Molly de Vries lives just across the bay from me in Marin County and is the owner of Ambatalia, a company producing beautiful cloth to-go bags, napkins, and other reusables. Her story is inspiring. Please enjoy her story in her own words.
I grew up amongst 7 brothers and sisters in downtown Mill Valley, California…
and am now raising my own three kids with my husband Willem in the original house my mom and dad bought back in 1955.
Mill Valley was much different than it is today. Lots of artists, musicians, and incredible places like the unknown museum, a magical spot filled with what some people might call junk or garbage. It was inspiration to me.
I grew up with a kitchen wall filled with beautiful old utilitarian hand tools and a large house furnished with found objects collected by my mom and dad. Also shopping at the Marin City flea market really influenced my aesthetic and the way I see things. My Mom sewed for a living and my dad always made things out of stuff he got that somebody was tossing out. I really had this love for well-made useful objects. I was taught from an early age to be a huntress, and I guess it taught me to be resourceful. I am always looking at garbage (treasure) wondering what I can make out of it.
I started noticing and thinking about garbage more and more after seeing the movie Sex, Lies, & Videotape in 1989, where Andie MacDowell couldn’t stop thinking about where all the garbage went. (It’s weird how that one little part of that movie changed my life.) I became a bit obsessed with garbage myself and started noticing how no one else seemed to see it or care about it. I did my best at the time, knowing something was brewing in me to take action someday in a much bigger way. I was a hair dresser in those days and didn’t like the chemical part of the business and the waste of the plastic. I started a refilling station at my shop in the 90’s where you could bring your old shampoo bottle in and fill it. Even though I tried to do small things like that, people really didn’t get it enough to support it.
My True Passion
After turning 40 and a lot of soul searching, I realized that my true passion was in things that were made by hand. I focused on authentic, sustainable textiles. I wanted to change what I was doing for a living and to make a difference in the world. I will never forget the day I was standing in line at Jo-Ann’s Fabric, baby on hip crying. I looked around and saw many other Mothers with crying babies. In this huge store, there was nowhere to put your baby down. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and then I started researching their fabrics: from China, India, and more plastic fleece than wool. I started researching the pesticides and the sweat shops. I knew there could be a way to bring community, sustainability and beauty together. So one year later I opened Ambatalia fabrics, focusing solely on environmental and cultural sustainability. It was a life changing adventure and one of the most meaningful and magical times in my life. Because I pushed my self so deeply into my passion, I just couldn’t stop even though I closed Ambatalia in November 2008.
A Non-Disposable Life
After closing I had to refocus my dream. On Earth Day 2010 I made a commitment to start on a non-disposable life journey for myself and hopefully with my family. That’s when I really focused my line around non-packaged local food, the kitchen and shopping. Through the process of this journey I learned how to make my own laundry detergent, all purpose and window cleaner. I learned to make my own bread , yogurt and ice cream. I really started to learn what was seasonal and the importance of that. I also really started to learn the importance of our daily work as humans and how it brings health in so many ways that we have lost along the way. I feel the luxury of having that choice, almost like an art form for me. simplifying my life was the key.
My niche was unique and I knew that I had to bring it to the market in a different way than usual. I was not only bringing a product line to the market, but it was about sharing ideas and solutions to get out of the habit of using plastic and virgin paper. I knew I needed to be in a public setting demonstrating different ways of using textiles as an alternative to single use disposables. I thought the farmers market would be a great outlet to engage with people around healthy local food, while leaving the plastic bag out of the purchase, after all it is one of the best opportunities not to use packaging, ya know from farm to table.
I would spend a lot of time at Whole Foods, Rainbow Grocery and my local farmers market, and I was shocked at how so many people were still using plastic for bulk and produce shopping. I thought it would be the last place to see that. Is it that hard to bring your own bags? I did find these challenges in my own life, so I think it just takes time to learn new habits even if the intention is good. I also noticed for the most part as a society we get the reusable market bag, but we don’t seem to get that we can use it in other kinds of shopping: shopping for clothes, take-out, vitamin store, ice cream, gift shops, pharmacy, etc.
I see plastic every where. Its not just the produce, market and bulk bags. I also see the crates of merchandise that are wrapped in many layers of plastic being delivered to a store from the distributor. I see the dozens on dozens of small plastic bags that were used to create a snow hill in my town for a few hours of fun around Christmas. I also saw the huge semi that brought the ice in and was shocked. I see every single person walking out of a store, whether it’s a pharmacy or mall, with all of those plastic bags carrying just a few things. But I also see the beauty, like the gardener that does furoshiki and doesn’t even know it.
The other issue that is equally as important to me is our local economy. I am a collector and enthusiast of culturally sustainable textiles and goods. I believe it is important to honor the artisans that have been doing their craft for centuries. One of my experiments this holiday season was walking into the store Anthropology because of their famously creative window. I noticed authentic looking textiles like Dutch wax, Indian block prints and batik from Indonesia. I kind of knew the answer, but I just had to officially ask the manager if any of the textiles were authentic to the countries they were supposedly from? She really wanted to say yes, but in the end she said no they weren’t. It reminds me of how that beautiful red apple is waiting for us at the market in March. It looks perfectly fresh off the tree. But its been in cold storage for months, using I don’t know how much energy and effort and than shipped across the world. All for an apple in March. There is so much visual manipulation in our society that its easy to get confused.
Because I design my goods here, I also want them to be made here with integrity and have connection to the people that help make them. I had been making all of the Ambatalia goods myself up until now. I envisioned a co-op close to where I live and work and began working with a woman who teaches sewing as a skill for making a decent living. I have been working with her group for two months now, and it’s working out very well. I hope to grow my business while keeping the work here in my community.
Of course one of my biggest inspirations is Beth. I know I can go to her site and not only get her support but her gentleness and truthful guidance. I could choose to be an angry control freak, or stay on a path of being nonjudgmental and at peace. Its a fine line. I go to life with out plastics to find that balance when I get overwhelmed about the whole thing.
Where you can find me
I do demonstrations at The Gardener stores in San Francisco and Berkeley, and I’m at the Larkspur farmers market every Saturday. I love to be a part of the community, and I love to discuss and share ideas about how we can honor our oceans and the health of our planet by just being a little resourceful and remembering our bags.
The Starter Kit
A starter kit from Ambatalia can get someone started on the journey towards a non-disposable life. The kit includes:
- 1 set of Ambatalia kitchen furoshiki dish towels
- 1 set of 5 vintage kids no waste lunch napkins
- 1 Ambatalia neck scarf furoshiki
- 1 Ambatalia raffia produce bag
- 6 Ambatalia linen origami bags
- 5 organic cotton (made in SF) produce bags
- 1 set of 3 Chico produce bags
- 1 To-GoWare set of bamboo cutlery
- 1 Ambatalia denim market bag