STUDIO: Julie & Ibrahima Wagne - Petel

August 31, 2015

Julie and Ibrahima Wagne are vibrant, warm, and welcoming when I visit them in their Hayes Valley home. Their company, Petel, is motivated by their desire to uplift, sustain, and help foster the traditional craft of textile weaving in Ibrahima's hometown, Boghé. I am so inspired by their passion, drive, and kind hearts.

“...we thought about what we could do that would also benefit the community in years to come.”

Ana: So, this is exciting because I just met you guys and get to learn all about you as well! Tell me a bit about your backgrounds and into how your business came about.

Julie: Okay. So I was a volunteer in Mauritania with the Peace Corps and that's where Ibrahima and I met - he was my local language teacher. I coincidentally got posted to the village where he grew up for my Peace Corps service. So he introduced me to his family and all his siblings…. I lived in his village and I taught at the high school there - computers and English - and after the course of two years, Ibrahima and I decided to move to the States. We came here to San Francisco and after we’d been here probably 9 years - we had been sending money back to his family and thinking about ways that we can help and that felt really great - we thought about  what we could do that would also benefit the community in years to come.

A: Right, good point.

J: So, I have an art history background and am working in finance and I said, “What do they still make there?” We talked about tuareg jewelry and we talked about these handwoven textiles that his mother had given me when we got engaged. I got a beautiful wrap then and when we had our first baby, she sent us another one for the baby. So I said we should get those textiles and I can make stuff like pillows and bags out of them and sell them here and create a bigger market for them, because people here don’t know anything about that. So that’s what we started doing.

A: Cool! So what brought you guys to San Francisco? Are you from here or was it something else?

J: No, I’m from Kansas originally. My best friend from college was living here so she said I could just crash at her apartment until I found a job and apartment.

A: Oh, great!

J: And actually Ibrahima's marabou when we got engaged said we should live somewhere near the water, so we were thinking about Boston, New York, here.

A: One coast to another.

J: Yeah, so this worked out really well. We thought we would just be here a year or two but now we’re still here 13 years later.

A: Haha. So you liked it.

Ibrahima: I don’t know if we like it but we stuck with it.

A: Haha. So this is a really traditional craft in your village - these weavings?

I: Yeah this particular weaving - specifically the orange one. They are all specific - in Africa when you see any type of fabric, if it’s not what Americans call African fabric (which is not at all - the wax print fabric), but the real African fabric, if you are from Africa, you look at it and you can at least have a guess - an educated guess - where it is from. Especially which region it is and if you are from that region, you can determine which tribe made it.

A: Wow. Is that about the technique or something else?

I: Usually the colors. The layouts of the colors are different, the way they weave it is different. Someone who’s from that region can tell. For example, [for] most of West Africa, you show me one fabric, I will tell you exactly where it is [from]. Someone will tell me, “Oh, I bought it here or here.” Yeah, you can buy it wherever you want, but this is specific to, for example - Fulani, or specific to Soninke, or specific to Bambara. You can find a Fulani making Bambara stuff or a Bambara making Fulani [weavings] because they live together, they are neighbors and learn from each other, but the original craft is from one tribe specifically.

A: Wow, this is so cool. I had no idea, that’s so interesting to learn. And what is your village called?

I: My village is called Boghé. It is the second largest city in the south, near the Senegal border…. my grandmother is from Senegal.

J: And that pillow, that’s a very typical pattern in the Fulani region.

A: I love the colors!

J: So anyone from that region would recognize that that’s a Fulani piece.

A: That’s so amazing. So you are supporting these artisans by buying the fabric from them for your pieces, correct?

J: Yeah, and encouraging them to continue. We’ve also gotten work for them through interior designers to do custom projects. And right now we’re working with a local artist, Leah Rosenberg. She made a palette and we sent yarns there [in those colors] and the weavers are going to weave them and we’ll get them back. So as many custom projects and as much work as we can give them, we do. But they can only work so fast.

I: And the palette will be like this.

J: That's one of her paintings.

A: Oh, beautiful. Very vibrant colors. And does the yarn come from somewhere specific?

J: This specific time we bought the yarn from Kansas, which is where I’m from. It’s all 100% cotton and we just wanted to get the exact colors because in Mauritania the colors are limited to what they like to use and what they have available to them. It used to be, when Ibrahima was younger, that they would hand spin the cotton, hand dye it with plant based dyes and then weave it. Nowadays it’s of course much easier to just buy the yarn, so that’s what they do.

A: That’s a nice little connection to home for you too...a little piece of each place.

J: Yeah. Exactly.

A: So how long have you guys been creating pieces with Petel?

J: Since the end of 2012.

I: Almost three years.

A: What did you find were some of the biggest challenges you faced in starting out?

I: I think it is the unknown because we had no idea what we were doing, to tell you the truth. It was all passion, it was all desire to do something different from what we were doing, a way where we can be useful and teaching people to make their own money. But we found out the hard way, if you don’t do it full time, it is not easy.

J: I think the hardest part is the time crunch because we have two kids, we both have full time jobs, and they are completely different from this.

A: Yeah, that’s so much!

J: It’s great though because for me, it's a nice creative outlet. It’s just finding the time to do it that has been the challenge, but we love it.

A: And do you have a background in sewing or is it something that you picked up more recently?

J: My mom taught me when I was little. She was very crafty. I have a background in art history.

A: So are you learning some new things as you go, too?

J: Yeah, definitely.

A: That’s wonderful. So yeah, I like to ask about what you found challenging because I think it’s nice for other people who are starting out and looking for inspiration to see that it might look easy from the outside but you guys are working really hard at this.

J: We learned a lot of lessons the hard way.

I: And I think the biggest lesson was: do it yourself. Specifically if it’s something that is ethnic oriented, I think you need to sell it yourself because you know the background and the history behind what you are doing. If it’s just something [like] a print you make in China, you can have a rep that will do it. But if you’re doing an ethnic thing because you went to country, you like the art, and you wanna bring it here, then you have to be the willing seller.

A: Mhmm. You have to be the voice behind it.

J: And we're the ones that care about it. We care where our products are placed, we care what stores we’re in. We’re the ones that can tell people exactly what it all is. I think we’ve just learned that if we're gonna do any marketing or any PR any trying to sell to stores, it just has to be us, we want it to be us.

A: Right, to keep that connection with it.

I: We tried. We tried by advice a rep, we tried PR, but it never works out because they have a lot of projects.

J: They’re not as passionate about it as you are.

A: Yeah and that's a really important part of it - you want people to see that you care about what you’re doing. So what do you guys see as your goals - expanding in any certain ways?

J: So we are expanding. We just finished a Kickstarter and we raised all the funds that we needed.

A: Oh, I’m sorry I missed that! I wish I would’ve found you guys before!

J: We raised money to open two women's cooperatives in Mauritania when we go this summer and they do all the dyeing of the fabrics with plant based materials so what we're gonna do is start to import those fabrics and start a little kids collection. One more aspect to Petel, it will be called Petel Petite.

A: That’s really cute!

J: We'll see how it goes, it's a big risk again but we think it will be fun to work on and a way to give these women so much work that they don’t normally have. Hopefully we’ll spread that enthusiasm to other clothing makers or manufacturers and they’ll start to order from them too. That’s our goal - to just keep the artisans busy and give them as much income as they could possibly want and so far its been working.

I: Yeah and we'll see because we even have adventured to collecting these old wooden bowls. We’ve collected a lot of them. We’re just seeing what we can save because it’s come to that in Africa now. It's come to what you can save as far as art is concerned.

A: So you don’t lose the traditions...

I: Yeah, people are losing interest and people are not interested anymore because it's hard work. And people think they can jump on a boat through the Mediterranean and go to Europe and make money, which is completely not true but that’s the only vision people have. Instead they can stay there and if they make that craft well, they have people like us that see it, can sell it, create a market for them. They can stay home, live peaceful life, pay for school for their kids. We pay for 10 kids' schooling. But it’s hard to explain. They say, “Oh, you are there, why you are not coming back?”

A: Yeah, that would be hard to explain, but I guess what you’re doing is trying to show instead of explain, like here is how we can encourage you. That's a little sad to hear, but it's nice that you guys are providing that encouragement for them to hold on to those traditions.

J: There’s a very small percent of the population that can actually leave, go to Europe, go to America, because you need education, you need money, you need all these resources. We’re trying to show them that you have a great life and what you do is really awesome and meaningful and we just wanna share that and also give you - we’ve given so much work to these weavers and people there, been able to send a lot of kids to school.

I: In the last three years they made money they never made - [one weaver] he’s 85 and last year he made money he never made in all his career. They need to trust that - if they trust and believe us and they [are] willing to put the work in, they can live the life they want. We are not paying ourselves, whatever we get we are sending it to them and they need to understand that part of it.

A: Do you think there's something specific that is discouraging people? Is it just not being able to reach a wide enough audience that discourages people from their art or maybe something else?

J: Well, it used to be a necessary art form. It used to be they had to weave to make their textiles and now they - as you know, fast fashion, all these clothes are getting dumped in Africa from churches and from donations. Everyone here - we buy so much stuff and everything just gets dumped there, so there's no reason anymore, everyone’s wearing used Western clothing. They’re not wearing traditional clothing anymore because it's easy to just get that stuff in the markets now.

I: And it's cool.

J: And it's cool, they wanna look like Westerners.

A: I see, yeah. That’s kind of what my thought process was too. It’s very different, but I’m originally from Lithuania and I find that a lot of young people there are very into trying on Western or American culture.

I: Yeah, it's sad but…

A: You guys are doing what you can to help that, so that's great.

J: In Mauritania, [weaving] does still have a very central role in their traditions in that women will buy it for their daughters, when they get married they wear it, they’ll buy it for babies when they’re born and they bury people in it. So because it's an expensive cloth to make, time consuming, not everyone can own it, but those specific traditions are still infused with the giving of this textile.

I: They are the basis of most African society. You have to share what you have, even if it's expensive. Usually the way you show people you really value them is when they have something important - birth, wedding or death - you give them that and they know it is not cheap, but you make the sacrifice to make them happy.

A: They understand the value it holds.

I: And that tradition is still there. 20 years, 30 years form now, I don’t know, I have no idea. The way it's going, I have little hope unfortunately.

A: Aww. Well, at least there is some hope there.

I: Yeah, not zero, just tiny, confined to people like us who think it is important.

A: Well, personally, I see a lot of people starting to appreciate handmade craft more and this is my goal with this artist series - to encourage people to shop handmade and if we keep this movement going and growing then maybe we can reverse some of this.

J: Yeah, you feel the difference. When people touch these textiles, they feel the difference and it's just such a good feeling when people appreciate it and recognize it.

A: Very true.

J: I think the movement has to happen.

I: It's happening but it's happening slowly. We are in San Francisco too, that's why we see that but it needs to go beyond San Francisco too. And if it [will] have an impact, it has to involve two thirds of the U.S.

J: We need to realize how expensive cheap stuff is.

I: Oh yeah.

J: Because it's ruining everything, on so many levels. Who made that shirt? What was the cost? What are the factories like? What resources is it using in this world that we don’t really need to be using? Why are we not taking care of our things and just throwing them away all the time?

A: Yeah, this throw-away culture is definitely a big problem as well.
So as an example, a pillow this size - this amount of fabric - how long does it take to make?

I: A loom takes about a month.

J: And that’s about a quarter of a loom.

A: Wow.

J: So about a week. It would take somebody about a week to make that much fabric. And you think, we sell that pillow for $150 say, and think how much do you make in a week? It's more than $150. You have to think about it in terms of how much time did someone put into it, how many hours went into that pillow. And that's just the fabric. I’m not talking about then when it comes here and we make a pillow out of it

A: Yeah, you spend your time making it too. And that price - $150 like you said - to me that made sense because it's all handmade and I know to appreciate that, but some people might not think about, "How long did it take?". And knowing that now, that makes me appreciate it even more. 

I: And that’s why we have to sell it, because we know what it is. Someone else cannot sell it.

J: Yeah, these threads are tiny. They are threads, they’re not big pieces of yarn. They can get tangled and there's goats running around. Haha.

A: Hahaha.

I: They have to brush it every five minutes, they have to brush the thread. If not, it will tangle.

A: So much care goes into it.

I: And I understand why some don’t want to keep doing it, it’s a lot of work. But you don’t need to go to the gym for sure.

J: Getting a good workout.

A: Haha. That constant movement, that's great.
And what's your guys' routine? What's a day in your studio like?

J: No such thing. Haha. Sometimes we spend it doing marketing and PR and sometimes we spend it going and talking to other sewers, sometimes we spend it on the phone with Mauritania ordering custom things, asking his mom to collect more vintage pieces and paying those people that are selling them. It's all so varied and we squeeze it in wherever we can.

A: And is it just you two or do you have other help?

J: We have help now, with the sewing. Because there are just people that have more time than us to do it.

A: Yeah. Honestly, I feel bad for ever complaining about not having enough time - you guys have two kids and full time jobs and you’re doing this - that's amazing. So is it just local artists who help you out with the sewing?

J: Yep, only people in San Francisco. We only have a couple sewers, but with Petel Petite that might change.

I: But we’ll still stay only in San Francisco.

“Trust yourself. Trust your vision... be sure [of] what you wanna do and be willing to fail, because if you don’t fail you will never succeed. ”

J: People told us in the beginning, "Oh, get the stuff made in China, it will be so much cheaper." And we just said no.

A: Right, that's totally not the idea behind what you're doing.

I: We wish we could do it in Mauritania but the problem would be that we cannot control the quality.

J: Yeah, the quality of the weaving is so good there, but we can’t control the quality of the sewing.

I: If we could, we would’ve done it in a heartbeat.

J: And we’re always changing our minds. We see this fabric - would it make a good pillow? Would it make a good scarf? Would it make a good clutch? We're designing it together when the fabrics arrive and thinking about it a lot, so it would be harder to do that.

A: Ahh, yeah, because you’d have to be designing from afar.

J: And like I said, they’re perfectionists at the weaving, they're really good at tailoring things, but they’re not necessarily...

A: The sewing is not their craft.

I: It is not their craft - making clutches. They would make the pillows if we give them the dimensions but clutches - people don’t use them there. You’d have to really teach them, be with them, have time - we don’t have that time.

A: Well and it's nice to know that you’re helping artisans in Mauritania and you also have local artists here that are benefitting from working with you.

J: Yeah, I think it's a good bridge.

A: One other thing I like to ask artists here is: what are some words of advice you would have for somebody who has a passion and wants to turn it into a business or reach more people with it?

J: Ask the wise man. Haha.

I: I think I would be careful giving advice to anyone when it comes to business because we - all of us approach things differently. You need to know yourself first and you need to know what exactly you want to do. If I have any piece of advice it is to really master this: who I am, what I wanna do, what is the end goal. And in between, you’ll start filling the holes. You’ll figure out, "Oh, I need a brick here, two bricks here..." Those are things you learn during the process, because you fall, because you trip on something you didn’t see. Next time you will see it and you will do something else.

J: Yeah, just trust yourself and trust your vision I guess.

I: Trust yourself. Trust your vision. Most people will not tell you the truth. Society is such [that] nobody wanna hurt your feelings. Because they think you are passionate about it, they are reluctant to give you an honest assessment of what you're doing. So be sure [of] what you wanna do and be willing to fail, because if you don't fail you will never succeed. You have to try, keep trying, and if it doesn’t work at least you know you tried. You can come back later when you [have] become more versed at what you're doing and try it again. But just trust yourself at whatever you’re doing and be willing to fail.

A: That's beautiful.

I: It's life.

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