able to give the same, you know, freedom and a wonderful experience to my child as well. So I think that is family valued that the two of us as partners are bring in to the company is also what makes us unique. And to know that our children are part of all of my yak as much as we are. And you know, they love playing with our yarns and with our colors and with everything. And they are so curious, all of them. So it's nice. That's nice to be able to do that as a family and as two families really coming together.
Ashley [00:45:05] That's really special. It's kind of interesting because I am living kind of in those two worlds where I just we lived in San Francisco, in the city. And we bought our farm, which is where we live now in Idaho. And we just made that move last August from the city to our farm. And, you know, one of the real reasons that we did that was because we just we felt like it's what was right for us with our son. It's been a crazy transition for me from this very tech, heavy, male centric, you know, go, go, go kind of environment in the city to living out in this farm. And and I think even two years ago, I probably but I would have been way resistant to it. But it came at the right time because now it just feels so right. But when, you know, when you were talking about Andrea and how his children are raised, I remember seeing that and really wanting that for my son. And so I was a huge reason why we are where we are right now.
Paola [00:46:15] It's I think, you know, I actually I was reading about your life and your move and and so some of the images that that you posted as well, I think about a year that you have and it reminded me of where I was and when I would like to bring my daughter to us. Well, you know, that kind of experience that is so priceless and I think is, you know, the best thing you could do for you and and your family. It's that's most important than anything else to just give them the opportunity where they can grow up exploring and be happy and be stronger. And, you know, of course, you want to make sure that they grow happy and no matter where they are. But, you know, this is how I'm hoping to be able to bring her to and Andrea's children as well to Tibet and Mitchell, all of our friends and and, you know, part of the nomads as well that we work with Tibetan are the most family oriented and loving people that you could possibly imagine. You know, I work with them every day and I deal with them every day. But is they're so wonderful and creative and, you know, nothing matters more than family to them. So it's kind of very close to what we believe in. And that's the reason why we want to continue with the, you know, with the with this our small brand, because it really gives them an opportunity to share with us the value of a culture that has survived for centuries in the face of daily challenges that they have. But they're still there. They're still strong and and still smiling. And just for that, I hope that, you know, my daughters and Andrea's children will just grow up appreciating what Tibetan culture has been to us and continues to be. And I hope that more people will understand as well. What we try to stand for is not just a yarn, is Sasha is a story. It's a journey that you embark upon when you purchase or when you need something. And with this, what I think is a beautiful a beautiful yarn is is is just so much more than just a yarn.
Ashley [00:48:56] What are some of the impacts that you've seen on the villages and the families that you worked with?
Paola [00:49:03] I think the fact that they are organized as a cooperative has already been something new to them that is helping them. The same cooperative that we have formed is actually also giving milk to a new venture that we have started producing yogurt, milk and butter. So we are really trying to help them as much as we can they have. A possibility of being able to afford more things than they used to, you know, is always difficult to to to talk about a social impact that a company has. Everybody is trying to tell you that whatever percentage of the sales go to this activity or that activity and improve somebody's life. And we always stayed away from that. We always stayed away from making any such comment just because it's so difficult to quantify first and second, because this is not what we want people to remember. You know, when people say 5% of the sales goes to support a child in school, we have seen that. We have worked with that for so long that we think that being getting the enormous to be integral part of the of the community that we have created and share this journey with them is what matters, what we we do with the income, you know, whether we can do some training or help them in any other way is something that will come, but it should not be talked about. We feel it should be something that is naturally imbued in the in the ethics that we that we have. But I know that a lot of the you know, a lot of the nomad said definitely better off even if we are such a small company. And I think that, you know, once we grow, we could add more communities and some more nomads. You know, we do that. We try to do things for them directly. Andrea Of course, being there so often helps a lot with the with the health of the animals and is a one of the best veterinarian that I ever met in so many years of working in the area and is such a generous person with his time and he just goes out of his way to, you know, to help all the families as much as it can. And that's already something that we are contributing, contributing to. But we also try to make sure that what we do is not just good for the people, but good for the environment. So, you know, I told you about it on bleaching the fiber, but we also try to give back what we can in terms of what is not used. So there's a lot of once we you get to fiber and you go through that, the hair in process, there's a lot of there's a lot of waste. You know, it sure is 25% or 30% of the only 25 to 30% of the raw fiber. It comes out of the hair in being the purest down that that we use for them that goes into the spinning. So we are trying to give back that waste and the normal to use it to make mattresses for the local monasteries and or they're trying to do other they're trying to do some other things some time to try to do a little felt as well. So we're trying to reuse and recycle everything, everything we can. And also in Italy after, for example, that just goes a little bit away from what you asked me. But to think about the whole chain of the supply chain that we have created also in Italy after this been in, there is always waste from that. And we create this beautiful felt in Italy as well. That is you're trying to use now for some, you know, products that we are doing. And so we are trying to use as much as we can and trying to give back as much as we can. But just see the you know, the smiles on the no matter faces when, you know, when they get a cash advance and and they know that is somebody that cares about them is is priceless in other things that we actually do besides the baby yak, we have this small production of Tibetan cashmere. And so the same nomads that have the yaks, they also have few goats and is the goose. They have a very small breed of goats that is kind of unique to the Tibetan plateau and is very different from the Kashmiri and Mongolian. Goats are they are pure, are beautiful. They have this beautiful cashmere, which is one of the longest cashmere. You have on the market, and we have shown it to quite a lot of people as well. It almost feels like cotton because it doesn't have the hair is so long that doesn't hardly do any pilling. So we try to get that cashmere from them as well and we just leave it as pure as it is and let people hand die it if they want to, which is, you know, is slowly getting old to be more popular. But I think we are more known for the baby yak, but also trying to for the same nomads, telling that we could also use this other animal, the goats that they have as also helped tremendously for their livelihood.
Ashley [00:55:22] So when you think about the future and really even though your journey has been so long, it's really just said it's beginning, you know, so much more that there's in store for you guys. What are the things that you're most excited about?
Paola [00:55:38] Well, the couple of things that we've been working on is on the sauce inside. We are actually almost completing organic certification for the area that we work with. That means there would be a certified organic fiber come in from the area and it's the first one that anybody has done it in in China, actually, so that we would be the first certified yarn, organic certified yarn that comes out of, of, of, of China, which is very exciting for us. And we are so looking into all this ethical and sustainable aspect that everything we can do in that direction really help us. But personally, one of the things that I'm more excited about is something that we started last year is the collaboration with the amazing designers. The fact that neither me or Andrea are designers or knitters, of course, had caused a little bit of a problem trying to understand how to move forward. And as I said before, we had, you know, we were lucky in that a working with Tom Scott with the accessory design and we are now going to actually work with a new Italian designer for the knitwear collection, which we also you know, we are also very excited because she is a wonderful and amazing designer. But on the in the knitted world, we have been so extremely lucky to have been working with the people actually who were Michelle Wang, Olga. But I can say Liane and some other designers that are in the, you know, sort of him in the making, the collaboration is in the making and I think having them working with the yarn and saying this is the best fiber that I could possibly work with and such a great, great fan is, is what I think makes me super happy. I just love working with them. They are such a unique and wonderful people and, and they give me a lot of ideas. And so I think that closer collaboration with a very few unique designers around the world, we have, you know, some that are international designers as well. Coming up is what will keep us going. Again, we are not going to have like tons of different colors or different type of yarn just because we want to maintain the, you know, the limited palette. So each year I do a lot of research on color combinations and what type of colors and that I want to work with. So I'm more on the creative side. So Andrea takes care of all of the sourcing, the fiber and the actual spinning. And, and I'm more on the creative side of things. So trying to work with our creative director and trying to decide about colors and the designers, of course, and, and trying to push our limits are trying to see where we want to go and how we want to go, but we don't want to, you know, we have very limited quantities. So what we can produce, not in terms of the the dark chocolate colors because we have tons of that. But the think I think 75% of the box are of the dark brown and only limited quantities of of baby yak fiber can be found in the lighter colors. So and because we don't want to do the bleaching is we are sort of limited in terms of our quantity of what we can. Reduce in a year compared to a sheep, for example, a baby yak only produce, I think is about 500 grams overall fiber in a year. Once you do, you have it, you clean it and you do whatever you have to do to to to get it down is you almost have like 150 to 200 grams per animal in a year. So it's very limited. And of that, 75% is dark chocolate and only 25% is well, 35% is is of the other colors. So we have very limited possibility of what we can do with with that with the fiber. But, you know, as many animals as so many yaks on the plateau that if we get stronger and if we get people more interested in in our brand, I think we would be able to expand to other groups of cooperative in other villages and other families. So I think they are then moving to another location and sourcing from different, different cooperative would be the next step for us as well.
Ashley [01:00:47] If there's one thing, when you look back on your personal journey, what is one thing that you've taken away that will be invaluable to you for the rest of.
Paola [01:00:55] Your life, I think, is that, you know, that you can achieve anything if you just put your heart and your mind to it. Is my yak has been the biggest challenge I think. Well, you know each time I think is that what I do is the biggest challenge. And then I do something new. I think just throw yourself in what you believe with all of your energy and your passion, no matter what the difficulties is, as long as you have good people, people that you trust around to, and then you work hard, good things will happen. I think I do believe in karma. I do believe in ah. If you're following the path that you think is the right path, then good things will will happen. There's always been challenges, you know, my arc has been difficulties. We could have done things so much differently. And ah, enthusiasm. Enthusiasm sometimes just makes you make a lot of mistakes, but never stop at the first obstacle or the second or the hundredth obstacles. You have to just keep going and pushing and and but do that with always keeping in mind what is the most important and believe in yourself. I think to me is the lesson throughout my life. Always just believe and trust that what I do trust, my gut is will always send me the right thing to do.
Ashley [01:02:36] I love that. I actually feel very similarly. I think a lot of people just throughout my whole life, whether it's been in my design career or, you know, since starting Willful, they always want to know, you know, what it is that I have that they don't have yet to do what I do. And I'm like just determination, you know, determination and not giving up and and not losing that excitement because I think that passion helps drive you and during hard times especially.
Paola [01:03:09] Yeah. And I think that sharing that passion, you know, I've been very lucky and in in having Andrea share in this journey with me, of course, you know, my husband supports me all the way and is come from a completely different world, but is always there anything that I need that also helps? But sharing the passion for Tibetan culture and for the journey that we have embarked upon with Andrea has been the most fun and the most difficult things that we have done together. But we are always there for each other. We trust each other. And and I think by being two completely different people, we really make the that we make the best team. And, you know, despite the sometimes disagreements or different ideas and opinion, the end of the day, you know, that you're not alone and you have created something that that you can share with somebody. And I think, you know, I could have not done it without him for sure. Is is the most amazing partner that I could possibly have hoped for. And, you know, and my best friend as well. So.
Ashley [01:04:34] The biggest of thanks to everyone involved in this week's episode. I hope you'll join me each week as we talk and learn from more fascinating makers for podcast notes and transcriptions. Visit our blog at makingzine.com. Have a wonderful week.