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An Admirable Yarn: MBA Student Weaves 55 Scarves in Two Weeks for the Homeless

Valerie Chew combines marketing skills with arm-knitting talent to aid a worthy cause — and start her own fashion design firm.

Valerie Chew '14, '16, with a sample of her yarns and a UAlbany-inspired scarf — which she made while the photographer was shooting the pictures! (Photo by Carlo de Jesus)

ALBANY, N.Y. (February 29, 2016) — MBA student Valerie Chew was browsing Instagram last December, wondering what gifts she could give to family members, when she saw a craft demonstrated that she never knew existed: arm knitting.

By early February, Valerie had delivered 55 colorful arm-knitted scarves to her cousin’s charitable organization in New York City, D15:4. On a late Friday night, she accompanied him and others from the group on a “walk-out” to the major streets where the homeless gather. Along with blankets, socks and other necessities the group collects, she distributed her scarves to the chilled folks.

“Several just stared and took them,” said Valerie, “but many were really happy about getting them. One of them looked at his and said, ‘Wow, did you shave that off of Chewbacca?’” — a reference to the furry Star Wars character.

Not a bad call, since Valerie’s scarves are very furry, done in classic braided, or single or double-loop infinity styles. “I go for super bulky yarn,” she said.

How she obtained the yarn is all part of the story of how a 2014 UAlbany bachelor’s in marketing graduate, headed for both an MBA and certificate of graduate study in information security in May, combined her marketing skills and a newfound handcraft in a way that donated to a worthy cause and also created her own start-up fashion company.

Valerie Chew scarf at NY Fashion

Singer-model Xavier White walks down the runway during NY Fashion Week this month, showcasing one of Valerie's arm-knitted scarves.

From the moment she saw the Instagram segment and acquired some yarn, Valerie quickly honed her skills to make 6 to 8-foot long scarves in 30 to 35 minutes. “After doing many scarves, I was quickly accustomed to the whole arm-knitting process to the point where it felt almost second-nature to me,” she said. “I was able to watch TV a few minutes at a time without even looking down at my project.”

Plus, they were eye-catching. “Looking at ones I’d made as gifts, my roommate said to me, ‘Valerie, people will want these!’ A friend wore one to a Knicks game and everyone around him wanted to know where they could get one.” She got the same reaction from her co-workers at NYSERDA, where she’s had a year-long internship.

Her decision was made: make as many scarves as possible for her cousin’s nonprofit charity by Chinese New Year, Feb. 8. She started a GoFundMe campaign, which ended up raising $500, With that, she bought 165 balls of yarn and put her arms to work, just two weeks short of Feb. 8 — all the while keeping up with her classes, serving her NYSERDA internship and working a graduate assistantship with Zina Lawrence, director of Graduate Student Services in the MBA program.

“The deadline seemed almost impossible at times,” said Valerie, “but I tried to set aside a few hours every day to make a few scarves.” The “few” turned out to be 55, and a successful charitable endeavor.

But there was more. “I tried to test all the marketing theories I had learned over the years,” she said. The result was the kick-off of LuxeLooks Designs, which will market her scarves to begin with and a few other arm-knitted items, such as bikini bottom cover-ups, in the future.

The business got a quick boost when Valerie’s friend and fellow MBA student Jason Miller worked through his start-up management firm, representing talent, to have his singer client Xavier White wear one of the scarves (all white) on the runway of NY Fashion Week on Feb. 14.

“It was a good boost for the product line,” said Valerie. “And I’ll continue to market the products via social media, such as my sites on Instagram and Facebook, and blogging.” She plans on building the company after graduation, when she heads back to New York City to look for a job in either marketing or information technology. “As my line expands, I can donate a portion of the proceeds to my cousin’s organization,” she said.

Catching a newly popular handcraft on Instagram has meant a lot in a short period of time for Valerie, who said it’s even been mentally beneficial.

“If I know I have half an hour to spare between certain tasks and homework, I try to finish a scarf,” said. “It helps clear my mind and I’ve realized that arm-knitting is therapeutic when I'm stressed. I look forward to it whenever I have the time.”

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