Up Close & Personal with Susan Hull Walker of ibu
Who: Susan Hull Walker
Location: Charleston, South Carolina
Occupation: Founder and designer, ibu
FOLLOWING A THREAD
Susan Hull Walker has been drawn to texts and seeking out what they reveal about their storytellers since she was a teenager. At age sixteen, she took her first job at a bookstore; later, she studied World Religions at Harvard Divinity School; she then served as chaplain in a women’s psychiatric hospital in San Francisco, and as a minister in Maine and Charleston. After eighteen years dedicated to the ministry, what Walker describes as “a rather irrational but insistent interest in Fiber Arts” led her back to school, and in 2013, her passions and professions converged in the form of ibu, a line of hand-woven, spun, and dyed tunics, caftans, wraps, skirts, shawls, and home goods created by women artisans all over the world.
Clearly, Walker has always followed her heart when it comes to careers. “I want to make sure I am living my life, and not anybody else’s idea of my life,” she explains. “That’s the least I can do with this gift of days: to weave my own whole cloth from all that I’ve been given, the rich and difficult both. Essential to that is following a thread that runs through the center of my being. I never know exactly where it is leading, but only that I must follow its tug and not borrow anybody else’s enthusiasms. The hardest part is catching hold of that thread and trusting it. It’s that tug that demanded that I find oxygen for my creative life—working with my hands, feeding my visual, tactile curiosity.”
SEEING A PATTERN
Although Walker’s thread pulled her from the church, in her new pursuit she found similarities to what had drawn her to her previous career. “I realized that the sacred texts for which I had longed in my previous work—ones springing from the minds and imaginations of women—are written with thread in the textiles I love,” Walker says. “When I started, I didn’t know that textiles are the written language of women throughout history, recording their stories, daily life, and significant passages, even when they could not read or write. I ended up right where I needed to be, and I couldn’t get enough of it, immersing myself in the hidden text in textiles, traveling far and wide to collect, and becoming a weaver myself. The thread led me to my joy.”
STITCHING TOGETHER A MOVEMENT
The beautiful textiles may have lit the spark, but the hidden stories found within—and the women behind them—are what fuel Walker’s inner fire. “ibu began with this fascination with textiles, and then bloomed when I met the inspiring women who still carry the knowledge of natural dyes, hand-looming, the subversive stitch. They are real women of the cloth, as, ironically, I was once called in my ministerial robes,” Walker says. “I want to find a market for their exquisite creations so that they can rise into financial self-sufficiency. The thread looped back around and began to weave in my lifelong passion for women’s issues. As a result, artisans are sending their daughters to school, building houses for their families, and becoming leaders in their communities. And they are making our life more gorgeous! So, ibu, you see, works both ways. It means, on the islands of Indonesia, a woman of respect. All of us are ibu material. All of us are finding that thread that makes us strong in our own lives.”
“With ibu, I wanted to start more than a business. ibu is a movement of women both here and around the world, joining one another as we rise into our own self-created lives. I’m thrilled when women can earn a good living doing what is native to them, and in the process save their cultural language in cloth. And saving us so that we don’t all end up in a global heap of fast clothes and t-shirts, scrubbed of all our diversity. Horrors.”
—Susan Hull Walker
REINFORCING THE FABRIC
The next phase of ibu’s evolution entails creating a space, building awareness of the unique handcrafted wares, and forging bonds between women throughout the world by making not just the products but the stories found within them accessible to people separated by oceans and continents. “We’re opening an ibu showroom in Charleston this fall for the movement to have a home, showcasing luxurious women’s garments and home decor all made by the hands and imaginations of women, and elevating the artisans through salons and trunk shows,” Walker says. “I believe that women are the world’s great hope. I am completely invested not in helping these artisans, for they are equally helping us, but in all of us belonging to one another, rising into our joy. It is exciting. That gets me out of the bed with a little jump every day.”
To learn more about Susan Hull Walker, read her Q&A with TSG Charleston, visit the ibu website, and be sure to follow her on Instagram and Facebook.