How the Danish luxury brand got started in Ethiopia—and what that means for the future of ethical fashion.
My name is Stine Linnemann and I’m a Danish textile designer. I went to Ethiopia for the first time in 2014, when I was hired by the local company Sabahar to design a new home textiles collection for them. I fell in love with their commitment to good craftsmanship and good working conditions for their staff, so I decided to keep working with them. This led to the recent launch of my first collection, “Norn”, for my new brand, Linnemann. Working in partnership with Sabahar, we’re producing an exclusive quality of hand-spun and hand-woven cloth. This is my story of how I came to work with an Ethiopian production partner as a young, independent designer. I hope it will open other peoples’ eyes to the opportunities that are waiting out there!
Welcome to Addis Ababa. Ethiopia is the only African nation that has never been colonized, and it shows in a lot of surprising ways. For example, when I arrived in Addis last September, there were “Happy New Year 2009!” banners up everywhere. In Ethiopia, it’s not only a different year: they also have a 13-month calendar that starts in what we call September. Their time system counts hours starting at sunrise and the local language is Amharic, making all signs impossible to read for a westerner. All in all, it’s easy to get confused as a visitor!
Addis Ababa is a thriving city with construction sites dominating the scenery. Ethiopia might be associated with the famine of the 1990s, but in the last 5-10 years, there has been a huge amount of growth and an influx of foreign investment. When you walk around on foot as a tourist in the city (in my case on this trip, as a white woman with blue hair,) you get a lot of attention. From the heart-breaking groups of children begging for money, to random strangers giving spontaneous high-fives, to teenage girls screaming, “I love your hair!”, Addis surely isn’t a shy place. I felt like some sort of small-time local celebrity on my way to and from work every day both times I stayed in Addis.
So, how did I come to work in Ethiopia in the first place? They say it’s all about who you know, but it’s also my experience that luck requires a lot of hard work. In 2014, I heard about an exciting weaving opportunity through textile designer Margrethe Odgaard, whom I’ve previously interned for and since worked with on several projects. She had met the good people of Sabahar at a conference in South Africa, and recommended I try to work with them. I pitched and was lucky enough to get the job. A few months later, in September 2014, I was off to Africa for the first time.
The company I first worked for in 2014 and now produce with since 2016 is a textile manufacturer called Sabahar. It was founded 10 years ago by ex-pat Canadian Kathy Marshall and the company has grown from out of her kitchen to a certified World Fairtrade Organization member, with 150+ staff making textiles for the international markets. I quickly fell in love with the skill and care with which this company is run. After a couple of weeks working with the local craftsmen and women, I knew I wanted to keep working with these people. It turned out that my cooperation with Sabahar became the starting point for what has now become the sustainable luxury lifestyle brand Linnemann. This is a real turning point for my practise as a designer, going from working behind the scenes as a freelancer and consultant. But if I was ever going to put my name on anything, it’s this Norn collection. It just had to be made and I can personally vouch for every single aspect of what we are doing as a brand.
The design of the Norn collection was very much shaped by circumstances and opportunities. I realised that in Ethiopia, men mostly do weaving and the women spin the yarn by hand. This motivated me to work with hand-spun threads, as I wanted to make sure the work would create jobs for both men and women. I was also attracted to the uneven texture of these handmade yarns; it’s so different to what you get from industrial production and has so much character! To highlight the handmade quality, the yarns are spun together in pairs. This means the threads twist and turn as they are woven, making for an even more random and organic look. It turns out these hand-spun and twisted yarns are also extremely warm and soft compared to most cotton, because this production method allows for a lot of air bubbles to appear in the yarn, which makes it both insulating and soft.
When designing and planning the production of the collection, we took practical restrictions in the production into consideration. For example, many of the weavers work externally from their homes in villages around Ethiopia. Their looms only allow for 70 cm width of fabric, compared to the standard 100+ cm width. We took this into account when planning the pattern cutting to minimize waste. In the end, some fabric will still be left-over, but we are currently working to collaborate with a local Danish production partner to weave these fabric scraps into new products.
A vital thing for us has been to find good and sustainable production partners that match our values. It would be impossible to take on such a production in-house, but it’s our hope in the future to scale up and start recruiting ourselves. At Stine Linnemann Studio, we strive to become a social enterprise and hire people through various programs available in Denmark. We are currently working in partnership with the integration project I Traad Med Verden (“In Thread with the World) in Ishoej outside of Copenhagen. They work with immigrant women who have been outside of the job market for a prolonged period of time, and as the name suggests, they work with thread doing various handicraft projects. For the Norn collection, the Linnemann logo is embroidered by them in GOTS organic cotton. We hope to eventually be able to scale and recruit to take this part of the production in-house. This would also enable us to develop other products made at the studio in Copenhagen, which could open up new and exciting products for Linnemann.
Working with sustainability is something evident throughout the whole process, and it has been an integral part of the business model and set-up. For example, all the styles from the Norn collection are unisex and one-size fits all. This makes inventory and stock much easier to manage—a vital factor for us as a small company. To begin with, we will work strictly with a made-to-order model. Fabrics are quality checked and stored at the social enterprise Huset Venture that sews all our products here in Denmark. As orders come in, the products are made within three weeks and shipped out to the customer. We hope eventually to scale up to keep some stock as well, so we can offer a faster delivery for our webshop customers. Not tying capital up in stock means we stay more flexible as a company and can spend that money on more exciting things, like developing new prototypes for new collections! Keep your eyes peeled on what’s up with us at stinelinnemann.com.