Thursday, June 20, 2013


Upon arriving in San Eduardo in March 2012, our group from St. Augustine’s church in Nashville was carrying more than the usual medicines and supplies. Five sewing machines and sample fabrics purchased in Guayaquil were on hand as well.  For several years, Becca had been discussing with Gina Angulo, the priest at Iglesia de San Eduardo, the possibility of starting a women’s cooperative in San Eduardo. Various possibilities were mulled over with the women involved in the church and Escuela Ann Stevens.  They decided they wanted to sew. To get the enterprise off the ground, a small group flew down a day early and arranged the purchase of sewing machines. The machines were unpacked and Olga Zapato, one of the church leaders, sat down and began to sew. Olga gamely tried all of our ideas – backpacks, bags, and small bags for healing oils.  When the group packed up to leave three days later, the idea had taken hold - that the women of San Eduardo could make pouches for Thistle Farms’ healing oils.  All that was needed was the design.

In the ensuing months, photos were sent of beautiful backpacks and purses made of traditional Ecuadorian fabrics. When we arrived in March 2013 we eagerly awaited the arrival of the women from the sewing cooperative, but were quickly distracted by setting up the clinic. Toward the end of the first day, Becca asked the four women who were cooking for us if they would brew some tea she had blended.  Soon a rich concoction of chamomile, lemongrass, ginger and lime was ready and four women from St. Augustine’s invited the four cooks to sit and enjoy a small break.  As we shared over a cup of tea, we were thrilled to learn the recipe of a favorite soup, to hold the infant daughter of one of the cooks, and to share smiles even when not all shared the same language.

On the second morning, I asked Becca, “Where are the women who sew? Why haven’t they come?” We had brought another sewing machine with us and had plans to meet with the women to discuss the healing oil bags and ideas for how to grow their business, yet no one had shown up. Becca was as clueless as I, so Rosario, the lead cook, was consulted. When I asked her, she smiled and said, “It is us,” and pointed to three of the four cooks. It was a beautiful revelation that the women who were caring for the group’s needs were the same women who made up the fledgling cooperative that we were supporting.

The three seamstresses represent three generations of women. Blanca Saltos, 72, is a widow who lives with her niece. Rosario Cunalata, 50, is a single mother of 4 children, two of whom are still living at home. Marilu Barros, 29, has two teenagers.

On the third day of our visit, we discussed the symbolic possibilities for a cooperative name and the group chose Sibimbe, in honor of the Sibimbe River that runs through Ventanas, a nearby town. Rosario has fond memories of learning to swim in the Sibimbe River and liked the idea of naming the cooperative after the river that had influenced her life.  During the meeting, the women were intrigued by ideas generated on how to grow their business. But their excitement grew palpable when they were asked to model their bags and backpacks.  Laughter broke out as each woman practiced prancing down an imaginary catwalk!  They all expressed deep appreciation for the opportunity to help provide for their households. They appreciated feeling useful and making extra money for their families.

Sibimbe is in its early stages, but the communities of St. Augustine and of San Eduardo believe in these three women. In a huge gesture of faith, funds are being donated for a building to house the cooperative, with hopes that it will grow to include other women.  In an area where teen girls quit school to marry, it is hoped that some of the younger girls in San Eduardo will someday learn the valuable skills of sewing and enterprise.  Gina, for one, is excited about the possibilities. “The purpose of this cooperative is to provide decent work and to improve the quality of life for the women of San Eduardo. It is our hope that in the future there will be many more women that can be a part of Sibimbe.”  

The women are currently researching ideas for a local market and have considered making sheets for local sales. In the meantime, the design for the healing oil bags has been perfected. Thistle Farms has contracted to buy the bags as quickly as the women can make them, which is keeping their machines humming. It is a time of beginnings, a time of hope. Indeed, the possibilities that emerged with the delivery of those first five machines appear endless.

To support the women of Sibimbe in Ecuador and the women of Thistle Farms in Nashville, purchase our set of five Healing Oils with a hand-sewn case on our online store

Sibimbe is one of the partners of our Shared Trade Alliance. To find out more about Thistle Farms fellow share trade communities, join us at our first National Conference on October 13 - 15 in Nashville. For more information or to sign up, go to

By Kim Bailey 
St. Augustine's Volunteer
Liaison with Sibimbe

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