Across oceans and mountains: Ashfield artist and Haitian seamstress partner to make handmade clothing and accessories

  • Vladina Blanc at a craft fair in Haiti where she sells her handmade goods, including those made from fabrics created by Judy Neilson of Ashfield. Image courtesy Vladina Blanc and Judy Neilson

  • Judy Neilson of Ashfield, who creates clothes made of fabrics embossed with designs and colors from her digitally altered photos. She’s formed a business partnership with a young woman in Haiti, Vladina Blanc. Image courtesy Judy Neilson

  • Vladina Blanc makes accessories such as handbags in her home in Haiti, using fabrics she gets from Judy Neilson of Ashfield. Image courtesy Vladina Blanc and Judy Neilson

  • Judy Neilson of Ashfield and Vladina Blanc were introduced by a mutual friend, Kayla Werlin of Hadley. Image courtesy Vladina Blanc and Judy Neilson

  • One of the handbags Vladina Blanc has made from fabric designed and sent to her by Judy Neilson. Image courtesy Vladina Blanc and Judy Neilson

  • Some of the handbags and other goods made by Vladina Blanc, based on fabrics designed and sent to her by Judy Neilson of Ashfield. Image courtesy Vladina Blanc and Judy Neilson

  • Kayla Werlin of Hadley with her choral students from Longmeadow High School, shortly before a pre-pandemic performance at St. George Cathedral in Springfield. Photo courtesy Kayla Werlin/Gazette file photo

Staff Writer 
Wednesday, December 30, 2020

In Ashfield, retired art teacher Judy Neilson had turned her love of photography and her expansive flower garden into an online business, one that morphed from selling framed photographs of flowers to printing those floral images onto fabric, then making clothing and accessories with those same image-imprinted fabrics.

In Haiti, Vladina Blanc was also making fashion accessories like woven bracelets, sandals, and earings, and then purses and bags, trying to get a small business going in a country that struggles with high rates of unemployment and poverty.

In Hadley, high school music teacher and choral director Kayla Werlin, who knew both women, thought they might be able to help each other out. She made the introductions earlier this year — and now Neilson and Blanc are business partners, in a new enterprise that spans two countries and is working through the pandemic.

“It’s been wonderful so far getting to know Vladina and working with her,” said Neilson, 73, who retired from teaching art at Longmeadow High School five years ago. “It’s taken us awhile to get things going, but we have plenty of time to build on what we’ve done so far.”

And Blanc, 24, said in a Facebook message that the feeling is mutual. “I really love the fabrics. [Judy’s] an amazing designer.” 

In their business, which they call Vladina Judy Designs, Neilson sends Blanc fabrics such as canvas that she’s imprinted with digitally manipulated images of flowers. Blanc turns those pieces into handbags and purses, sewing them at her home and selling them there, on social media and in craft fairs in Haiti. She also sends some of her work to Neilson to arrange for additional sales in the U.S. and elsewhere via the internet.

Figuring out how best to ship materials between the U.S. and Haiti took some time. Neilson says her first package to Blanc sat in customs in Haiti for a month. Since then, Blanc has come to rely on a network of friends and relatives in the U.S. who travel fairly regularly to Haiti and who help transport fabrics and finished goods between the two countries.

The two women have primarily used Facebook to communicate, supplementing that with occasional phone calls and FaceTime chats. Neilson says Blanc has good English skills and has friends in the U.S. she met while helping as a translator and providing other assistance to groups such as Doctors Without Borders, which did relief work in Haiti in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael in 2016.

For Neilson, her partnership with Blanc harkens back to her days as a teacher. She says she’s been enjoying creating new art and building her own online business since she retired from Longmeadow High School, but that “The teacher in me wanted to help out Vladina and work with her … She’s a very creative and hardworking person.”

Making a connection

She’s been able to make that connection through her friendship with Werlin, who first met Blanc years ago. Werlin, who chairs the Music Department of Longmeadow High and directs the school’s vocal music programs, has been to Haiti a dozen times since about 2007, traveling there to visit her brother Steven Werlin.

A former college professor and administrator, Steven Werlin has lived in Haiti for years, working as an educator and in various positions with nonprofit groups that help Haitians, especially poor rural women, start small businesses and improve their education.

Kayla Werlin recalls that in one of her first visits to the country, she met, at her brother’s suggestion, with people in her brother’s neighborhood who had formed a children’s choir. Werlin, who previously directed Mak’hela, the Jewish Chorus of Western Massachusetts, taught the children some songs in English; among the group was Vladina Blanc, then in elementary school.

Werlin says she taught herself some Haitian Creole, the most common language in the country, in succeeding years as she returned to Haiti and served as an advisor to the children’s choir. She also stayed in touch with some of the children, in particular Blanc, over the years as they grew older.

“I know [Vladina] has been trying a number of different things over the years to [make money],” she said. “She started making clothes years ago.”

Werlin noted that Blanc lives in a mountainous, rural part of Haiti where jobs are tough to find and transportation, most commonly by buses or taxis, is also pretty limited. “I’m hoping this connection she has with Judy will help her,” she said. “I was happy to bring them together. The two of them really hit it off.”

Indeed, Blanc said Neilson “is someone that I love working with, she makes me feel stronger to keep going with my business.” It gives her special pleasure, she says, to work with fabric made by someone she knows personally. 

Neilson also arranged, through a cousin of Blanc, to have a generator sent to Blanc so that she could continue working during a series of blackouts in her region. “I am enjoying all of this!” Neilson wrote in an email. “I give Vladina whatever she needs to work for her business. Making her life easier is my goal.”

And Werlin says knowing her two friends have forged this partnership during a pandemic that has caused so much chaos and economic pain “gives me such a good feeling. “It’s a positive story in a year that’s brought so many negative ones.”

More information is available at facebook.com/Vladworkshop/ and etsy.com/shop/vladinajudydesigns

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.