Crocheting is an activity most commonly associated with grandmothers of a long-ago era, a hobby so far removed from the public consciousness that one would be hard pressed to find an American woman—even an elderly woman—who still picks up a crochet hook now and again. Against this positively uncool backdrop, three twenty-something guys from Spokane, Washington—athletic, outgoing surfer dude-types who get stoked about skateboarding and snowboarding—have emerged as international ambassadors for crochet, living proof that crocheting has the potential to be relevant to a new generation of young people.
The story begins at Mount Spokane High School, where the trio of Stewart Ramsey, Travis Hartanov and Kohl Crecelius learned to crochet brightly-colored beanies (brimless caps sometimes worn by surfers), turning them into a must-have fashion accessories amongst their classmates. Recognizing that there might be a market for their caps—and that underprivileged individuals in far-flung parts of the world might be able to generate income from producing crocheted outerwear—they dubbed themselves Krochet Kids, and founded a non-profit organization that employs and empowers people through the power of crochet. With an ambitious pilot program in war-torn northern Uganda already underway, Krochet Kids International (KKI) is proving that it’s possible to change the world, one crocheted beanie at a time.
KKI probably wouldn’t exist today if Crecelius hadn’t caught his “cool brother” Parc in the act of crocheting a hat, a skill his older sibling picked up while away at college. Parc, now affectionately referred to as “The Godfather” of KKI, soon taught Kohl to crochet, who in turn, schooled Hartanov and Ramsey after he allowed himself to be seen with hook in hand.
Before long the three friends were addicted (their word) to crocheting, churning out dozens of beanies while hanging out in Crecelius’ basement. Thinking the brightly-colored hats looked cool, they began wearing their handiwork to school, and lo-and-behold, their peers agreed. In fact, so many fellow students wanted to purchase beanies that meeting demand detracted from their schoolwork. “Instead of writing assignments in our planners we were taking down hat orders,” marvels Ramsey, now 23, who remembers using the proceeds from hat sales to pay for senior prom.
Unable to settle on a name for the business, the trio initially sold their product without branding their efforts. Ultimately, “somebody just said ‘Krochet Kids.’ We liked the idea of the logo [with back-to-back K’s], and that sealed the deal for us,” recalls Ramsey.
At this stage, however, getting a post-secondary school education took priority over developing the Krochet Kids concept and all three went away to college—Crecelius to the University of Washington and Hartanov and Ramsey to Vanguard University in southern California. For the most part, crocheting took a backseat to classes, surfing and skateboarding. Yet on summer breaks each took the opportunity to volunteer abroad, and soon came to understand that “most of the world doesn’t live like Americans do,” reminds Crecelius, referring to the abject poverty that’s endemic in the Third World.
As fate would have it, Ramsey would volunteer at an orphanage in Uganda, where he encountered young women whose employment options were limited to: Crushing rock in a quarry eight hours a day or selling mangoes by the side of the road. Either way, “they would earn 1,000-1,600 shillings,” he says, or “50 cents to a dollar per day.”
Upon returning to the United States, Ramsey took Hartanov and Crecelius aside and proposed a return trip to Uganda—this time with hooks and yarn in hand—to find out if it might be feasible to teach locals to crochet hats and outerwear. Having learned that many of the women were young single mothers that had lived through the horrors of civil war and been displaced from their homes and villages, Ramsey recognized that they had to take their mission seriously. “If we do this we have to commit to it one hundred percent, otherwise we are doomed to fail. And we could potentially hurt people more than help if we don’t do it right,” he warned his co-founders.
Back in Uganda, Krochet Kids discovered that the mostly illiterate women—all from the Acholi tribe, an ethnic group that inhabits the northern part of the country—were highly motivated, focused, eager to work, and exceptionally fast learners, often producing sale-quality merchandise after only a single day’s training. The experiment motivated the trio to formalize their commitment, and they soon incorporated KKI, enlisting the help of nine friends—Adam and Stephen Thomson, Leah and Mike Hartanov, Ross Nelson, Brad Holdfrafer, Nic Lauten, Ryan Motley and Ryan Thomas—who pledged to help raise money and make their dream a reality.
Then, with the help of a local non-profit organization and a translator who spoke both English and Luo (the Acholi language) they interviewed 25 women for the ten spots available in their program, hoping to identify individuals who had both the greatest potential and the greatest need. “We were looking for women who had the capacity to crochet and wanted to succeed, but we also made the decision on who to hire based on number of dependents. We wanted to know how many lives we could affect by employing one person,” advises Ramsey.
After choosing ten women, Krochet Kids set up home base in Gulu, a commercial center located 200 miles north of the capital of Kampala. There the organization built shipping and receiving facilities and living quarters for guests, as well as a large traditional hut with a thatched roof where “we all sit and crochet and hang out,” relates Crecelius.
In effect, the facility now doubles as an office space and community center. The women crochet 25 hours per week and together produce 400-600 hats per month, which are sold at KKI’s online store and at select coffee shops in the U.S.
In exchange, the women earn a salary roughly equivalent to a teacher’s salary in Uganda (200,000 shillings per month), at least six times what they might earn crushing rock or selling mangoes. The women also enjoy the camaraderie and support of their peers, not to mention the company of the young Americans, who are a source of much amusement, particularly when the guys mangle the Luo language. “We try to pronounce something and they all laugh and correct us, which is super-fun,” quips Ramsey, making clear that it isn’t always enjoyable to be the butt of the ladies’ jokes.
Of course, KKI is not a panacea for all the problems experienced by the women in the program, who still face challenging, unstable lives. Some are young adult orphans or affected by HIV/AIDS, and others have been rejected by their own people, on account of being abducted by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, a guerrilla group that has been known to kidnap women and keep them as sex slaves. “There is an entire population of women [in Uganda] that can’t find work because people don’t want to employ them,” emphasizes Ramsey, indicating how difficult it is for abductees to re-enter Acholi society.
Beyond providing a marketable skill, a reliable salary and a sense of community, KKI also works towards making the women self-sufficient by sponsoring a financial education program that teaches them how to save and manage a budget. “The idea is for each woman to develop the capacity to pull herself and her family out of their current situation,” says Ramsey, who sums up the goal of KKI in one word—empowerment. “Someday, we want them to say, ‘I can’t work for you any more because I can make more money doing something else,’” a development that would open the door for KKI to hire new applicants.
Meanwhile, the founders of KKI say developing a non-profit venture in Uganda has been a “humbling experience,” noting that the greatest challenge of working in Gulu has been trying to look at the world from the same perspective as the Acholi people. “We can’t take an American view of how to get things done. To make things work over there we have to become students of Uganda, the people, and their culture,” stresses Crecelius.
In the future, KKI hopes to take the lessons learned in Uganda and apply them elsewhere by launching additional programs in other parts of the world—with locations in India and South America the most likely possibilities. They also plan to expand their product line to include iPod cases, laptop cases, bags and purses. “Kohl got married this past summer and all the groomsmen had crocheted ties on—the first time we crocheted any ties,” informs Ramsey, hinting at another future addition to the lineup.
Yet, no matter how far and wide KKI expands, Ramsey figures some observers will never get over the fact that the organization is led by three adventurous guys that don’t personify the stereotypical crochet enthusiast. “We get questioning looks at first, but we always get a positive response,” he says. “Especially from grandmothers.”