Normally only passed through en route to the famous Banaue and Hungduan rice terraces of the Ifugao region in the Philippines, it would be easy to miss the tiny village of Uhaj. The houses, single inn and small school are clustered around the road, some even lying within the rice fields themselves.
The unique striped landscape of the surrounding rice terraces is farmed by the Uhaj locals in the same way it has been for generations. And only to provide rice for the family for the year, nothing more. In spite of its remote location (it’s a 30-minute tricycle ride, plus an 8-hour overnight bus away from the nearest big city), the population here is highly educated. In search of work, more and more are disappearing – leaving the UNESCO-protected Ifugao region, and the ancient way of life here, endangered.
But one woman, Candy Reyes-Alipio, is on a mission to protect it.
“As the population dwindles, and fewer people stay to maintain them, the rice terraces are in danger of being claimed by the landscape,” says Candy. “One of our goals is to keep the local Ifugao traditions and the culture of the rice terraces going. Allowing the villagers to earn money without having to leave their ancestral lands is really important to us. That's why we work around their harvest cycles and their planting cycles – to stop these centuries-old practices from disappearing. “
Since childhood, both crafting and community have played starring roles in Candy’s life. Her mother would take their family on annual visits to a local orphanage, and as part of her education, she would spend weeks staying with poor communities in the city, hiking the challenging landscapes and learning their way of life.
"We were exposed to people who don’t live the same way we do – and that’s translated into the life I lead, and the work I do today." - says Candy.
During childhood summer holidays, she would dedicate her time to learning different skills from piano to ballet, illustration to knitting – which ignited a spark that lit the path to her work, and her purpose.
“I just took to knitting, because it feels like you're being productive, even if you're not really doing anything,” says Candy. “Whenever I want to get off gadgets, I knit. It's a good way to keep busy, you can bring it anywhere, and then, at the end of it, you have something to wear!”
Not until Candy moved to Baguio in 2012 did an opportunity present itself to combine knitting, her love of natural landscapes, and the desire to work with people less fortunate than herself.
After hearing about Ricefield Collective – a social enterprise run by two women in New York and London that was teaching women who lived and worked in the remote Ifugao rice fields how to knit – Candy volunteered to share her knitting skills. Feeling a strong connection with the community of women that she found in their mountain village; when Ricefield disbanded, Candy took over the project to create her own social enterprise, the Knitting Expedition.
“I felt an attachment to the women there, the knitters. I would stay for four or five days straight to teach them. So I felt responsible to keep them working. But I also felt it would be such a waste to stop, because they were so skilled already.”
And so, the Knitting Expedition was born.
The community of knitters has grown a lot since their first Christmas in 2014, and Knitting Expedition has just enjoyed year-on-year success ever since. It now encompasses 24 knitters, from senior citizens to their grandchildren, all working together to create toys, home decor and accessories that are sold at markets and online – a collaborative collection that changes every year.
The aim of Knitting Expedition is to create a system where the families who live in Uhaj don’t have to leave to find work and so can continue their local traditions. They can cultivate skills and earn a living among the mountains and rice fields, protecting their native heritage and their role as caretakers of the characteristic Ifugao landscape.
“I’ve always said that it’s not enough just to provide an income for these women,” says Candy. “I really want to have an impact on the community – to teach them to give back. They are lucky because they have work, but it’s important to share that too.”
Knitting Expedition has supported the local daycare center, raised money to provide gadgets for homeschooling, and even founded a lending cooperative for emergencies – providing an invaluable safety net for the village.
“I want to be able to teach them accounting, management – build the program out so that it creates a career path for those that want it,” says Candy.
Another arm of the Knitting Expedition is to give visitors the chance to fully experience the region. In non-pandemic years, they run an annual immersion trip where guests can take part in knitting workshops taught by the knitters of Uhaj, stay in the traditional Ifugao huts at the village inn, experience a cultural show by the local children to showcase their traditional dances and rituals, and embark on guided hiking tours through the scenic terraces to the local hot springs.
The hiking is one of Candy’s favorite parts of the tour, so we asked her to test out the new Clouridge hiking boot for us on this unique terrain. Her first impression? Excitement. “I was just so happy to see women’s hiking shoes here. They are so hard to find in the Philippines,” she says. And secondly? The cushioning. “My feet feel really cushioned inside, they are so comfortable.”
Comfort is key when Candy’s day-to-day takes her from dog walks in Baguio all the way up to hiking the rice terraces and altitudes of Ifugao – happily no longer in makeshift men’s boots.
“Uhaj is my happy place,” says Candy. “Life is so simple here. It’s a good place to ground myself or find perspective.
“Of course, the people are what really drives me to keep coming back. But also it's really about working for something that's bigger than yourself. If you're not just working to earn money or to further your career, but you're working for other people or a bigger cause, it's always more inspiring.
"You want to work harder. It's something you want to do. Having a purpose is really what brings fulfilment in your work – and in your life."
To support the Knitting Expedition, learn more, or buy their wares, visit knitting-expedition.myshopify.com.