Creative Collaboration in the Latvian Countryside

With thanks to Ilze Mailīte, Ian and Joanna Storie and Rebecca Peterson

A deep sense of beautiful peace characterises both Ilze Mailite’s weaving workshop, Mailisu Fabrika, and Ian and Joanna Storie’s alpaca farm, Griezites Alpakas, near the village of Ergli in central Latvia. In each place we were welcomed in a “gentle, calm, gracious and kind” way as we documented their stories, which intersected in a creative collaboration to produce a beautiful alpaca wool shawl.

Ilze Mailite, a fourth-generation Latvian craftswoman, describes herself as a ‘creative engineer’. Initially resistant to following in the footsteps of her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, who were highly skilled in weaving, embroidery and knitting, she chose a master’s degree in hydro engineering. Resilient self sufficiency also characterises the female line in Ilze’s family, and this drove her to burn the candle at both ends working for an engineering design company, which ultimately caused her, in 2013, to burn out. Over the next three years, she washed dishes on a Greek island, published poems that reflected her search for meaning and purpose, and worked in procurement for a building firm. Then, in 2016, out of the blue, the idea of creating a weaving workshop appeared. As Ilze says, “You can’t escape from your family roots!”.

All her life experience, skills and knowledge came together as she pursued her vision to establish the workshop in an idyllic location on the bank of the Ogre River. Her successful business model focuses on individual orders such as Joanna’s shawl, rather than mass production of traditional tablecloths and blankets. Using her “creative engineering” skills to meet the challenges of each client’s needs, she derives tremendous satisfaction from fulfilling the specific requirements of unique projects.

Instead of turning to the internet to research the properties of specific yarns, Ilze prefers to discover these for herself. The yarn for Joanna’s shawl was spun at the Muru Woollen Mill near Rongu, Estonia, the warp threads a mix of alpaca and lamb’s wool, increasing durability and solving the problem of short fibres in the alpaca fleece, but the weft pure alpaca. Lamb’s wool, unlike alpaca, also has ‘memory’, meaning it returns to size after washing. As Joanna told us, “The sum of the two fibres is said to be better than either alone.” The silkiness of the yarn posed a challenge to Ilze in twisting and knotting the fringe of the shawl but our model, Rebecca, definitely appreciated its silky soft warmth when we visited Ian and Joanna Storie’s farm on a chilly Saturday in early April.

The Stories’ life story is fascinating. Originally from the north of England, they met in 1982 at university, where Ian studied Physiology and Joanna, Pharmacology and Chemistry. They first visited Latvia in 2000, volunteering at a children’s English summer camp, and found their imagination captured by the peaceful rhythm of life lived in harmony with seasonal changes. Ian had worked for 17 years as a lab technician in a hospital Haematology laboratory, but in 2003 moved to work in Research & Development for a company based in Denmark, which felt like a step closer to Latvia. However, in 2006 he was seconded to Colorado, USA, where he quickly found himself disillusioned with the brutality of American capitalism. When the division of the Danish company he was working for was sold to an American firm, Ian would have lost all the protections afforded to employees in Denmark, so the Stories decided it was time to pursue their dream of life in Latvia, finally moving to Ergli in 2008.

At this time, Joanna started studying an online course in managing sustainable rural development and knew how important it was not to charge in with a set agenda but rather, to watch, learn, wait, and, above all, be kind to the Earth and wise stewards of its resources. Ian told us how in the beginning they simply observed the land where their alpacas now graze, noting the opportunities and challenges of each season, wondering in which direction to take their stewardship of this small corner of creation.

Whilst visiting their daughter in Australia in 2010, Ian and Joanna visited a shop selling alpaca wool clothing and were struck by the gorgeous softness of the fabrics. Joanna already had an interest in textile art and they began to wonder if alpacas might be a good fit for them and their land. Ian’s primary concern was whether Latvian winters would be too harsh for alpacas but was reassured when he learned they are used to living in cold climates. Thus, in 2012 the Stories got their first three male alpacas from a breeder in Sweden.

They now have twenty-two! Ian’s love for the animals shines through as he shares his knowledge and experience of caring for them. He told us he abandoned the idea of becoming a breeder himself as he becomes so attached to each animal that he doesn’t want to sell them to anyone, especially someone inexperienced who might not care for them properly.

In the process of learning about the nature of alpacas and what they need to thrive, Ian has also discovered more about his OWN nature and what HE needs to thrive. He says he finds deep peace and contentment in simply looking after the land and the alpacas. “This is me!” he says. Joanna describes one of their values as giving “space to flourish”, and they would like other introverts or people who want to escape the rat race to know that it IS possible to live differently. Not easy, but definitely possible.

As we finished the photo shoot of the shawl produced in collaboration between the Stories and Ilze Mailite, we were struck by how they all share a background in science and have experienced life in the fast lane working for big companies but have chosen to live more simply, in harmony with both their environment and their own natures. We left both the Mailisu Fabrika and Griezites Alpakas with a feeling of having been gently enveloped in a warm, inspiring, peaceful beauty.

Photographs: Anna Roth
Text: Katie Roth
Translation: Ilze Mailīte & Indra Rone

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