It’s a hazy Tuesday afternoon and I’m stepping through the heavy glass doors of Maan Coffee in Gongti. The cafe is packed with Korean students working on their laptops, bored middle-aged women playing on their phones, and couples sharing waffles and shaved ice.
I spot a table of women with balls of yarn, half-formed knitted rabbits, and sheafs of patterns sprawled out in front of them. This is the Beijing Guild, the city’s foremost gathering of knitters, crocheters, and crafters. “Hello darling,” calls out Vilma Busquets, a long-time member. I’d met Busquets through a friend a couple of years ago. Since then, she has participated in a mom makeover for beijingkids and we have featured her son Salomon for a restaurant photo shoot. However, this was my first time seeing her in her element.
I sit down at one end of the table. Next to me, there’s a middle-aged woman knitting a brown bunny. Across from her, a younger woman is crocheting flower-shaped cozies to assemble into a hippopotamus plush toy. The older woman, Miriam Arbyn, peers over her glasses at the half-finished toy. “He has a nice, big butt,” she deadpans.
I conduct a quick straw poll to get a feel for the group’s membership. Originally from Brussels, Arbyn has lived in Beijing for 17 years, works as a freelance tour guide for a Dutch travel company, and has been attending Beijing Guild meetings since last October. She doesn’t consider herself a knitter and makes jewelry in her spare time.
The younger woman, Jutta Antonnen, started hanging out with the group last November when she and her husband moved to Beijing from Helsinki for his job. They are only here for a six-month contract and will be leaving next month.
Sitting next to Arbyn is Dawn Chang, one of the Beijing Guild’s long-time members. Originally from New York City, she has been with the group for four years. Today, Chang is wearing a coral, cable-knit sweater that she made herself and is knitting a pair of fuschia-colored socks for a competition.
The conversation flows easily; before long, it feels just like hanging out with a group of girlfriends. We talk about tour groups, fabric markets, working at beijingkids, the difficulty of getting cabs, and my own bumbling attempts at knitting. I hear a lot of words I’ve encountered before but don’t understand: gauge, decrease, slip stitch, moss pattern, magic loop method, and so on.
Soon, another member of the group arrives. I recognize her as Shoshanna Budzianowski, whom I’d met before at dinner with a mutual friend. She plops down across from me and pulls out a half-finished blue-and-green striped sweater from her bag. True to her roots as a Microsoft program manager, Budzianowski harnessed Excel for her latest project. “The sweater is based on a free pattern from [the knitting website]Ravelry,” she says. “But I recalculated the gauge size to suit my needs. I’ll show you.” Sure enough, she pulls out her Windows phone to proudly display an Excel sheet full of numbers and formulas I nod at and pretend to understand.
The Beijing Guild provides more than just crafting advice. To the women in the group, it’s also a platform for language exchange and resource sharing, stress relief, and a safe space to share your problems and find support.
“I actually knew about Beijing Guild before I moved here,” says Budzianowski. “I found out about it when I first came to Beijing [on a look-see trip]in December 2012. I moved here the following April and have been going ever since.”
“For me, [attendance is]almost a religious thing because I love the people who come here,” adds Vilma Busquets. “I’ve never had a group of friends like this before, and I don’t know if I’d find the same thing in the States.”
Busquets started attending the meetings three years ago on a friend’s recommendation. She has always been a crafter but left most of her supplies in the US when she moved to Beijing with her family. At the time, there were only five or six women in the Beijing Guild; today, there’s a loose “membership” of 15-20 spread over twice-weekly sessions.
The women maintain an active WeChat group and periodically organize trips to the wool market. The Beijing Guild often hosts workshops on needle felting, sock knitting, beginner crochet, quilting, and other skills. Workshop leaders volunteer their time; the RMB 150 to 200 fee covers the cost of materials and the excess is donated to charity. Past projects include knitting 54 baby hats for an orphanage in Xi’an.
Those who appreciate arts and crafts but are hopeless at crafting should take heart; there are other ways to be involved and give back to the community. Starfish Project is an organization that aims to empower exploited women in Asia through employment, skill acquisition, and a variety of support services such as counseling. In 2007, Starfish Project started a jewelry business to give the women in their shelter an alternative source of income. The women learn how to make jewelry, run a business, and achieve financial independence in the process.
Shannon Allen first encountered the Project at the Western Academy of Beijing’s Charity Bazaar, where it had a booth selling the women’s creations. “Upon leaving Starfish’s table that day with new jewelry in hand, my heart was stirred,” she says.
She soon found out that one of the best ways for her to support the organization’s mission was to host a jewelry party. “I really had no idea what to expect at that first party,” she recalls. Armed with an information pack about how to host a party, Allen invited people from her neighborhood, the school community, and church. She set out coffee and snacks in her dining room and living room, advertising the event as a drop-in party.
“Friends came and went all morning long, browsing the jewelry displays, trying on pieces, and enjoying the opportunity to catch up with neighbors and meet new people,” she says. “Everyone – and I cannot stress this enough – everyone was impressed with the quality of the Starfish jewelry.”
She also spoke about the organization’s mission and screened a video about one of the women from Starfish. The staff member who volunteered that day also shared personal experiences of working with the organization.
Allen stresses that you do not have to be good at crafting to help out. “Besides basic arts and crafts projects with my children when they were younger, I would not claim to be a crafter,” she says. “But my time volunteering for Starfish has changed me some in that regard. I’m pretty sure I don’t have a future in jewelry design, but I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to express myself and can now appreciate excellence when I see it.”
That being said, the organization welcomes any volunteers who are willing to share their knowledge with the women in “extracurricular” workshops. Allen herself has referred several friends to Starfish. Past workshop topics include collage, scrapbooking, sewing, photography, and baking.
Emily Remillard, the human resources manager at Starfish Project, says that these workshops provide emotional healing as well as a tangible new skill. “One really wonderful thing is that over the past several months, two women have been taking classes in photography and graphic design – artistic domains for which they both show a talent,” she says.
“They are very practical skills that they are currently putting to use within Starfish, assisting in product photography, and preparing things for our website. In addition, they are skills that they would be able to use in jobs beyond Starfish.”
Though volunteers get a discount on Starfish jewelry and invitations to exclusive events, it’s the more intangible benefits that have stayed with Allen the most. “It’s opened my eyes to the crushing realities of exploitation and has educated me on effective ways to empower women and pursue freedom,” she reflects.
“Years ago, as I sat in that workroom peeling and sticking those price tags, I listened to the ladies giggle, sing and talk. I found myself greatly admiring their courage to walk away from one life and put their trust in Starfish for another, their commitment to their new jewelry work, and to personal healing and growth.”
The Beijing Guild
Email firstname.lastname@example.org to get in touch. Visit the group’s website for the latest meeting venues and times.
To browse jewelry, learn more about Starfish, or find out how you can help, visit their website.
Photos by Ken and courtesy of Starfish Project