International District Workshop Creates Opportunities and Textile Products

By Nora Hickey · Photos by Stacey M. Adams

Liberata Norora from the Democratic Republic of Congo printing dish towels at Kei & Molly Textiles.

You may have noticed something appearing in kitchens across New Mexico—leisurely, at first, the uniquely patterned white linens hanging on an oven door, shrouding a bowl of rising dough, wiping away the crumbs of a fine meal. And then suddenly, there was an explosion. Flour sack dish towels, sponge cloths, potholders, and more are now in kitchens nationwide and in the glossy pages of Epicurious and Martha Stewart Living. Kei & Molly Textiles, an Albuquerque original, is soaring.

From their workshop and storefront in the International District, the same neighborhood where they dreamed up their business idea nine years ago, Kei Tsuzuki and Molly Luethi take stock of how far they’ve come. “We were mixing inks at my house on the kitchen table,” Tsuzuki remembers with a laugh. From that humble table, Tsuzuki and Luethi cooked up a widely beloved business that produces charming and functional products, all the while empowering their employees. For these friends and business partners, starting a company that would help their community was tantamount to making high-quality goods. Being familiar with the immigrant experience themselves, Tsuzuki (originally from Japan and Montreal) and Luethi (who grew up in Switzerland) hoped to provide jobs and skills to refugee women. “We’re very comfortable being in a studio where different languages are spoken and everyone is teaching each other,” Luethi says. This desire, you could say, is woven in the very fabrics that display a range of striking images.

Molly Luethi and Kei Tsuzuki, creators of Kei & Molly Textiles.

One day in 2010, Tsuzuki and Luethi first began exploring their business idea. At the time, both worked in the nonprofit sector and yearned to branch out, while keeping the philanthropic ethos of the nonprofit world. “We wanted to do something—a social enterprise to help create jobs in our neighborhood,” Tsuzuki explains. “We wanted to create a business that creates jobs, that is sustainable,” Luethi adds. And build one they did. Currently, they employ ten women, many of whom are refugees resettled in the Albuquerque area. They work with Lutheran Family Services to staff their store, and their employees hail from the States to the Philippines to Cuba to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Olga Sida from the Ukraine taking notes from Luethi.

For all employees, Tsuzuki and Luethi provide training and an opportunity to learn new skills—no matter the level of expertise. “Everyone is learning and teaching each other how to do this work—we do all the training in-house,” Luethi says. One of the best parts of working together is learning about each person’s culture and personality. “No one is scared of language issues—we figure out how to show each other and people start learning each other’s languages,” Luethi explains.

To create the sundry textiles, Tsuzuki and Luethi start with an image. “Kei and I both do the designs,” Luethi explains. After close to ten years of working together, Tsuzuki notes, “Our aesthetics are kind of melding together.” And these united visuals are a delight—they run the gamut from New Mexico landscapes and symbols to flora and fauna of all kinds. The custom-mixed inks render the pictures bold and soft, the colors a joyful rainbow. The women they hire, who learn many steps of the process including mixing inks and overseeing orders and shipping, do the printing in the studio. “From the very beginning, we wanted to come to a place of work where people are supported and happy,” Tsuzuki says. “Work doesn’t have to be a grind every day.”

Custom, nontoxic inks are mixed for screen printing all the textiles.

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, the work at Kei & Molly’s Textiles does not, indeed, appear to be drudgery. A group of women in the workshop can be seen through a large plate glass window, folding towels and talking. The front store is filled with sunlight and the subtle scent of lavender—from Bluefly Farms in Peralta—lingers in the air. Along with the growing line of textiles, the shop stocks a variety of products from around New Mexico: apricot jam from Red Tractor Farm, raw honey from the Taos Honey Co.

These additional items in the store are further evidence that Tsuzuki and Luethi are well aware of who uses their products. “People who like being in their kitchens!” Luethi exclaims. “We love hearing from bakers who like our towels for proofing bread, caterers who give them away as gifts, people who wrap their tortillas in them,” Luethi says. These same customers are undoubtedly also attracted to the eco-friendly practices at the business. Here, water-friendly, nontoxic inks, and solar energy are used to make the products. “We didn’t want a studio that would cause people to get sick because they were using chemicals all day,” says Tsuzuki.

But what really sets Kei & Molly Textiles apart is the group that gathers each day to coax colorful landscapes from a blank canvas. “It’s really fun to be good bosses,” Tsuzuki says with a smile. “We’re all like a family now.”

Kei & Molly Textiles 4400 Silver SE, Albuquerque,
505-268-4400, keiandmolly.com

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