Ambatalia shop owner Molly de Vries grew up in Mill Valley, CA, when the Marin town was still a haven for artists and musicians (i.e., The Grateful Dead). Her family was “very DIY,” as she says; her mother sewed, her father was a woodcarver in his spare time, and their idea of a family outing was a thrifting trip to the Sausalito flea market. Molly fell into hairdressing as a career, but after twenty years she decided it was time to do something she was truly passionate about: singing. On her fortieth birthday, she stood up in front of her family and friends and sang.
“I was mediocre, but it was the doing of it that felt so great. It made me think hard about what I was truly passionate about,” she says. Her passion proved to be sustainable textiles, and in 2004 she opened the first incarnation of Ambatalia in Mill Valley, selling organic cotton, hemp, vintage fabric, and Matt Dick’s indigo fabrics (long before he started Small Trade Co.). She closed her shop in 2008 to focus on producing denim aprons, laptop cases, and more in her home studio. When the opportunity arose to take a space in the newly revitalized Mill Valley lumberyard, she was persuaded to set up shop again—this time in a shipping container.
Here, Molly talks about Ambatalia and her commitment to providing cultural and environmentally sustainable everyday linens for a nondisposable life.
Photography by Mimi Giboin for Remodelista.
Above: Molly de Vries in a denim jacket of her own design.
Remodelista: How did you become an environmentalist?
Molly de Vries: It comes naturally; even when I was hairdressing and nobody was thinking about plastics in the late nineties, I would get people to bring in their empty bottles and fill up on bulk shampoo.
Above: Molly's Mill Valley shop is located in a shipping container converted into retail space. She shares the space with Bloomingayles, a flower shop.
RM: Tell us about your new store space?
MdV: The shipping container was on the property for years. When I moved in, I did a really simple fix up. I painted the ceiling white and installed some reclaimed windows I had in storage and added some birch plywood to some of the walls. The wood floors were already there.
Above: Molly's desk is illuminated by a Frank Gehry lampshade, which she inherited from a former landlord.
Above: The Frank Gehry Easy Edges Lampshade is made from cardboard.
Above: Tea towels with Molly's depiction of the Ambatalia woman.
RM: What’s the meaning of Ambatalia?
MdV: Ambatalia means mother. She’s the woman that is carrying her baby and also a big humungous basket on her head. I am playing with the idea of a woman carrying a big load.
RM: How do you use your furoshiki?
MdV: The Japanese use square cloths for carrying everything, and I do the same. I use them for carrying dishes to a potluck, and since mine have twill tape I also can use them as an apron. I’ll sometimes wear them as a scarf when I'm out shopping, then take it off and wrap what I buy in it.
Above: Ambatalia bowl covers available in store and online at Quitokeeto.
RM: I am a huge fan of the cloth bowl lids. How did you get into making them?
MdV: Tyler Florence (the well-known chef and Mill Valley local) wanted me to do some textiles for his kitchen store. He got me into the whole food aspect of textiles and I started thinking more about how not to use plastic.
Above: Bowl covers on display with ceramics made by Molly's sister, Colleen Hennessey.
RM: How do you like to use them?
MdV: We are so addicted to plastic, and while a plastic lid will often keep things fresher, every vegetable needs a different climate—some want moisture and others need a dryness. The cloth lids offer a good solution for fridge storage or even for veggies on the counter. Also they’re useful if you are bringing something to a party. The ecology center in Berkeley offers a good guide about how to store vegetables.
Above: Molly made the shelving using wood planks held up by braided fabric scraps.
RM: What do you hope to achieve with your sustainable approach to retail?
MdV: I hope to inspire people. I am obsessive to a fault (I use my bath water to flush the toilet), but I know perfection is not going to happen. It’s about doing what you do so you can enjoy life and contribute.
Above: Molly's sewing machine where she works in her shop.
RM: Tell us about your devotion to green fabrics.
MdV: I like to work with linen made from flax or organic cotton and wool, but most stuff is petroleum based. All the people in yoga and bike clothes don’t know it, but they're all wearing petroleum. It's a crazy idea for me.
Above: Selvedge Denim Basket Bags hanging from the wall.
RM: Do you have a solution?
MdV: I'm making old-fashioned yoga pants in linen, like Gandhi wore. Also, I mostly buy thrift and vintage clothing. I wear a uniform and I like to make my own things and mend them. It’s satisfying. Buy less and buy better.
Above: A furoshiki for wrapping bread.
RM: Any helpful suggestions for living a more eco-minded life?
MdV: There are a few things I feel everyone can do.
- Don’t buy bottled water.
- Use a mug for takeout coffee. People drinking out of Starbucks cups with plastic lids are like kids with sippy cups. I carry a mug in my purse. Bring one to a party if people are using disposables.
- Use your own plates if you throw a party. Forgo the disposables.
- Don’t take plastic bags at the bulk section and the farmers' market. Bring your own reusable bags. Why are all the hippies using plastic bags when they buy in bulk?
- I get my shampoo from EO in Mill Valley. They don’t use large gallon containers for bulk but have a bigger 20-pound bin that comes from the factory.
- Line dry your clothes.
- Buy vintage or thrift clothing.
For more eco-friendly solutions for the home, check out our posts on Reusable Food Storage Wraps and Coyuchi's Organic Bedding. Also read about Mill Valley's other green queen, Bea Johnson of Zero Waste Home. For an alternative food storage idea, see A Refrigerator-Free Kitchen on Gardenista.