Behind the Brand: Manos vs. Malabrigo

A friend recently contacted me and asked me to weigh in on the similarities and differences between Manos and Malabrigo yarns. As a connoisseur of Manos who has come to learn far too much about the two brands just so I can yak about them intelligently, I began a short reply, and found myself with a 1,000 word treatise deserving of a blog post. So I give you my take on the Manos and Malabrigo debate, complete with a history of the yarns and their creators.

Manos del Uruguay and Malabrigo Yarns, while often lumped together in one breath, are two utterly different yarns with only a tenuous connection based on region and ply. First, let me talk briefly about how they are alike. They are both single ply yarns. They are both kettle dyed by hand. And they are both imported from South America.

And that’s about where the similarities end. Seriously. That’s it.

Well, I should amend that. Because Manos and Malabrigo are often lumped together, even though they have striking differences, they’ve become each other’s competitors. It doesn’t help that they both were born in the same epicenter – Montevideo, Uruguay (to fiber enthusiasts it might just become the new mecca of yarn) and its surrounding countryside. It’s rather like they are cousins, of a sort. Consequently, the parallel paths these two companies follow means they often find themselves swaying toward each other to meet the needs of the consumer, like birch trees bending under force of the wind.

Manos del Uruguay Wool Clasica in Mulberry

Manos del Uruguay was formed by women for women. It began as a small, non-profit cooperative for poor, rural women in 1968, and was an early venture of what today is now called “fair trade” practices, like that other widely-known company, Ten Thousand Villages. They sold a wide variety of handcrafts and woven goods, including yarn, starting small at local art fairs and spreading out from there.

The one variety of yarn Manos originally sold, a single ply, handspun worsted “virgin wool,” was dipped by hand into small kettles over open flames to create the striated effect. At first available only in large cities like New York, it had a rough and unforgiving texture, and, like Noro, it proved it was the genuine article by the amount of straw and other vegetable matter you had to pull out of it as you were knitting. I cannot imagine it was that highly coveted in the 1970s, but it was! Perhaps I am spoiled by today’s uber-soft yarns.

Eventually, however, Manos grew more savvy to the needs of its knitting customers, who themselves were growing more picky as the luxurious ’80s rolled in. While they were determined to on one hand to eradicate poverty through sustainable economic development, on the other hand they found themselves shaping themselves to the tastes of their clientele. Though it is not well known about them in the knitting community, their cooperatives create fashions that are well-known on the runways and in famous designers’ closets, handcrafted pieces worthy of Fifth Ave art galleries and top-of-the-line yarns and fibers.

Their current classic sweater weight yarn, which all of their yarns spring forth from, has morphed into “Wool Clasica” and is spun out of Corriedale wool, a breed that was born over 100 years from a Merino-Lincoln cross. An aran weight single ply, Corriedale has the plushness you typically see in Merino breeds with the added strength of Lincoln wool, which gives it a bouncy appeal when knitting with it. It is a true aran weight – there is no doubt that it is thicker than worsted, and its handspun appeal makes it distinctive. Manos has the only mass-produced yarn on the market today that is spun by hand – others are spun by machine in a way that is designed to look handspun. This is a distinction that should be emphasized. Since handspun is so much more costly and time consuming to make, it makes Wool Clasica truly a unique product.

Manos is specifically designed to be thick and thin. While it knits up at an aran weight, probably the largest parts of a skein veer on the bulky side while the thinnest could almost be called a heavy fingering. It retains it’s kettle-dyed “stria” heritage with a wide range of colors that have no dyelots, though I doubt that native Uruguayan women still stoop over small black kettles and open fires to create its vivid colorways (in fact, they use lovely, bright stainless steel pots).

Most recently, Manos del Uruguay went through a long evaluation process and was admitted as a full member of the World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO), which is the global Fair Trade representative body. This group of over 350 organizations is committed to 100 percent Fair Trade, and is the final stamp of approval backing up Manos’s mission to eradicate poverty through sustainable economic development, pioneering social and environmental policy and practice, and continual reinvestment in marginalized artisans, farmers and producer communities.

Malabrigo Merinoo Worsted in Forest

Malabrigo, by contrast, is a much, much younger yarn company. Family-owned, it is also located in Uruguay, and also uses local women to create its yarns for them. It started in 2004, when Antonio González-Arnao was dissatisfied with the hand-dyed yarns on the market and decided to dye his own in his kitchen. His wife, Carla, was bemused. By 2005, Antonio, along with his business partner Tobias Feder, began peddling their wares around the United States and Europe, finding it difficult to make headway in some places as they were told there wasn’t much of “a market” for hand-dyed yarns. Ha! As we all know, in just a few years they’ve successfully turned that idea on its head, as all anyone can do is when touching their showcase yarn, Malabrigo Worsted, is stutter and blather. The actual base that Malabrigo uses seems to have been around for a while in other forms, sold for lower prices with generic hand painted names on eBay and other websites. But what makes it stand out as Malabrigo is mostly likely due to Antonio’s eye for color and the company’s skillful marketing.

Malabrigo Merino Worsted is 100 percent Merino wool, and the short staple of the wool creates a softness so sweet that rabid, crazed fans have been known to faint at its touch. I exaggerate, of course, but Malabrigo does have a smooth, cushy feel to it that reminds me of falling into a feather down comforter. A single ply worsted weight, it has a mainly even texture, which creates stitches that are just slightly rustic in appearance.

It is a kettle-dyed yarn with a wide range of semi-solid and variegated colorways, and the company never stops adding new colors and texture to its line-up. There are downsides to that magical deliciousness, however, mainly in that Malabrigo, the single ply yarn is more prone to pilling. But overall, it’s brilliance cannot be denied.

The name Malabrigo, ironically, means “bad shelter” in Spanish. The company’s name came about because of a tiny town in San Jose known as “Mal Abrigo.” Apparently, this town was so named because it is extremely windy and long ago when travel didn’t involve warm, climate-controlled vehicles, those looking for shelter at night weren’t about to find it atop ol’ Mal Abrigo.  The founders of Malabrigo said they were inspired by the idea of a place so cold everyone cozied up inside their homes knitting warm, wooly sweaters together.

Recently, Malabrigo has been emphasizing its own distinctiveness by becoming environmentally friendly. They’ve been reducing their carbon footprint at places like their mill (where all that magical Malabrigo is spun), where they installed thermal heating systems for sustainable hot water.  Malabrigo only works with wool that comes from mulesing-free sheep, and the company employs environmentally safe practices for processing it as well. They believe in using as little water and as few chemicals as possible, and water, wool waste, and dye waste that cannot be re-used are transported to a detoxification plant to be cleaned and treated for re-use.

As for which is better, Manos or Malabrigo – well, that’s all in the eye of the beholder. For those who enjoy the rustic nature of an artisanal, handspun yarn with a cushy, sturdy texture, Manos’ Wool Clasica is the one to reach for. For those who want the luxury of babyfine wool slipping through their fingers in a cascade of colors, nab yourself some Malabrigo. Or have both! There are so many differences in the feel of the two yarns that there is plenty for everyone. Because they knit up at slightly different weights, and because each brand has colorways unique only to them, there isn’t much overlap. The biggest difference between them is one of price. Manos is priced at around $12-14 (semi-solid) and $16-18 (stria variegated or naturals) for their Wool Clasica and has 138 yards per skein, while Malabrigo’s Merino Worsted comes in at around $11-12 a skein. There is greater yardage in Malabrigo’s worsted yarn, meaning that at 210 yards a skein you can make yourself a sweater more economically. However, because Manos was founded primarily for the purpose of being a tool of social and economic change in people’s lives, their higher cost is finding its way back into the cooperatives’ pockets, and therefore the local women’s hardworking hands.

Ironically, while Malabrigo is driving the yarn market right now by constantly rolling out new, innovative bases – for example, creating a silk/merino DK weight that Manos has mimicked (though again, with minor texture differences) – without the Manos cooperatives, which currently employ roughly 800 women, Malabrigo would most likely not exist. It was because Manos spent 40-years building fine flocks of sheep and communities of women artisans that companies like Malabrigo were able to find themselves a niche market to grow and expand in. Today, Uruguay is an epicenter of amazing wool fiber and yarn production in vivid colors. Between the many yarn companies that have set up shop in Uruguay, the wool industry is blossoming there, making affordable, hand-dyed and handmade yarns available for everyone the world over. Viva la competencia!

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17 thoughts on “Behind the Brand: Manos vs. Malabrigo

  1. 3interestingthings

    This was a really awesome post, thank you!! I learnt so much – I had no idea Malabrigo was so young. And I was planning on visiting Uruguay anyway at some point, but now I HAVE to go!
    (sparklya)

    Reply
  2. selma (a.k.a selma123)

    Thank you so much for this article.
    I had the previledge of visiting malabrigo while I was visiting family in Uruguay this last January. Tobias and his staff at Malabrigo were amazing, showing me how they do their thing and letting me buy as much yarn as I wanted at a much lower price.
    I also tried hard to visit Manos but they are a rather closed company. They advertise themselves as a fair trade company but I have to say that Uruguayans don’t see them as non-profit or fair trade. People have complained that their pay is very low. Considering how unwilling they were to let me visit their factory, I would have to say that competitiveness is quite important to them, leaving me to wonder if those people I spoke to may be right about them. Also, although they had an outlet where you could buy some of their yarn, it is virtually impossible to find any of the yarn they export, only the cones they use to make their clothing.
    So, I have to say that because of the wonderful experience I had at malabrigo, their open arms and their innovation, I would personally side with them as a company. i think they are a little more upfront and transparent than Manos who I think is a little questionnable in the way they advertise themselves.

    Reply
    1. LadyDanio Post author

      I’m sorry that you didn’t have a good experience with Manos when you went. I will say, however, that Manos was recently admitted to the World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO), which has very stringent rules and runs a thorough evaluation before allowing a company to join its ranks. Since the WFTO is committed to 100% Fair Trade practices, and each company allowed to join has to be very transparent in their dealings, the rumors of unfairness are probably unfounded.

      As for the feeling of not being welcome at Manos, I do know that Manos runs more independently than Malabrigo. They have multiple cooperatives, and each one is run as a small local business, sort of like a franchise. It’s very possible that you went to a cooperative that didn’t have as much experience with how to communicate with the public, and so they appeared reluctant.

      Reply
  3. Sarah

    In my opinion the colors of Mano Wool Clasica make it unbeatable. It’s not just the range of colors, but the subtlety. There is nothing else like it and in this area, Malabrigo doesn’t come close.

    Reply
  4. Sarah

    After reading Selma’s comment above I have to add something else here.
    I think that Malabrigo has become more popular than Manos in large part due to the Manos distribution policies. It is much easier (and less expensive) for stores to stock Malabrigo because they buy it directly from the company and their minimum quantities are small.
    The Manos minimums are very high (15 kg per shade?).Although I understand that this is because they want to sell through distributors rather than direct to stores, they base their policies on the USA model and fail to understand that there are other, smaller markets in which they could be selling. One of the reasons for stocking Wool Clasica is to take advantage of the beautiful color range but it’s impossible if you’re not in North America.

    Reply
  5. Karen

    Thank you so much for this informative post. I was recently in my LYS and they no longer stocked manos, but malabrigo instead. I was wondering why. I purchased some malabrigo and have enjoyed working with it, but I still love manos too. I hope both companies can enjoy success in the marketplace.

    Reply
  6. meredith

    I love that Malabrigo comes in sock weight! But I prefer Manos on the whole, for its feel (I like rustic, and I’m definitely the .01% who thinks that Malabrigo Merino is ‘too soft’ haha) and the lush semi-solid shades. IMHO, the malabrigo ‘semi-solids’ are much too variegated and uneven, while the Manos is more subtle.

    It’s interesting that an above comment mentions the distribution policies. Many of my LYS’s in the VA/NC area preferred to carry Manos over Malabrigo, because the Manos was actually re-orderable. My favorite shop stopped carrying Malabrigo at all because of the long wait times between shipments. I guess that’s a testament to its popularity in a way, because it would sell out in so many shops. But it was a frustrating experience for store-owners. This was a few years ago, so maybe they’ve changed? I live in the NYC area now, so I’m sort of overloaded with choice at this point.

    Reply
  7. Ameriguayan

    @ selma (a.k.a selma123) – I too have heard alarming reports of Manos´ labor practices. My cousin´s wife´s family currently employs a woman once employed by Manos, and she had said the same things about low wages. Considering what they charge one would think they could afford to be a little more generous. I´m currently in Uruguay visiting family, and would love to visit the Malabrigo factory before I head back to the States. If anyone knows how I can get in touch wtih them or where they are located in Montevideo, I would greatly appreciate the information. Thank you.

    Reply
  8. Shoshy Roback

    I too have had the pleasure of visiting the Malabrigo Yarn mill. Antonio, Tobias’s partner gave me and a friend a guided tour of the entire mill with explanations about everything they do at the mill from beginning to end. He was so sweet and let us also purchase as much yarn as we wanted to from open bins at a greast price!! He also gave us a gift of a lace weight skein each.
    I am a flight attendant who is lucky enough to work international destinations and i’ll be in Montevideo again this month a few times. I wrote to Manos del uruguay and they just referred me to the stores that sell their yarns. Big difference!! I love Malabrigo yarn, and the owners are very much in tune with their customers!!!

    Reply
  9. Erin

    I needlefelt into high end, upclycled, natural fiber clothing (cashmere, virgin wool, linen, tincle, bamboo and silk) making one of a kind peices of wearable art. I use Manos exclusively because of their subtle shading and color palette. The bonus has been that they are a womans coop, fair traded and hand spun. So I was excited when I saw that they sold rovings in those lovely colors as well. What has bothered me and now bothers me even more is that over the years it has been harder and harder to purchase their yarns and even more difficult to buy their rovings at a reasonable price and at the quanities I need at yarn shops. The alternative is online but after shipping and handling and not being able to eye it myself, it just doesnt work for me. I too have have found that many stores are replacing them with Malabrigo, and however lovely their colors are they just arent the colors my clients are looking for.
    I found your site attempting to reseach Manos, (if I can tour? How I can contact them and just to comfort this uneasy feeling I have begun to have as to why I cannot find much about them at all.)To now see comments about low wages, not much interest in allowing the public to view their work spaces and what seems to be, either mindlessly or mal-intended non transperency, has me very uncomfortable.
    My pieces tell a story. Each woman who wears my art can share the Manos story, the clothing pieces story and my story as an artist who creates on of a kind wearable art. To remove or have the Manos story be one of dishonesty is just sickening to me and is an artists nightmare.
    If there is anyone out there that can offer me any hints or leads as to how to gather more information regarding Manos and their business practices I would greatly appreciete it.

    Reply
    1. LadyDanio Post author

      Oh heavens, Manos del Uruguay isn’t a mysterious brand at all! You might be having some difficulty locating them in the English-speaking community because their distributor in the United States is Fairmount Fibers. Fairmount has a wonderful website where they talk about the people behind the scenes who spin and dye the yarn and fiber they sell, and they are constantly updating it with new photos. I will say that Manos is geared toward the knitting and crocheting fiber arts world, so perhaps you are having some disconnect because they sell their fiber to handspinners and needlefelters, which is a smaller market that isn’t promoted as much. Luckily, their website has a great “where to buy” feature. Also, if you aren’t a member of Ravelry.com, you might trying joining it and hanging out in the Manos group there. They have a Manos social media representative who talks to all of the fans there and they’ve even done a Q&A with the head Manos designer, the guy who creates all of the colorways of Manos. In the last year or so they’ve started a Limited Edition run of colorways inspired by Manos’ fans. I hope that helps you!

      Reply
      1. Erin

        Thank you so much! Some of those sites I visit and read up on but you’ve mentioned one I have not. Thank you!!!
        The more I understand, the more I am inspired.
        I love what I’ve known of this company and it frightened me to think that their story is not as I thought.
        Thank you for taking the time to respond.
        Sincerely,
        Erin

  10. Pingback: Malabrigo Jagger | needle & spindle

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