From Armenia, a novel product

Pictorial Gazette, CT
June 29 2004

>From Armenia, a novel product

By: Jason Fell 06/29/2004

ESSEX – “It’s really amazing how a couple bucks and a little
confidence can change the lives of people that live across the
world,” says Peter Kwasniewski.

He should know. Kwasniewski has dreamed up a business that not only
benefits the owners, but a number of families in a mountain village
in Armenia.
Peter just launched Peter K Designs, an online business retailing
designer belts and dog collars, which are hand-stitched by Armenian
women from the village of Noembrayan, in the country’s northeast
corner. The unusual partnership was conceived after Peter and his
wife Stephanie returned from a two-year stint in Armenia with the
Peace Corps.
It happened like this. While working with the villagers – Peter as a
business consultant and Stephanie as an English teacher-trainer –
they noticed that a number of women and girls were exceptionally
skilled in the art of petit needlepoint and embroidery, which is
similar to cross-stitching only the stitches are much smaller. The
women would try to sell 6-by-11-inch embroidery designs – which took
about 150 hours to make – to foreign merchants who occasionally
traveled through the village looking for craft items. If the women
were lucky, they’d get $4 for each item. Sometimes the merchants
would just take the work, promising to pay later but would never
Armenia is a country about the size of Maryland and is located in
southwestern Asia, just east of Turkey. Since gaining independence
from the former Soviet Union in 1991, villages across the country
have been struggling to maintain normal living standards.
“When the Soviets left Armenia, they took with them the knowledge of
running everyday operations,” Peter explained. “The Armenians didn’t
know anything because they never had to. Everything was done for
Noembrayan, where Peter and Stephanie worked, is located near the
border with Azerbaijan. The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan,
over control of the Nagorno-Karabakh region, has also contributed to
the country’s economic and social decline. According to recent
studies, 50 percent of the population lives below the poverty line,
while the unemployment rate is about 20 percent.
“There’s a lot of anger and frustration there,” Stephanie said,
“especially with the men. Many of the jobs available now, culturally,
the men are not allowed to do. Men can’t run a shop or work in a
restaurant. Many sit around the village all day or play backgammon. A
number of men have moved out of the country, mainly to Russia or the
United States, in hopes of finding work. The women are left trying to
provide for their families.”
Peter and Stephanie were impressed not only by the craftsmanship of
Noembrayan women but also their strong work ethic.
“These women would do anything to make money,” Peter said. “Somehow I
knew this was an unfinished part of my life. I knew their struggles.
I wanted to do something to not only ensure they wouldn’t be
exploited but also to put a significant amount of money in their
And help is precisely what he’s doing. Even before they returned to
Essex, Peter and Stephanie began selling the embroidered rectangles
to friends in the United States, who framed them as works of art. The
couple soon discovered, however, that the market for these was
limited. So they decided to develop a new business strategy.
Friends Bob and Eva Potts introduced Peter to Cecil Lyon, owner of
Leather Man Ltd. in Old Saybrook, producer of a nationally known line
of embroidered belts. Lyon suggested having the embroidery put on
belts. Peter liked the idea, feeling belts had better commercial
possibilities, because the designs were unique.
Having maintained relationships with the villagers, Peter employs 85
women – he hopes to someday employ 200 to 300 – to make the
needlepoint for the belts and dog collars. He supplies them with the
materials and pays them for their work once he receives it. Then
Peter will purchase the finishing materials, the leather straps and
brass findings and buckles, from Leather Man. Finally, all components
will be sent to Cindy Layton of Cindy’s Loft in Deep River to be sewn
“Since I haven’t sold anything yet, I’ve fronted a lot of my own
savings to pay these women,” Peter said with a laugh. “But I know the
women are happy to have the work. They’re competing with each other
since the pay is by far better than what they’re used to.”
The belts and dog collars will be available exclusively online. They
come in a variety of motifs, including cities of the world, golfing
and sailing and can be monogrammed with up to three initials.
According to Peter, the industry standard for embroidered belts is 17
stitches per inch, but his are 24 stitches per inch, or 576 stitches
per square inch.
“These belts are finer than other belts available now,” Peter said.
“The detail is fabulous.”
Although the Web site is up and running, the belts and collars have
not yet been finished. Peter hopes to be able to start filling orders
within a couple weeks. He expects to sell each belt for $165 and each
dog collar for $60.
“If I’m helping these women to save money to send their children to
college or to put food on the table, that makes me happy,” Peter
said. “I’m hopeful this will start working out very soon.”
For further information about Peter K Designs, either call 767-3176
or log onto