Aaron Freitag never expected that just out of university he would be running a successful company like myfelt, a Berlin-based enterprise that makes 100% wool Nepalese hand crafted felt ball rugs. He thought that he might work with wood, perhaps make furniture. But a high school graduation trip hiking in Nepal with his father changed all that. “The first time I saw how deeply the people work with the craft and first time I saw the felt balls,” he says with emotion, “It touched me deeply.” He knew immediately he wanted to do something to support the traditional craft of felting and help the community. Myfelt, he says, with the collaboration of its GoodWeave partnership is doing just that.
Starting a business at such a young age and with little knowledge of the rug industry was a risk, but Aaron was intensely drawn to the craft and the people. “The rugs the Nepalese make for themselves are so cozy and comfortable,” he says, “I couldn’t stop thinking about them.” Those rugs make use of undyed wool from weather-toughened mountain sheep. The wool is fashioned into balls by felters and the balls then knotted together to make rugs. Although the felt ball craft is an old tradition in Nepal, he says, it isn’t common in other places.
Taking his cue from tradition, Aaron began making the traditional rugs, but soon realized that for a broader market he should use softer wool. So, he started importing the wool from New Zealand. Another modification was to make multi-colored rugs using natural dyes. One of his early designs, “Lotte”, though colorful, still has a deep connection to the natural world, he says. The whites, blues and reds represent clouds, ocean and fire. Asked how the mountain felters responded to his adaptation, Aaron says they welcomed the experiments. “They are so open-minded and were proud that someone loved their products so much.”
The work of felting is arduous. He even tried himself, he says laughing. “I wasn’t very good!” He admits he is still amazed at the attention and patience the felting demands of the craftspeople. For example, he explains, a 1500-square-foot round rug is made of 2,500 felt balls. That rug takes 10 to 14 days to make. It is crucially important to him that the workers, mostly women, are paid fairly. “We have a social responsibility to the people,” he says. After all, that is why he founded his company which he still refers to as a “social project.”
Part of his social responsibility he insists, is to keep his rugs affordable while at the same time high quality and fair trade. That is a tightrope act, but Aaron Freitag would not do it any other way. He acknowledges that most businesses are driven only by the bottom line, but he is convinced that if his business puts the workers first, the rest will follow. “That is a feeling and a behavior I have had my whole life.” He seems to be proven right. His market for felt ball rugs, which is steadily growing, is primarily in Europe where the mostly young people who buy myfelt rugs are, like him, environmentally and socially aware. Having the GoodWeave certification, he adds, has helped him reassure that same demographic, that they can be sure their purchase is ethical. “I can tell them with confidence that this is made without child labor.”
His favorite rug, and one that he thinks sums up the craft and the importance of his mission, is “Bela”. Unlike the colorful palette myfelt uses in most of the rugs, “Bela” hearkens back to Nepalese tradition. It is made from 100% pure wool but not dyed and in hues of grays, beiges and whites. “In each ball you can see the color of the sheep,” he says with an emotion that clearly takes him back into the mountains of Nepal with the craftspeople he is committed to serve.
Still in the early years of his business, he is endlessly and joyously surprised at myfelt’s success. “I have a feeling when your passion drives you, you can reach people worldwide.” One thing is certain. If you measure success by the improvements to the lives of the felters and their children, he is already well on the way.
To learn more, visit www.myfelt.com.