Kantha is a traditional form of embroidery that’s popular in
Bangladesh and the Indian states of West Bengal. For hundreds of years, women
in India and Bangladesh used kantha stitching to create something to keep them
warm. Using a small, straight running stitch, they took old pieces of cloth and
sewed them together to create blankets, throws, scarves and shawls.
Now, a skill passed down from generation to generation, kantha
refers to both the tradition of creating a beautiful and useful product out of
discarded items, as well as the kantha craft itself, which features a signature
running stitch. While kantha traditionally refers to upcycling old materials,
some kantha items are now also made with new fabrics.
This beautiful, reversible kantha throw was handstitched by
Najmeen. Najmeen is 29 years old and has been working with Prokritee for five
years. Prokritee provides work for women in Bangladesh with little or no
income. Makers work in a safe environment and are given a fair wage, which
helps them take care of their families and send their children to school.
Prokritee provided training for Najmeen and taught her how to do kantha
stitching. This particular throw is made with recycled cotton fabric purchased
from a local market in Bangladesh. It took Najmeen almost six days to make this
Before Najmeen joined Prokritee, she and her family
struggled to make ends meet.
“We didn’t have enough income to pay for food or give our
children an education. We didn’t have enough money for medicine.”
After joining Prokritee though, things got better for
Najmeen and her family.
“I am now able to buy good food and clothes for my family. I
can now pay for my children’s education.”
Najmeen’s dream for the future is to continue giving her
children an education so they can be literate and have successful futures.
During Guatemala’s civil war, the village of Chontola lost
more than 40 husbands, fathers and brothers to the military’s “scorched earth”
campaign in 1982. Many women became widowed and had few ways to support their
families. These women were overwhelmed with farming, childcare duties and
With nowhere else to turn, two Mayan Quiché women approached
Diego Chicoj Ramos, a Methodist church pastor, and asked him and his wife,
Juana, for help. Though their church had been burned to the ground and they had
little to offer, they managed to secure seven pounds of thread. A small group
of women took this thread and started to weave small items to sell in nearby
markets. Soon, they were bringing income back to the community.
In 1986, with new buyers in Canada, the U.S. and Europe, the
group decided on the name, Ruth and Naomi, in reference to the Bible story of two
widows who were without resources, but worked hard and survived.
Today, Ruth and Naomi is comprised of six workshops,
representing more than 60 makers. These makers weave bright pieces of cloth on
looms in workshops and at home, creating products such as purses and bags. They
use traditional Mayan huipiles, which are handwoven, embroidered blouses from
the Chontola area, to create their beautiful, handcrafted designs.
Ruth and Naomi also provide youth with scholarships, making
it possible for teens to complete high school and go on to university.
This is Celestino. He was living with his wife and young
daughter in Santa Barbara, Peru when political violence forced them to leave.
“They killed my brother-in-law, a cousin and a nephew. Two
other brothers-in-law went missing and another was put in jail. Three of my
sisters are widows.”
Celestino left Santa Barbara with his wife and daughter and
moved to a village outside of Huancavelica, his hometown. There, he bought a
rustic loom and taught himself how to weave.
In 2001, he started working with Allpa, a fair trade
organization that aims to improve the living standards of handicraft producers by
providing technical help, product development advice, skills training, tools
and equipment. His work involved developing products and fulfilling export
orders. Today, Celestino runs a sophisticated workshop with Allpa, providing
good jobs to over 70 weavers (using improved looms) in Huancavelica, one of
Peru’s poorest cities.
Makers at Celestino’s workshop create textiles with alpaca
fleece. Alpacas are raised in the foothills of the Andes, near Lake Titicaca in
Peru and Bolivia. Their fleece is sheared by Peruvian herdsman. Alpaca fleece
is hand spun into yarn, dyed by hand and then handwoven by makers using an
ancient technique. Each throw is then washed and ironed. It takes three days
and five people to make an alpaca throw.
Watch this video to see some of the process.
*Video created by Allpa and used with their permission.
Unlike sheep’s wool, alpaca fleece does not contain lanolin,
so it’s naturally hypoallergenic, warmer and softer.
Celestino is proud to say that his textiles travel around
the world and reach homes in Europe, North America, Japan and Australia.
Stay warm and cozy this winter with beautiful, handcrafted alpaca throws.
Most of the makers we work with are women, and most of those women are mothers. With Mother’s Day approaching here in Canada, we just had to tell these stories. Each one shows the resilience and exceptionalism of the maker mothers of fair trade.
Every day, as we unpack, sort, ship, shelve and gift beautiful fair trade products, we think about the hundreds of amazing women who have turned a handicraft into a livelihood, and a livelihood into a future.
Tamil Arasi, maker with Blue Mango, India:
“My daughter graduated from high school and is now studying to be a nurse.”
“I joined Blue Mango in 2009 after my husband died of a heart attack. I was at a loss about what to do. How would I support my children? I had worked as a health worker part -time in the past, but decided to come to Blue Mango instead because of the support they provided for me as a widow, and the steady work. I like it here because it’s friendly and I can forget my troubles. My daughter graduated from high school and is now studying to be a nurse. My son is in 12th grade and he wants to be a policeman. I don’t like that idea because I don’t want him to get hurt. I’d rather he was safe behind a desk at a government job!”
Rawshan Ara, maker with Prokritee, Bangladesh
“My future dream is to create a better life for my kids.”
“Before joining Shuktara, I had no source of income and struggled to provide the basic needs of my family. Back then I wasn’t able to send my kids to school. I was leading a hopeless life.”
“At the very beginning of my career here, I received a three-month on-the-job training on making handmade paper products. Later, I received more lessons from the design team of Prokritee.”
“Now, I am able to earn and provide the basic needs for my family, and send my kids to school. I also learned that I enjoy making handicraft products.”
“My future dream is to create a better life for my kids. I want them to get higher education. I also want to own a land and a house of my own. To me, fair trade means getting fair wages to support my family, working in a peaceful environment, and living with dignity.”
Rajakumari, maker with Blue Mango, India:
“People told me that my life was over, but I didn’t listen. I was not going to live in poverty and rely on charity.”
“In 2000, when Blue Mango started in a tiny shed, I was one of the first 4 women to join. After some time, the program expanded to the point where Tamar madam needed help and in 2005, I was offered the position of Supervisor. Although the job is stimulating, I often feel overwhelmed by the responsibility of running a program of 55 women especially since I only have 8th grade education.”
“Several years ago, my husband collapsed on the road from a stroke. At that time, my son Pradeep was fifteen and my daughter Jeyanthi was ten. People told me that my life was over, but I didn’t listen. I was not going to live in poverty and rely on charity. I could see that the only way to raise my kids was to continue to work at Blue Mango and build a new life for us.”
“Thanks to Blue Mango, I was able to raise my children on my own. My son has a computer job in a company and my daughter has graduated and is a school teacher. Nobody from my family has ever gone to college. I don’t have to depend on my father, I don’t have to depend on my brothers, and I won’t have to depend on my son. I have pension and savings, and does that ever feel good! My neighbors have never seen an independent widow before.”
“Because of my story, new women immediately learn that Blue Mango is not a charity, but a place where women develop financial strength and pride through perseverance and hard work.”
It’s no secret there’s extreme poverty in Bangladesh. And although, according to The World Bank, the number of the country’s poor has decreased by 26 percent in recent years, here’s the harsh reality: there are still approximately 47 million poverty-stricken men, women and children in Bangladesh today.
Women in particular face massive societal and socioeconomic challenges in trying to make a better life for themselves and their children. Because school and well-paying jobs are often unavailable to girls and women, some turn to the sex trade to survive.
You’re perusing one of our stores when you see it: a sign advertising an unbelievable promotion and deals galore. But wait. Won’t that sale price have a negative impact on Ten Thousand Villages’ suppliers and artisans?
What does it mean to imagine a better world, and to also strive for it? This is one of those questions that built Ten Thousand Villages.
It might sound odd – but in an ideal world, the concept of “fair trade” as a distinct niche would one day become obsolete. We hope for a day when all commerce is fairly traded, and the business community regards all people involved in global supply chains as equal parties. But there is so much more to our picture of a better world.