It is with enormous pride that we welcome Toto Knits to the CultureBaby global community. The brainchild of New York transplant Erin Brennan Allen, Toto Knits is a collection of ethnically knit apparel for babies and children. The soft organic cottons used to create these sweet sweaters, leggings and booties are sourced, spun and dyed in Kenya and are bio-friendly. All Toto products are knit by a group of local artisans, providing opportunities for Kenyan women to learn a new skill; work in a family friendly environment and gain financial independence. Each piece is made by hand and signed by the knitter. There’s more than one story behind each piece- the design, the materials and the craftsperson who made it...so each item "speaks volumes of its provenance" as Erin tells us.
We are so giddy about the Toto line and reached out to Erin to learn more about her life as a mother, designer and entrepreneur in Nairobi. Read all about it then head over to inspect her delightful goodies in our Africa collection.
You've lived in Kenya now for a little over a decade. When was the first time it felt like home to you?
It took a while before Kenya seemed like home to me! I can easily say I left my heart in San Francisco, as well as New York. But there is something about Kenya that gets under your skin and after about a year, as my contract was coming up and I was deciding what to do, I didn’t even consider leaving Kenya so I guess that would be when!
You became a mother in Kenya. Different cultures always have different ways of handling and celebrating a new birth...can you tell us about how Kenyan culture came into play during your pregnancies?
The first thing I learned was that Kenyans don’t really talk about pregnancy. Its’ considered bad luck to acknowledge it (though you can happily skip the queue at a bank or use the secret toilet at the grocery store)or talk about it. In some tribes they don’t even tell anyone the baby has been born till two months after birth. These superstitions come from high infant mortality so are understandable but it was so hard when I was pregnant with my first child that no one would acknowledge it!
You were American born and raised. How do you see your kid's childhoods as being different from your own (for better or worse)?
I grew up in San Francisco with a lot of freedom. I was taking the public bus at age six! My brother and I were allowed to explore the city on our own at a young age. I wish the kids could have some more freedom here in that way but the way Nairobi is set up it would never happen. And frankly, it’s just not that safe! So that’s a hard one for me. I wish they could explore their city a bit more. That being said, we have warthogs and monkeys coming through the garden and the kids know more about birds and plants than me so they are getting exposed to a lot of the natural world that I did not and they really enjoy it. For them, a mud puddle is as fun as Playstation- and I love that!
Toto Knits happened very organically. I was working as a Director of Finance and Development at a school for children with special needs and met Mary Wambui- a lovely Kenyan woman with three sons and no full time employment- thus no way to support them. After I left the school, I wanted to work but
in a way that would directly benefit Kenyan women like Mary. But I also wanted to be able to work in a flexible way as I had small babies and wanted to put them first- and felt it was important that the Kenyan women were able to do the same. I had seen so many NGO’s and projects that were either unsustainable or where the money was not directly benefitting the intended recipients so it was important that there was transparency. Mary told me there were women in her village coming to her door asking if she had work for them- knitting, sewing, crochet, beading and more. So I designed the company around the skills I knew were available and the ethos I wanted to create!
I was raised by a single mother so really relate to these women- most of the knitters are single for a variety of reasons- and they do not have a lot of marketable skills in the competitive workplace so providing a workplace where their skills are valued was really important.
How do Toto knits products "speak volumes about their provenance" (we love that expression!)
Each piece is signed by the knitter who made it. This speaks to the human story behind the sweater as well as the concept that we are embracing slow fashion- you are getting something that was lovingly made, stitch by stitch. Each piece is meant to last so it can be handed down for generations.
We are really shocked and saddened by the recent events at the Nairobi mall. I know you left New York after September 11th so being in close proximity to terrorism must have an effect on you, particularly now you are a mom. Can you tell us about how you have experienced these events and how Kenyans and local expats have been coping.
The recent events have been very difficult for every single Kenyan. I became a Kenyan citizen a year ago so feel I can speak for my fellow Kenyans! The past few days have reminded me very much of the days following 9/11- everyone is drained and on edge- in a state of disbelief. The motto going around is ‘We are one’- and what I am finding very interesting is that Kenyans are coming together, standing up to the government and asking to be treated with respect, demanding to be told the truth about what happened. So that’s heartening. But the uncertainty for now is consuming and I still don’t think we are out of the fog.
Is "welcoming your kids to the world", raising them as global citizens with a broader world view important to you? How do you practice it if so and how has it paid dividends or been a challenge so far?
My kids go to a British school and hold both Kenyan and American citizenship. Their class mates are from South Africa, Finland, Somalia, Sweden, England and more. I don’t really have to make much of an effort to expose them to the world in that sense. We make a point of getting to the States every year so they can learn about their American roots and often stop somewhere along the way so they’ve been to quite a few countries which is great but we actually need to make more of an effort to see and get to know Kenya- it has so much to offer!