A History of Helping Artisans

Ten Thousand Villages began in 1946 when Edna Ruth Byler, a Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) worker, visited volunteers in Puerto Rico who were teaching sewing classes in an effort to help improve the lives of women living in poverty.

From this trip, Edna brought several pieces of embroidery home to sell to friends and neighbours. The pieces became quite popular and she soon added cross-stitch needlework from Palestinian refugees and hand-carved Haitian woodenware to her inventory.

In the early 1970s, the flourishing project moved out of Byler’s basement and became SELFHELP CRAFTS, an official MCC program. Thousands of loyal customers and volunteers have helped to build this program into the strong alternative trading organization that, in 1996, became known as Ten Thousand Villages.


Where does the name Ten Thousand Villages come from?

The inspiration for our name came from a Mahatma Gandhi quote: “…India is not to be found in its few cities but in the 700,000 villages…we have hardly ever paused to inquire if these folks get sufficient to eat and clothe themselves with.” To us, each village in the world represents a unique and distinctive people, offering extraordinary products born of their rich cultures and traditions.

 Celebrating 70 Years
 1946 Edna Ruth Byler travels to Puerto Rico with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC). After buying hand-embroidered linens from disadvantaged women, she sells them to friends and neighbours back in Pennsylvania. She becomes known as the “needlework lady.”
 1950 Byler hits the road with her husband in their packed Chevy II to sell at church sales, sewing circles and parties where she describes how purchasing her handcrafted items creates hope and prosperity for the world’s poor. The simple idea will one day blossom into the global fair trade movement.
 1962 Still run from Byler’s basement, MCC takes the project on as one of their initiatives, naming it Overseas Needlework and Crafts Project.
 1965 Wanting to reach new markets, MCC asks Irma Blazer to launch Canadian Overseas Needlework and Crafts Project in Saskatchewan.
 1969 After over two decades of committed service and improving the lives of hundreds of the world’s most impoverished families, Byler, part-time director in the U.S., retires. (And she finally gets her basement back.)
 1970 The organization moves to the Material Aid Centre in Ephrata, Pennsylvania and is named Self Help Crafts of the World.
 1971 Bangladesh gains independence and within one year, Self Help Crafts begins importing from its makers.
 1972 Altona, Manitoba becomes the location for the first MCC retail store to sell Self Help Crafts. Two years later, a U.S. store opens in Bluffton, Ohio with 10 to 12 stores opening every year for the next decade.
 1981-84 Self Help Crafts Canada opens its headquarters and store in New Hamburg, Ont. Catherine MacDonald, one of the original store managers, is still the manager today.
 1985 While a U.S. trade embargo, wouldn’t be lifted until 1996, Self Help Crafts Canada becomes first North American organization to import handicrafts from Vietnam and Laos.
 1996 “Ten Thousand Villages,” inspired by a Mahatma Gandhi quote, is chosen as a new name.
 2005 Ten Thousand Villages Canada now works with 73 groups, over 20,000 individual artisan partners in 27 countries around the world.
 2011 Ten Thousand Villages celebrates 65 years with events occurring at stores all over the country.
 2012 Ryan Jacobs named GM, later CEO of Ten Thousand Villages Canada
 2015 A new concept store debuts on Bloor Street in Toronto with a refreshed, contemporary look and updated logo.
 2016 Thirty-five years after opening its headquarters, Ten Thousand Villages Canada celebrates a milestone: 35 years. Now with 38 locations in Canada and more than twice that number in the U.S., the fair trade organization is poised to grow the North American market for artisan products from around the world.
 Empowering makers around the world.