"Smart Monkey wanted to save the planet
but didn't know anything about
environmental science or CAFÉ standards,
and wasn't even rich or powerful.
But Smart Monkey had gone
to fashion school and
one day had an idea…"
So begins a brochure created by Leah Andersson, Tacoma entrepreneur and owner of Smart Monkey Knits. This morning I asked her about the name.
"One day I dropped a pen behind the couch and couldn't reach it with my hand" she said. "Then I thought to turn my hand, twisting it a certain way, and suddenly it worked and I said out loud 'Smart Monkey'. That's how I got the idea but it also means I hope mankind is getting smarter as we continue to evolve."
Leah wakes up every morning focused on her goals. But even with all her intelligence, hard work, long hours, and dedication you could say that Andersson's business is unraveling. Literally. She unravels gently used, natural fiber sweaters and turns them into newly created knit or crochet garments and accessories, or simply gorgeous skeins of what she calls "refurbished" yarn.
How does she do this? It involves buying sweaters at thrift stores or garage sales, taking them apart, unraveling, thoroughly washing the yarn, wrapping onto racks for air drying, and then gathering it into skeins using the skein winder she recently purchased. Before that she wound all the yarns into balls by hand. It's the first step, that most excites the keen eye and imagination of this fiber artist who holds a Certificate of Professional Designation in Clothing Production from the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in California. She can see the hidden potential in an ugly sweater, if the yarn and colors hold appeal.
Why does she do this?
" Because our planet is smaller than we think and we should all do our little bit to manage the resources we have. Synthetic/petroleum based fibers and dyes pollute the environment. Imported items take away jobs from Americans and screw up our trade deficit" she says. "The production of even natural yarn leaves a big carbon footprint. It takes fuel to raise the sheep, do the manufacturing, and transporting, sometimes around the world. I can't undo those things but at least I can extend the life of it once it's been made."
Beyond all that, Leah's efforts are a reflection of her philosophy of avoiding waste and "making do", far from a new concept. In my generation I watched my mother save every button and zipper from discarded clothing and then cut it up into rags, typical of women like her, who lived through the Great Depression.
The "whys" also include less tangible benefits, like the delights of creativity. Whether by her hands or those of someone else, seeing the metamorphosis of used garments into stunning new fashions with exciting combinations of colors thrills Andersson.
I met Leah not long after Smart Monkey grew from a fuzzy little idea to a real business. In the beginning she concentrated on creating simple knitted and crocheted items like hats, scarves, shawls, ponchos, and baby blankets to sell as finished products at farmers markets and street fairs. As a knitter I couldn't resist walking up to her booth the first time I saw the rich palate of colors and tactile appeal it presents. I also liked her sign that says "Not made in China".
After finding out I could knit and crochet Leah recruited me to help with production, a growing challenge. In addition to the beauty of the finished items customers loved the whole idea of recycling and reusing and demand soared. I became one of several women who helped Leah keep the inventory coming.
Of course knitters embraced the whole concept of the business, but knitters are always thinking "I'd rather do it myself". Leah soon had requests for just the yarn. She filled a few orders but continued making items to sell. As business increased time available for the needlework seemed to decrease. That's when Smart Monkey had another great idea: emphasizing selling the yarn.
Now when you visit Smart Monkey at the Broadway Farmers Market in Tacoma or the Fremont Market in Seattle, your eyes will go straight for the neat brown paper bags with handles, full of luscious offerings: wool, cotton, silk and ramie, with a richness of color only natural fibers can attain. The hues and textures will delight you and so will the prices. A bag of yarn averaging 1,000 yards, plenty for a sweater (after all it WAS a sweater) will cost you about $35. Where could you ever find such a deal on good yarn, much less a finished garment?
I love the tags tied to the handles. In addition to telling "The Story of Smart Monkey" they show a photo of the original sweater that particular bag of yarn came from and the original fiber content and care label is attached. Custom orders are also available. You can even bring in a used sweater of your own and let Leah work her metamorphosis magic on it.
Leah still sells plenty of finished items too. One of her most popular with shoppers is the reusable "market bag", perfect for all that fresh produce. She can't seem to make enough of those and sells many for gifts.
"Remember, there are only about 114 days until Christmas" she said to me today. Thanks Leah. That isn't necessarily what I wanted to hear, but I know this much. When I do get around to Christmas shopping I'll be doing some at Smart Monkey, especially for myself. Hey, I've been good this year.
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Leah Andersson can be reached at (253) 229-2841 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Coming soon: www.smartmonkeyknits.com
Smart Monkey will be at Tacoma's Broadway Farmers Market every Thursday until it closes on Oct. 16th and at the Fremont Farmers Market in Seattle every Sunday all year long.
Also be sure to check out the radio interview Leah gave about her business on the KUOW program "Sound Focus".