The Incredible Story Behind Stray & Wander
by Kiki Athanas
September 09, 2019
Over the past couple of years, I've fallen madly in love with Turkish towels. Trust me, and don't knock it till you try it. Once you use Turkish towels, you'll wonder why they even bother to make any other kind...Turkish towels are super soft, lightweight, dry quickly, and are beyond gorgeous aesthetically.
Now onto the real reason for this blog post, as it isn't just to share some hype on one of my favourite wellness goodies. More so, the story that follows will shed light on the industry at large - particularly, from the President of Stray & Wander, and now personal friend of mine, Lisa Sheaffer. I must admit that even though I treasured my Stray & Wander essentials, I came to realize that I was taking my lovely towels and blankets for granted by not truly appreciating how and where they were coming from. Speaking with Lisa and learning more about her philanthropic work and the dedication she has to the communities in Turkey which this business now empowers, was incredibly insightful to say the least. I hope her story inspires you as much as it did me...
A Little Brief on Lisa (Trust Me, This Part is Important - Read On)
After graduating with an HBA from University of Toronto in Women’s Studies, Equity Studies and Caribbean Studies I stepped out of academia with a ton of energy, enthusiasm, and a strong desire to work with women to affect social change. What I quickly learned was that paying jobs in my field were few and far between. Unfortunately, after graduating I sustained a pretty serious injury that left me unable to work. After many months of living with extreme pain I decided that I needed to put myself out there in the world, in whatever capacity my physical limitations would allow.
It just so happened that I was living in the building next to the MS Society’s headquarters; this is a cause that’s near and dear to my heart, as my mother lives with Multiple Sclerosis. I mustered up every bit of confidence that I had (at the time it wasn’t much), marched myself into the office and asked to speak to someone about volunteering (having no clue how I could help). We decided on admin work, which quickly became boring and I found myself daydreaming about ways I could have a bigger impact within the organization.
When a volunteer position became available on the organizing committee of one of their major events, I threw my hat in the ring and was invited to join. I soon learned that my strength lay in fundraising, not in operations or logistics. This experience built my confidence and was something I really enjoyed doing. It got me thinking: if the organizations that I wanted to work with in terms of helping women had no paid positions available in my field, perhaps I could find an alternate means to the same end. Could I go back to school and learn how to raise money for causes that are important to me? This is exactly what I decided to do.
Fast forward a few years and I had a post–graduate degree in Fund Development and Non-Profit Management. The pain in my body was at a manageable level and I heading out into the workforce excited to be able to contribute to the world in meaningful ways.
With my newly acquired qualifications, finding a job was quite easy, and I quickly focused all my time and energy on raising money for a Toronto-based charity working in hunger relief.
Over the coming years I would find myself working at various non-profits and charities and pouring every ounce of energy into my work. I was still in my 20s but was quickly becoming burnt out. The unfortunate reality of the non-profit world is that the hours are endless, and the salaries often have you living below the poverty line (which I felt was particularly ironic given I was at one point charged with helping to create sustainable livelihoods for women in other parts of the world).
I was tired and burnt out, and it caught up with me. I felt like the weight of the world was on my shoulders. My perspective had shifted and it was toxic. I would go home after working countless hours and stay up nights worrying about all the people who would not eat if I didn’t reach my fundraising goals. I no longer looked at it in terms of all the people I was able to help. I could not continue.
I left my job and had no clue what I was going to do with my life. Literally no clue. I suffered from depression and anxiety and at the time it felt isolating.
I reached a point where I knew that I would never again be happy working for other people. There was an entrepreneurial spirit growing quickly and strongly inside me. So, again, I decided to go back to school. This time I did a short post-grad in Small Business Entrepreneurship. I learned a ton, loved the program and finished still not knowing what on earth I would do with my life. Any time I had a business idea, I would quickly discredit it by coming up with 1001 reasons why it would never work.
Fast forward 7 years and I had now changed my mindset to “Why wouldn’t it work? You can do anything”, but believe me, it took a long time to quiet the negative voice in my mind and replace fear with love.
I have always been an artistic and creative person who enjoys making things by hand. I also went to school at one point and learned how to make natural cosmetics and at a separate time even learned to do energy work with my hands (Reiki). I grew up watching my mother make jewelry at the kitchen table and was always interested in creating.
One day, in an attempt to lift me out of my “rut”, my mother took me along with her to visit a jewelry supply wholesaler where I picked up a few things and made myself a set of cork bracelets. And then something magical happened-people began stopping me in the street to ask me about my bracelets.
I began getting orders from strangers and this kept happening over and over again until something finally clicked-maybe I could start a small jewelry business? And so I did. I named it Hazel Black in honour of my paternal grandmother, who was a force to be reckoned with. She passed away last year at the age of 90, and will always be one of my favourite people. I am proud to say that I come from a long line of remarkable women.
Hazel Black was in business for approximately 4 years and by all conventional measures was an epic failure. However, I never felt that way. I felt proud of what I was able to create, but I was also starting to feel that my passion for doing social good was not being fulfilled and that I was not properly using my gifts to have the maximum impact in the world. I began volunteering again at numerous organizations in the city, because I needed to give back.
The failure of Hazel Black was a huge gift. It taught me so many important lessons both about life and business. It taught me not to be afraid to fail. It taught me that there are beautiful lessons in failure.
I will never forget something that my father said to me before I started my first business, when I was literally terrified and frozen by inaction, he asked,
“What is the worst that could happen”
and I said “It could be an epic failure”, and he said
to which I quickly responded “I could lose all my money I’ve worked so hard to save, even though it isn’t much” and he said
My angry response was “What do you mean so what?!” and he asked again
“What is the worst that could happen? Will you die? Will you go to jail? Will you be homeless”
I snapped “Well I could be homeless if I lose all my money”.
“No you won’t, you can sleep on my couch.”
And that was just what I needed to hear. I decided to try. And to this day, I have never regretted trying. I am no longer afraid of failing. I continue to fail often and do so with grace. I am comfortable in knowing that there will be many more failures to come and that is OK. I’ve reframed the way I think about failure. I dust myself off and just keep it moving.
What happened next? I continued to make jewelry and keep myself open to all possibilities. I observed keenly, and incessantly looked for opportunities.
I decided to do some travelling. Something told me that I must visit Guatemala. It was one of those instances where the same suggestion kept coming up over and over again in conversations with different people, and as I said, I was listening keenly and observing.
In Guatemala, I spent most of my time in small rural Mayan villages learning about local crafts, traditional weaving, agriculture and Mayan culture. I fell in love with the Mayan women that I met. I sought out women’s cooperatives that helped to preserve traditional methods of production, I took lessons on the backstrap loom (hardest thing ever!!), and most importantly, I became inspired.
I had an overwhelming desire to work with the women that I met because I wanted to ensure that their beautiful crafts and textiles reached the international market place, which would in turn help to highlight their culture and traditions and to preserve traditional methods of production. Equally as important, the goal was to help to create sustainable livelihoods for women living in rural communities, by affording them the opportunity to work from home while caring for their children. This also allowed them to do something they loved while carrying on the 2,000 year old tradition of the backstrap loom.
Guatemala is a breathtakingly beautiful country where the people are warm, loving and generous in spirit, despite the horrific history of war and brutality. It is definitely a place where love has prevailed in spite of it all.
Stray & Wander was born in Guatemala, which is a little known fact. I began working with a handful of women’s cooperatives to design and produce handmade and certified fair trade textiles. To this day, this was one of the happiest times of my life. Unfortunately, for many reasons, too long to detail here, this venture did not work out. I had failed again, but this did not deter me. I had a strong sense that with every failure, I was getting closer and closer to where I was headed. I continued to support the cooperatives in every way I could. And again, my eyes and ears stayed wide open to possibilities and opportunities.
A few months later, a dear family friend of mine had just returned from a trip back home to visit his family in Turkey. He brought me back a few handmade, fair trade Turkish towels as a gift. After trying them, I immediately fell in love with these traditional textiles. I loved their functionality (super absorbent & quick drying), I loved their versatility (I used them as bath towels, beach towels, sarongs, throws, scarves, shawls), and I admired the beautiful handloom work and the history behind them. Above all, I loved that they were made by women, by hand, using traditional methods of production.
I began to feverishly research Turkish textiles, their traditions, their production, their history, and Turkish cotton. I researched companies, who produced towels, individual artisan, textile designers, and women’s cooperatives. I began ordering textile samples and soon enough I found myself on a plane on the way to Turkey. The rest, as they say, is history.
How does Stray & Wander support local communities and women in Turkey? What's been the most rewarding part of this process?
I’ve often been told that I need to speak more about the good work that we do. This is something I struggle with. My background in raising money for charities and dealing with people and businesses that too often donate their time and money for the wrong reasons (tax write offs, publicity, sales generation etc), has left me feeling uncomfortable shouting my good deeds (both personally and professionally) from the rooftop. I believe strongly in dong the right thing, simply because it is the right thing. I cringe at the thought of speaking or writing about it. I am also dead set against using my voice to speak on behalf of others, and think a lot about making sure that I’m not taking away the autonomy of other women. I do not take any credit for the success of other woman in other parts of the globe, I simply try my best to highlight their brilliance, their work, and bring it to the global marketplace. I also try to contribute to the communities in which we work in meaningful ways.
While we no longer work with women in Guatemala, we continue to support these communities by providing financial aid to help with getting new and exciting opportunities and projects off the ground.
In Turkey, I am proud to say that there are now almost a thousand women who work with us on the production of our textiles. In many instances, this work has been life changing, as it has afforded them the opportunity to use their skills to care for their families, work from home so that they can care for their children, be financially able to send their kids to school, have money for medical services etc. The women (and men) who work with us are paid fair living wages. We buy our textiles directly from the artisans, there is no middle man.
We are working on collaborating on a larger role on the production side of things, to help ensure that we set a gold standard for the industry and encourage other companies to rise to the occasion. Exciting announcements coming soon.
We value the amount of energy and skill that goes into creating these one of a kind pieces. Our philosophy is simple, we buy directly from the artisans who make our products, the artisans set the prices for their goods and are paid fairly for their work. Our products are made one at a time by hand. We value the traditional methods of production. We believe in buying ethically and buying less. We believe in the beauty of imperfection and that handmade products carry within them the energies of their maker. We believe in supporting women and helping to create sustainable livelihoods for people living in rural communities. We believe in giving back to the communities where our partners work and live. We believe that there are ethical ways of doing business.
The most rewarding part of this process has been seeing first hand (our team travels often to Turkey) the impact that our work has had on the lives of real women, their families and their communities.
What questions should we as consumers be asking as it relates to purchasing Turkish towels?
Not all Turkish towels are made alike. This is important to consider. Being a conscientious consumer is about being aware of how the products you purchase are made, the way that the people who make the products are treated, the environmental impact of the production, and overall, the quality of what you are purchasing.
Part of what I strive to do as a business owner is to educate people and provide them with the knowledge they need to feel empowered in their decision making process when making purchases. Based on my experience, I feel strongly that people genuinely want to shop ethically, but sometimes feel overwhelmed and don’t know where to begin. In addition, shopping ethically can most often be unaffordable.
I made a conscientious decision to have a lower mark-up than industry standards. The goal in doing so is to price our products competitively with the other Turkish towels in the marketplace that are not necessarily handmade, fairly traded, ethically sourced, organic cotton, or woven using traditional methods of production. Why would I do that? Because I have a larger goal of making ethical shopping accessible.
Unfortunately, many Turkish towels that you see in the marketplace are made in sweatshops, by machine. Sometimes these sweatshops are in Turkey, but often times they are in other parts of the world, for example China. The Turkish towels that are made in China are often mislabelled as being hand loomed and made from Turkish cotton, which they are not. They’re usually made from polyester or sub-standard cotton. There are many many problems with this in terms of the environmental footprint, the way workers are treated, and the dishonesty of the whole process.
What I wish to highlight is that this is often the reason Turkish towels do not work. Turkish cotton is a special type of cotton that is super absorbent and quick drying, and is what makes these towels amazing. Those woven from lesser cotton or synthetic blends are not absorbent, do not dry quickly, are not handmade and more often than not they fall apart after a few washes. In the marketplace, this can often give Turkish towels a bad name.
This is part of a much larger conversation about shopping mindfully; you can stay tuned to our blog where we’ll be covering this topic in depth in the coming weeks. But for now, a few things to consider when shopping for Turkish towels:
- Who made this product?
- Under what working conditions was it made?
- How are the workers being treated. Are they being paid a living wage?
- Do you support the brand’s practices and ethics?
- Do their brand values align with your personal values?
Would you mind sharing a few of your personal favourite S&W items and how you use them in your life?
At the risk of sounding cliché, I love every single (removed comma) towel, blanket and roundie that we produce. I refuse to design, produce or sell anything that I do not absolutely love. My personal aesthetic informs our collection as we strive to offer a modern twist on traditional designs and colourways.
My current favourites and how I use them:
I travel frequently for both business and pleasure, and I ALWAYS have a full size Turkish towel in my carry on. It has saved me countless times. I use it as a shawl in freezing cold airports, as a blanket on the plane, as a beach towel and a sarong in warm countries and as a scarf in cold temperatures. I use it as a blanket to sleep with and a towel to shower with. For this multipurpose use my current favourites are the Brook Towel in black, the Coastal Towel in Grey and the Maya Towel in Silver Grey.
For the beach, my all time favourite is the Rio Towel, in all colours.
I use our Marin Hand Towels every single day. They’re in my bathroom as hand towels, in my kitchen as tea towels, I use them as a hair towel after the shower (my absolute favourite use), and I bring them to the gym and to yoga as a sweat towel. I’m really loving the True Blue, Powder Pink and Turquoise this season.
I have a blanket obsession. I just love the feeling of being cozy at all times. I use my blankets on my couch, over the backs of chairs, on my bed, on the beach, at the park for picnics, and if we’re being honest, as blanket scarves in the winter. Lenny Kravitz did it; this makes it ok. My favourite blankets are the Brook Blanket in Black, the Repose Blanket in grey and the Reve Blanket in Forest Green.
*Check out S&W products in my SHOP here*
For those building new businesses, what is the greatest piece of advice you can give, based on your own personal experiences?
This is a great question. I think that my greatest piece of advice would be to get out of your own way. The fear will be there, but do it anyways. As my father said, “What’s the worst that can happen?” And if it doesn’t work out, well, you can sleep on his couch.
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