On making a difference from the ground up
It was on a buying trip in the early ’90s when Linda Alexanian ’85 first became aware of the children working in India’s rug-making industry. “There were kids in the factories, on the looms, doing all processes of the manufacturing,” she says, remembering some as young as eight, “and the suppliers didn’t seem to care. It was just considered a way of life.”
That trip stoked in Linda a lifelong determination to get those kids off the factory floor—and she knew it would need to start with their mothers. Linda is part of the third generation of Alexanians, a family well-known for their imported rugs and floor coverings, along with a deep tradition of helping others. Her grandfather, Aris, who lost his family in the Armenian genocide, was instrumental in helping the government bring dozens of Armenian orphans to Canada.
“Anyone who brings a product into their home should be asking the questions: who made this? What is it made from?”
When she and her parents returned home from India, Linda got to work as Head Buyer for the family business and, over the next three years, weaned the company off all suppliers who used child labour. She was appalled to find there were some who didn’t take the issue seriously—but she did find one, a supplier who’d worked with her grandfather years before.
In 1996, now an outspoken campaigner for the cause, Linda was invited to be part of a government panel in Ottawa to discuss the import of products made by third world countries—countries known to turn a blind eye on illegal child labour. The timely event coincided with the new monitoring agencies starting to pop up—agencies like GoodWeave, with whom Linda works closely—who were ensuring workers were of age in global supply chains across India and Bangladesh. It was estimated there were over one million working children at the time in India’s carpet industry.
“Do you know where your clothes are made?” she asked each startled member at the meeting, walking around the room. “Do we know this was not made by a child?”
Chatting recently with the Ridleian, who’s now working from her home in Montreal, Linda’s empathetic nature comes easily across as she shares the story, as does her light and quick-witted humour, her passion for design, and her steely resolve for the cause at the heart of her career. When asked about her time at Ridley, she lights up.
“To this day, my closest friends are Ridleians. Whenever something good happens, I text my best friend, Stew,” she smiles, referring to fellow alumnus, Stewart McKeough ’85. “and he replies with this image.”
She shows a picture of a simple red circle, penciled on a white background.
“It means ‘circle the day,’” Linda explains, adding that the expression comes from Stew’s mother, Joyce (wife of former Board Chair, Darcy McKeough ’51). “We celebrate the good things that happen by taking out a pen and circling the day in the calendar. The day I started Organic Weave was a ‘circle the day.’”
The eye-catching rugs are inspired by nature, comprised of a colourful array of plant-based dyes, their details and motifs used in traditional Indian architecture.
Organic Weave came from the promise she’d made herself years before on that first trip. “No woman would send her child to work if she had an alternative,” Linda is adamant. “To fix this issue is not just to rescue kids from the looms and educate them; it’s to provide meaningful, sustainable income to women. Women need financial independence.” In 2011, she partnered with the grandchildren of Damodar Das Barnawal—the supplier in India with whom her grandfather worked—and established her custom rug company, which works with women weavers from Unnayan, a cooperative agency in rural India. Linda’s stunning carpets are not only produced in a socially responsible way, they’re helping to preserve a craft that’s increasingly threatened by automation. And, as the name suggests, they’re organic.
“The co-op is made up of a group of remarkable women who work on various handicrafts,” she says fondly. “Some knew how to weave, some didn’t, so we built looms and taught them. Since they were also making their own organic textiles, we thought, why don’t we make organic carpets?“
“We say farm to table with food, and this is farm to floor. There were beautiful rugs long before there were chemicals. We took the craft back to its traditional roots and tried to replicate the process as if we were making rugs decades ago.”
Perhaps the leap to organic wasn’t all that surprising, given that Linda started an organic shampoo business back in the ’90s with classmate, Nadine Karachi-Estrada ’86—but she hadn’t anticipated the amount of work it would take to become certified. Over the next few years, Organic Weave jumped through hoops to get the coveted Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) certification.
Now, she’s proud to say that Organic Weave is the only certified organic rug company in the world. “And I don’t see any competition for a while,” she notes wryly. “It was not a simple process.”
“We say farm to table with food, and this is farm to floor,” Linda further explains. “There were beautiful rugs long before there were chemicals, so we had to research age-old rug-making processes. How did they moth-proof a rug? What did they do to set the dyes? To scour the wool to clean it? We took the craft back to its traditional roots and tried to replicate the process as if we were making rugs decades ago.”
And, increasingly, it seems consumers are demanding organic. “People care about indoor air quality,” Linda agrees. “They’re making the connection between a chemical-free home and better health. Do you really want your new carpet off-gassing chemicals into your home? Do you want your baby crawling on it?”
She pauses. “Anyone bringing a product into their home should be asking two important questions: Who made this? and What’s it made from?”
“People care about indoor air quality. They’re making the connection between a chemical-free home and better health. Do you really want your new carpet off-gassing chemicals into your home? Do you want your baby crawling on it?”
The eye-catching rugs are inspired by nature, comprised of a colourful array of plant-based dyes, their details and motifs used in traditional Indian architecture. And Organic Weave is also a no-waste manufacturer; each part of the process is made to order. Designed by Linda back in Montreal, her team in India dyes the raw materials at the mill before sending them on to the weavers, who return them to be cleaned, bound and shipped. “We have around 300 workers in the mill,” Linda says, “half of them women, and we work with up to 50 women weavers at a time.”
Early on, it was important to Linda that part of the company’s proceeds go back to the communities in which these women work, and she sought to find the right agency to support.
It was during an impromptu conversation with a fellow woman entrepreneur in India that Linda learned of the Sudara Freedom Fund, which helps provide safe housing and employment to women who are escaping trafficking and sexual exploitation. Evaluating its aims as similar to her own, for Linda, Sudara was the perfect fit. A percentage of the sales from Organic Weave now goes to the fund.
“We have around 300 workers in the mill, half of them women, and we work with up to 50 women weavers at a time.”
Linda returns to India as often as possible, and her business partner, Bholanath Baranwal and his family can always count on her to bring gifts that are hip, cool and, of course, Canadian. The Ridley connection, ever global, finds its way even here: nearly 30 years ago, the Baranwal family sent their sons to Ridley on an exchange programme. “The family has very fond memories of the school,” she shares. “I’m always on the lookout for gifts they’ll like.”
This winter, Linda opened January’s RCA newsletter and was introduced to Madalyn, a new luxury skincare line launched by alumnae Savannah ’11 and Tess ’12 Cowherd. She immediately went on the website and bought their beautiful face oils to take as gifts on her next trip.
For Linda, it’s another opportunity to support her community, and speaks to her general outlook as a whole. Connection. Empowering women. Investing in entrepreneurs. Giving back.
“When we take a genuine interest in those around us, we create community. And it’s those connections that give meaning to our lives.”
“Ridley taught me that it’s never just about us,” she says thoughtfully. “When we take a genuine interest in those around us—whether that means giving back in the spirit of Terar Dum Prosim, or simply taking the time to learn about and engage with others—we connect and create community. And it’s those connections that give meaning to our lives.”
Though, to us, they may seem far away—in some ways across the world, in others right at our feet—these connections are what drive her forward, as Linda works to weave together the traditions of the past, to help care for those who belong to its future. “As long as there’s one child still in this industry, there’s more to be done,” she says, suspecting thousands are still at the looms. And she’s right. When it comes to a just and sustainable future, Linda knows, more than most, that it’s all about good design—and she’s helping to build it from the ground up.
This article was printed in the latest issue of Tiger magazine. Learn about our alumni, get community updates and find out where Ridley is heading next! Read more from our summer issue.