Creative Babywearing

Kati Hrivnak, Mamaruga

I see so much creativity in the babywearing industry, whether it’s companies designing innovative products or individuals making an impact on their community with great services and bright ideas to help parents. Everyone has their own unique perspective and ways of helping others creatively. Kati Hrivnak, creator and owner of Mamaruga is one of these inspiring people. I have known Kati for many years and admired her beautiful products and creative flair so it was great to have a focussed chat about how she applies it to everything she does.

Looking at the Mamaruga website you can already see that Kati does not follow the crowd. It’s a babywearing company making a range of exciting and gorgeous products; from baby slings suitable for newborns and up, to luxurious and tactile muslins, towels and blankets. I met Kati years ago at a London show and was captivated by the quirky designs of her woven wraps, she gave me a scrap which I still have up on my wall because I loved it so much. I assumed she had an artistic background but in fact back in her homeland of Hungary Kati studied to become a teacher and librarian. She tells me she would have also loved to have pursued design but funds didn’t stretch to three different educational routes.

Before her son was born here in the UK Kati was working as a waitress and yoga teacher. As a new parent Kati tried sling after sling, trying to find what worked for her family but couldn’t find the right thing. It was her husband who suggested she designed her own and this suggestion gave Kati the opportunity to explore her love of art and innate creativity.

I wanted to hear more about this creative side that went unfulfilled when she was younger and I asked Kati how she comes up with an idea for a new product. She tells me that,

“Ideas are coming to me in different times. For example during the state when I am not sleeping that deep, while I am cooking, taking my dog for a walk or taking a sip from my herbal tea.”

I think we can all relate to this, how the seed of an idea can arrive at the most domestic of moments or when your mind is elsewhere. The creative process is rarely linear, she then goes on to describe how she consolidates these ideas.

“I do research. Reading articles and blogs about fashion and design. Checking New York fashion week, pattern designers work, contemporary art in general. I am interested in art, so it is very joyful for me.”

The range of designs on Kati’s products are a mix of playful, peaceful and artistic, they really do reflect this process and the situations she finds herself in. It is so interesting to find out what inspires Kati and allows her to bring the joy in her life to families all around the world. It comes as no surprise that what makes Kati happy are found in the natural world, her love of family and friends as well as her passion for the arts. These all feed into the design of the fabrics and unique touches to her products. How wonderful then that parents can carry their child in something which has had so much thought put into both it’s functional design and aesthetics.

‘Is the future for Mamaruga design-led?, I ask. In fact Kati tells me for her the future has to lie in making her company as eco friendly as possible. Kati is looking at all the details, from recycled polyester labels and eco-friendly webbing to the packaging of her products. I think her simple but stylish paper sling packaging is already great but she wants to ensure everything is as ‘green as it can be’, which is no mean feat for a small company but I believe completely doable when it is run by by such a committed woman.

Kati wants the future to be beautiful and caring which seems like the perfect ethos for a baby carrier company. It’s what we want for all our children and it’s the perfect start to life to be carried in a sling that embodies all of this.

Slingababy, a part of life’s big adventure

Lorette Michallon

Lorette is a storyteller and being the owner of Slingababy is just one of her many adventures that make up this beautiful story. It turns out that our conversation is less about running a training company and more about how to live!

Lorette came to the UK for a work placement some years ago as part of her studies at Chemistry School in France. She had been enjoying student life a little too much and had just started to apply herself so that she could have a career. Then whilst on her placement she fell in love, so rather than going back to France she took a job offer and decided to make her home here. She was also working several ‘mini jobs’, all sociable and customer focussed – running a bar on a Friday night and waitressing for an events company. What Lorette really wanted though was to start a family.

The next part of her story also starts with love, this time a romance with a talented musician, the man who was to became the father of her children. It wasn’t long before she was expecting their son and that was when Lorette found her way to babywearing. It was a facebook photo a friend posted with her baby snuggled up in a wrap that jogged a memory from way back. In her teens Lorette spent a couple of months living in the 18th Arrondissment of Paris and admired all the black mums with their babies on their backs. This was the spark and what followed was a lot of research until she had found exactly what she was looking for. She called her parents and told them she was coming home so she could attend a Je Mon Porte Bebe class. And so Lorette’s lifelong love and relationship with slings began. When her son was just a few weeks old she made a similar visit in order to attend their back carrying workshop. More courses followed and then consultancy training both in France and in the UK, lapping up every course that was on offer to add to her growing knowledge.

It was after attending a couple of UK consultancy courses that she commented to a friend that she felt something was missing, that even with all of the training put together it wasn’t quite covering everything she wanted to know. Lorette’s helpful friend suggested she set up her own, what did she have to lose? If it was no good then no one would come. But they did.

The first Slingababy Course had two attendees, the second had three and its format has changed little since then. It is still held over four days and covers all the different sling types with a community project to be carried out afterwards in order for attendees to complete the course. I did it 8 years ago and one of the loveliest memories I have is that she cooked lunch for us all every day. This simple nurturing gesture really stuck with me and demonstrates what is at the heart of Lorette’s business and lifestyle – which is love. This is the point when I ask her about the business and its future, but I already know that Lorette doesn’t see herself as a businesswoman. She is a big hearted person who follows her feelings and takes opportunities when they present themselves, ‘profit’ and ‘scaling up’ are not in her vocabulary. Slingababy is a wonderful way to work because it allows her to be the parent she wants and to help others simultaneously. She works just four days a month and spends the rest of the time with her children.

Before the pandemic Slingababy allowed Lorette to travel, initially with her son and daughter and then with her partner. She has taught all over the world and has spread her unique and focussed perspective as far as New Zealand. This sounds like an incredible way to witness the differences and similarities in parenting the world over, but in fact she has seen very few big cultural differences in the way people parent. The hardest thing to hear was in South Africa when one mama on the course recounted how she was only able to see her daughter once a year because she worked away. An unthinkable situation for most of us, but necessary for many the world over, not just in Africa.

When she wasn’t travelling with Slingababy she and the children were taking in the sights of the UK in their campervan which is now also their home. Currently the van and family are at a standstill but Slingababy is not, with online courses and CPD continuing to inspire. Lorette refuses to ease up on her mission to spread love through her teaching. Showing parents and caregivers one of the greatest tools for connection and contact – the use of a sling!

Speaking out for Black Babywearing

It’s Black Babywearing Week UK and I met with the lovely Vanisha Virgo to find out why it’s particularly important this year and discovered an inspirational woman with a deep commitment to others. She immediately tells me that the birth world lacks representation and that “Babywearing is not a business, it is as old as time”. Vanisha believes strongly that carrying is just one aspect of being a parent and for black and brown parents it is part of their heritage. This celebratory week which runs from the 14th – 20th June seeks to connect parents and invites them to share their stories. Before we went on to talk about this in more depth I wanted to find out more about Vanisha and how she became an advocate for babywearing.

This big hearted Mum has over 25 years of experience working as a childcare practitioner, she is also a doula and a breastfeeding and babywearing peer supporter. It is lovely to hear that whilst homeschooling her son she finds time to nurture and support so many others on their journey to or through parenthood. Her passion for babywearing and it’s ability to enable parents is overwhelming, she tells me that it’s the most underrated tool of parenting and as BBWUK this year promotes, she is helping others to connect with this to help them as a parent or carer. Vanisha’s commitment to equity is clear in the workshops she runs and her advocacy work, which includes some thought provoking articles demonstrating how entrenched racism is in this field and its affect on both mother and baby at such a vulnerable time.

“It has been a hard year for black and brown people,” she tells me and sensitively points out that they do not need to be told ‘how to wear’ babies. Of course that doesn’t mean that they don’t need support in learning how how to use carriers but it’s really important to acknowledge that they have been using slings safely for centuries. ‘A sling is useful for everything’ she smiles ‘washing up, carrying the shopping, tidying the house. It’s the most natural way to parent’. There’s no arguing with that, it is an incredible tool for getting things done but also to connect with your child; helping to calm your baby, enjoy skin to skin and be close. Babywearing also enables parent and child to communicate at the same level – particularly important at the moment when babies have spent so much time away from others and it can feel overwhelming out in the world. Parents and carers can feel that their baby is more secure, facing in and close to them, tucked away from strangers and a closer contact they might not be ready for.

These are the simple things in life and of parenting, they come naturally to Vanisha who is just desperate to share the wonders of carrying, connecting and closeness. This is what Black Babywearing Week UK 2021 is all about, enabling black and brown parents to connect with one another, their children, their families and also their ancestry. Through the simple act of holding their child they are taking their place in the world as parents and carrying on a tradition whilst nurturing one another. It is not an ordinary year and this is all being done virtually, to connect with the Black Babywearing community use the hashtags: #Bbwwuk21, #Reconnecting, #reclaimingourheritage, #representationmatters, #blackbabywearing

Vanisha laughs and smiles throughout our conversation, her light touch with such an important and powerful topic demonstrates how accessible she makes this to everyone. When I point it out she laughs and tells me that she just goes with the flow. This is the perfect way to sum up a lady who as well as working hard to enable and empower parents and children loves to rollerskate and hot tub in her spare time – she is a rollerskating, babywearing advocate so stand up and listen to this force of nature.

Visit blackbabywearingweekuk on Instagram and Facebook to get involved.

Preloved – for the planet and your purse!

Jeni Atkinson, Little Possums Preloved

Talking to Jeni is the loveliest experience, she is an honest, down to earth mother who has a sincere desire to help parents carry their children. A mother to five children, she remembers clearly the days when buying a second hand sling to carry her baby in was beyond her means. Now she runs a thriving small business that allows parents to buy a safe, preloved baby sling with payment options, enabling those who might not have been able to afford one to buy an essential piece of baby equipment. She is really humble about this, assuring me she is not a business woman but someone with a simple idea that meets a need.

How does it work? Jeni buys in second hand slings and baby carriers, often from manufacturers or bulk sales from sling libraries. She meticulously checks them, washes, irons and then photographs them before listing them for sale in her facebook shop. Customers can organise a payment plan if they wish and rather than having to pay all the instalments before receiving their purchase, she posts out the sling straight away.

“A parent can’t wait six months for a sling, they need it now,” she tells me firmly and there have been almost no problems with people paying. I’m not surprised, she has such integrity, often talking potential customers out of buying a sling by helping troubleshoot with their current one. Jeni also carefully researched and spoke to experts to ensure the payment plans meet with all financial regulations.

Another key element to Jeni’s work is ensuring the longevity of baby carriers. By buying second hand slings she is helping prevent waste or useful items ending up in landfill. Preloved slings have little packaging, paper instruction booklets or other wasteful elements. Little Possums is encouraging parents to reuse items and reduce waste and therefore tread more lightly on our planet.

Jeni sounds really organised, but this is met with laughter as it turns out her son is the one who helps Jeni with company spreadsheets and stock takes, as well as packing for when there are events or shows. Thank goodness for family.

Family is absolutely at the heart of what Jeni does, Little Possums Preloved supports her family and helps many others. They recently sold their 1000th carrier she tells me proudly, that’s 1000 happy customers and babies. What a lovely image that conjures up.

Recently Jeni has also become a Director the Calm Family Group. She is enjoying running courses for parenting consultants and peer supporters, which is wonderful to hear. She admitted earlier during our chat that she originally did her peer supporter training back in 2015 so she sounded like she ‘knew what she was talking about’ when she went to sling meets. She certainly is an expert now and I can’t think of anyone lovelier and more approachable to do this sort of training. Jeni is a woman with a caring and compassionate approach to everything she does for all families with a desire to keep their babies close.

A Woman of Integrity

Sarah Sadler, Integra

At the heart of the Babywearing Industry is a professional, successful and brilliant woman. Sarah Sadler, owner and creator of Integra baby slings is everything I had expected. She is someone I have always been in awe of, when I worked in the industry she was the benchmark I was always working towards. What I didn’t know then is that outward appearances don’t tell the full story and that the success she initially had with Connecta taught her many life lessons, leading to the happy place (both personally and professionally) she has found with Integra Slings.

Sarah was made redundant whilst expecting her first child and the family felt the pinch on one income after their first daughter arrived. She discovered the joys of using slings with her second baby and became a huge fan of babywearing. Sarah quickly became a bit of a local expert and made lots of friends and connections through this new found passion. In turn this led to setting up her own sling shop from home and selling brands that she used and loved. The opportunity to buy a manufacturing/retail business came up and so Sarah took on Connecta.

Connecta was incredibly successful and very quickly so, for a busy Mum who had been selling slings to bring in extra income for her family she was propelled into an exciting and corporate world. Running it all initially from home, which wasn’t quite big enough for their growing family, it now had a rapidly expanding business squished in too. Sarah admits freely that she has an aptitude for marketing and dealing with the media. The skills developed in her previous role in music merchandising were key to this and enabled her to handle the demands of the business world. Firstly they expanded into a garden office, Sarah packing orders with a baby on her back or a box as a makeshift playpen. Then they took the plunge and opened a shop. This gave both Sarah and her husband Darren the opportunity to meet with customers and really engage with both Mums and Dads. It was a heady, exciting time.

Then Sarah became ill and for a year her life was about treatment and recovery. Business could not be at the forefront of their minds and this in turn led to them losing it. At this time, her friends and colleagues from the industry rallied around to support her and her family. I asked Sarah later in our chat who inspired her and without hesitation she said it was all those wonderful people who stepped up when she was just surviving. Thankfully the treatment was successful and Sarah returned to health and decisions to be made about her future. Without hesitation Sarah continued straight on the path she had forged but with a new product. I’m sure the support and love shown to her was a huge part of this decision and enabled the brand Integra to be born.

Sarah also left behind ‘businessland’ as she calls it. It was a male dominated, product led world where no one talked about babies, she was never comfortable there. Now she could use all her knowledge and experience with Connecta to help put Integra into the hands of families without having to compromise her own needs and integrity. Success is what an individual perceives it to be and for Sarah her vision of this now includes taking care of herself alongside her business, this means working in an environment that is authentic to both. When you buy an Integra you are buying a functional and beautiful product designed by a parent for other parents to use. Sarah always puts being a mother first and understands to thrive that is what her business, customers and family need too.

Love to Honour

Shabnam Kwofie, Amawrap

I love the story behind Amawrap and what it means to owner Shabnam Kwofie.

This is a product created with love and steeped in tradition. Shabs’s family, Indian in origin but from Uganda and her husband, a Ghanaian originally from Zambia have always known carrying.

“It’s not a big deal to families in Africa” she tells me it’s “just something you do”. This is illustrated perfectly during a family holiday a few years ago in Ghana when an ‘auntie’ scooped up their overtired toddler and wrapped him to her back. “I hadn’t met this lady and she didn’t know Micah but up he went and calmed down almost straight away.” A sling win!

Despite this heritage, Shabs didn’t know she was going to wrap her babies. She grew up in Leicester and was immersed in British culture. She discovered that being a new Mum, living in a first floor flat in London, recovering from a c-section and suffering from PND were not a great recipe for using a pram. Resourcefully she bought a large piece of stretchy fabric from the market and transformed it into a comfortable and practical baby wrap. Life was instantly easier and a close friend asked if she could have one made for her four week old. They were a striking pair in their burnished orange wraps walking around East London. Soon more Mums were asking if she could just ‘whip up’ a wrap for them and much to Shabs’s surprise they wanted to pay for them!

Amawrap was born and a business woman too. Shabs runs the business by herself, which she loves despite it being a huge challenge. She has her fingers in all the pies and knows how everything works; the manufacturing, marketing, sales and customer service. She is extremely proud that the product she makes is 100% cotton and made in the UK. I wanted to know how she went about getting them made and it turns out a good friend of hers worked in the garment industry and was able to help her make the right connections. Shabs didn’t work for Amawrap full time straight away but went back to work and juggled her job, the fledgling business and her young family, it was an exhausting time. After they moved out of London it made sense for her to commit to Amawrap full time so she could be at home and make her time work, rather than pay for childcare.

Shabs’s passion for her business is clear to see, her face lights up when she says how she and her husband “Love to honour” the tradition of babywearing with the Amawrap. It is a nod to their family’s culture and rich ancestry, this is why it’s called the Amawrap. Ama is their daughter’s ‘house’ name, a Ghanaian tradition with each child being given a christian name, house name and surname – it’s based on their sex and day of the week that they were born. I imagine that many of their customers are as delighted to hear of this as am I, but the other big challenge she faces is being a ‘small fish in a big pond’ and getting the story behind the product out to new families and potential customers. There are a lot of slings and baby wraps available and Shabs is busy trying to make herself heard in such a crowded market place. I know for many of us the person behind a product is as important as the other aspects (ease of use, safety and longevity to name a few), I feel that the more people know about the ingenuity, hard work and love behind the Amawrap the louder her voice will become.