Walking into the showroom of Odegard, Inc., a New York importer of Nepalese rugs, is like entering a global kaleidoscope of colors, textures and patterns. There are elegantly drawn botanical carpets; wavy, sand-colored carpets that look like desert dunes; gorgeous tone-on-tone filigree carpets that evoke the sand paintings of India – even a carpet that looks like a vivid, blown-up photo of rainforest flora. They are hand-knotted, intricately composed, museum-quality rugs, and they are breathtaking.
Swept under most Nepalese carpets, however, is the ugly fact of how they’re made: typically by children who work in conditions of near-servitude. Most manufacturers of Nepalese rugs, convinced that American buyers value the lowest price, won’t touch the issue. But Stephanie Odegard is not your average businessperson, and her rugs aren’t typical Nepalese rugs. On the back of each is a label from Goodweave, a non-profit organization she helped establish to end exploitative child labor practices in Nepal and educate children there. When you buy a rug with a Goodweave label on the back, you know it has been made by skilled adult craftspeople.
Odegard, a former Peace Corps volunteer from Minnesota, first traveled to Tibet two decades ago as a consultant for the World Bank. Her mission was to help stabilize the carpet industry then emerging among the Tibetan refugees in Nepal. For centuries, the wool from Tibet had been traded by barter, so no stable price could be established for it. Vendors often would hold back their product, hoping for a higher price; Odegard’s first initiative was to develop a wool blend that Nepalese carpet makers could use and count on. Counterintuitive as it may seem, she imported New Zealand wool to ensure a steady supply. Once the Tibetans realized that they couldn’t hold back their wool, supplies and prices stabilized. Odegard also helped change the laws so that the Tibetans could accept hard currency from their Nepalese customers.
Up to that point, hers was a standard World Bank development project, aiming to iron out local market kinks and support the flow of trade. Then one day, Odegard came upon an old man who was weaving a hand-knotted carpet using a unique, ancient technique. He used an extremely thin yarn to weave carpets with 100 knots per inch – nearly twice as fine as the chunky, 60-knot-per-inch carpets sold for export. No one had ever used the technique for commercial export, but Odegard had a vision: beautiful custom carpets sold to American consumers.
The carpets were so fine and so expensive to produce that most industry experts insisted that Odegard would never be able to sell them. The bankers who worked in development in Nepal assumed the venture would fail. The custom ordering process she insisted on was one that nobody wanted to try; the non-traditional, contemporary designs she proposed appalled the Nepalese weavers. But Odegard trusted her vision and overcame the hurdles to produce and sell the rugs she’d envisioned. Her carpets, and her model, became hugely successful and copied. That was Odegard’s original goal: to prove that such a business could make a profit.
Odegard grew up steeped in crafts; her mother did rosemaling and her grandmothers crocheted and embroidered. Before joining the Peace Corps, she’d started a yarn shop where she taught knitting. But that work had felt too domestic, and too small, to satisfy her. Her subsequent work as a banker, on the other hand, left her to propose projects whose success was in the hands of others. In Odegard, Inc., she found a way for the creative, craftsy girl she’d been to partner with the accomplished, numbers-crunching banker she’d become, to combine her local do-gooder instincts with the savvy of the cosmopolitan traveler.
Odegard’s office sits at the back of her showroom. Its walls are covered in hundreds of yarn pom poms that subtly shift in hue, like a giant grid of multi-colored sea anemones. “We’ve used just about every one of these,” she said on a recent afternoon, and explained that her color combinations sometimes can take weeks to compose. Odegard seems almost obsessive in her insistence on beauty in everything around her. The intricate texture of her elegant silk shirt echoes the shape of her shoes and the lines of her eyeglasses. She knows the pile heights and the knot counts of her rugs, and as she walks through the showroom she stops to issue clipped instructions to an employee on how to arrange rugs in a display. With the profits from her success, she built an ecologically innovative production facility with the smallest possible environmental footprint. Its smoke-free boiler was the first in the Kathmandu Valley, and Odegard hired engineers to develop a filtration system to ensure that untreated chemicals are not released back into the ground water.
But with success came an unexpected, ugly consequence. As her firm grew into what is now a multi-million dollar enterprise, the demand for Nepalese carpets increased exponentially, and other manufacturers jumped in with lower-priced goods. That meant using children to do their weaving. Odegard was determined not to exploit kids; when the governments of Germany and India founded a pilot program to help German customers buy rugs guilt-free, Odegard Inc. signed on as a founding member. That program turned into Goodweave, an internationalcollective of carpet makers who make rugs that are child-labor free. Their charity has provided formal schooling and vocational training to more than 3,000 children that it has spared from factory servitude. For Odegard, each child that isn’t exploited but instead becomes educated and stays in Nepal to give back is a success.
Goodweave now boasts some 70 carpet makers as members, but ridding the entire Nepalese market of child labor is a steep uphill climb. Factories that employ only skilled adults must pay a living wage and treat workers well enough to keep them, which “adds far more to the cost of the carpet,” Odegard says. Still, she is convinced that people who know what goes into their rugs will make ethical purchasing decisions. The work is not easy. One representative for a large New York department store, whom Odegard tried to convert at a cocktail party, accused her of trying to ruin the rug industry. For him, the worst possible outcome was an educated consumer. Once buyers realized that most of the Nepalese rugs they see are made by child serfs, he argued, they'd avoid the rugs completely. Odegard says she has never been able to persuade the largest manufacturers, who have price as their bottom line, to join Goodweave.
“Yet,” she adds with a steely look in her eyes, “what Goodweave offers is an alternative.”
Odegard’s vision of beauty is sweeping. In her mind’s eye she sees not just beautiful rugs and factories, but consumers who want to do the right thing. She has no children of her own, but in fighting for the welfare of the children of Nepal, she has become as nurturing and fierce as any mother could be.
Joyce Hackett is the author of Disturbance of the Inner Ear, a novel about healing from childhood trauma. Her novel-in-progress, Reconstruction, is about self-reinvention and rewriting in the lives of Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony.