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Meet Our Artisans
Each season we feature artisans from around the world whose products are in showcased in our current collection. Discover how these talented artisans make their sustainable, unique products by hand, along with the challenges they face, and the non-profit groups who help support their craftwork.
Kashmir comes to Vegas
This summer I was asked by Aid to Artisans to help with their Las Vegas Market booth display for their Art-X project showcasing the work of four different artisans groups in Kashmir. The Shaaksaz Producer Company, supported by Kadam Haat in India, featured willow garden and tabletop baskets, wattle fencing and light pendants designed by Howard Peller, founder of Living Willow Farm. Zadibal Crafts, supported by the Sasha Crafts exhibited a variety of paper mache vases and bowls, designed by Aviva Shulem. Paper Mâché is a legacy craft that has been produced in Kashmir since the 14th century. NoorAari, supported by Rangsutra in India, partnered with Sudarshan Textile Arts, to produce and design embroidered scarves and pillows. Women artisans in Kashmir, craft a specific type of hand embroidery called crewel that uses a hook and hand dyed wool yarn to create intricate designs. And Bandipora weavers partnered with designer Stacy Spivak to produce wool scarves and shawls using kani, tweed, and hand-spun pashmina and merino wools, using cultural techniques that have been passed down for generations.
I had fun previewing the photos of the beautiful finished products along with the artisans making them. In an effort to pre-visualize the different booth displays before arriving in Las Vegas to help install, I made a series of pencil sketches with watercolors to get a sense of how everything might come together. The sketches were helpful in ordering the Ikea fixtures and props we would need ahead of time, when the Aid to Artisans team and I arrived to merchandise the booths.
We had our share of surprises with missing shipments of products found at the last minute, and sizes and quantities of items we didn't anticipate. We were able to collaborate and problem-solve together, to create handsome displays showing the multiple artisan products at their best. I love comparing the raw sketches to the photographs of the finished booths, makes it all look so easy!
I had the pleasure of working with Lauren, Rachel and Hannah from the Aid to Artisan team and meeting Payal Nath, the co-founder of Kadam Haat, working to create opportunities for artisan women in rural India. She and I talked about the challenges facing international artisans, particularly during the pandemic and how to compete for market share in a struggling US economy. Payal has won numerous awards for her work in India over the past seventeen years and I hope to be able to visit her one day to continue our conversations.
We were happy to have our wonderful booth neighbors, Guillermo Jester and Sofia Tania from ATA Mexico, and Kristine Jones working with Dancing Yak Handicrafts of Nepal. Guillermo and Sofia did a great job displaying their products handcrafted by women weavers in Chiapas, including traditional huipil dresses with contemporary patterns, and pillows, blankets, table linens and hammocks in soft colors. Their booth was included in a buyers tour of the pavilion which brought a welcome crowd by our booths.
Kristine displayed a collection of felt wool products for Dancing Yak's booth, including a red tote bag with the word VOTE spelled out in bold black letters which also caught the buyer's attention. Kristine lives in Washington DC and is a very talented photographer documenting the protests at our nation's capital almost on a daily basis, including January 6th. I am encouraging her to have a show and publish a book of her compelling work.
In August I traveled to New England to visit my sister who had moved from Lockwood, California earlier this year to buy a house in western Massachusetts near friends, and found a cute renovated 1820's farmhouse in Belchertown. She showed me around her new home town where we went kayaking on a river, walked her dog Meeki through many parks and forests and found a local lakefront beach complete with a hotdog stand, where I plan to return for many more visits.
We also took a trip to Beverly Farms, where we spent a summer 50 years ago, at our mother's friend's mansion, while her friend was in Nevada arranging for a divorce. I must have been around thirteen years old that summer, but still have vivid dreams of the house and the moats and ocean surrounding the property. I had contacted the current owner and arranged a time to visit on our way to see old friends in Rockport where we used to live. The new owner was lovely and gave us a tour through the rooms and hallways of my dreams, it was quite a breathtaking experience.
From Massachusetts I headed to New York to attend NY Now and Shoppe Object to see some of my favorite vendors and to meet new artisan groups, and buy product for 12 Small Things holiday season. I arrived in time to attend one of my favorite Keena vendors, Kikkerland's 30th anniversary celebration, which was held on a charted yacht that circled around the Hudson Bay at sunset. It was fun hanging with the lovely ladies from Keena and the Kikkerland team on a lovely summer evening.
Over the next two days I saw many familiar and new vendors between both shows, and bought lots of products to sell at my store and website. One of my favorite new vendors I finally met in person, was Tanja Cesh, founder of Mulxiply, producing handcrafted clothing, jewelry and felt animal toys from Nepal. After spending nearly 20 years in fashion and design, and volunteering alongside humanitarian organizations in the developing world, Tanja Cesh launched Mulxiply in 2010. While traveling to India, Nepal, and other parts of Southeast Asia, she was exposed to the horrors of human trafficking and the poverty of marginalized women and men the world over. Visiting rural villages, surrounded by women who were sewing or felting to make extra money for their families, the idea for Mulxiply was formed. Tanja saw a way to create dignified employment combining her experience in the fashion industry and the western marketplace with skilled artisans who needed work. I am excited to be offering her clothing and toys in my holiday 2022 collection.
Another new vendor I met, recommended to me by Monica Geary of Noble Fibre, was Hans Valdez of MIA or Mothers in Action, a group of artisans who knit sweaters and other wool textiles in Peru. MIA was founded by America Durand, a Peruvian mother and knitter with a Social Assistant degree, who wanted to help Andean communities, particularly widows or single mothers who needed work to support their families. Hans Valdez, who has an Ecotourism and Fashion Management degree, helps create their exquisite designs with the MIA team and leads the company, attending trade shows worldwide. MIA started in 2007 with only 12 mothers, and nowadays has more than 250 women knitting in different communities of the Peruvian Andes. Not just about the knitting, MIA Peru also provides training and workshops about education, nutrition, and respect for the environment, using pure fibers to create high quality, ecologically-friendly products.
Once back home I was excited to get my store and website ready for all the new product I was about to receive. My first shipment of hats came in from Minga, made by artisans in Ecuador. While they didn't have a booth in New York for me to visit, my daughter Olivia was able to meet the founder and owner of Minga, Emily Rathmanner at Outside Lands in Golden Gate Park, where she had a very popular booth.
I also checked in with my new collaborator Sasha Plotitsa from Formr furniture in San Francisco, who is helping me design and craft display fixtures, made from recycled construction debris, and handcrafted by formerly incarcerated individuals, getting a second chance. Sasha and I recently previewed our collection to senior sales representatives and owners of Keena, who gave us valuable feedback and suggestions for improvement along with much support. Once finalized, we will be selling the collection to other retailers and homeowners interested in handmade, sustainable furnishings that help people and the planet.
As I approach my 65th year on this planet, I am still learning and remembering to appreciate each day we share with others while we are able. One of our vibrant young Keena sales representatives, Andy Token, was recently killed at age 35 in a crosswalk by a hit and run driver. It shook our whole community, and we are still mourning such an untimely loss of our colleague who had so much ahead to look forward to.
After attending a memorial for Andy, I got caught up in the emotion of appreciating people while we have the chance, and rode my bike across town to crash a brunch my daughters were having together. They were tolerant of their mom just needing to say hi and get a few hugs in before heading back to our own homes.
My friend Darcy Lee, formerly of Heartfelt and now Hail the Snail Mail, has the right attitude. For her 70th birthday she had a large gathering of friends and family at Golden Gate Park with a cake that summed up her feelings about aging, complemented by a fan from a good friend.
We recently threw a party for my father-in-law's 95th birthday with family and close friends. Martin and Eveline, soon to be 93, are obviously doing something right, having had long careers, while appreciating the visual arts, music and literature and enjoying time with their family and friends. Here's hoping we can all do the same!
Heading back out
After two years of pandemic Groundhog Day, I'm starting to head back out into the world again, mask half on, nose in the air. But before I talk about where I'm going, I'll try to catch up a bit by trying to recall where I've been. As in 2020, I continued my wholesale work in the safety of my store's back office, representing artisan crafts with 12 Small Things, along with commercial products from Keena Co, to World Market and Whole Foods stores. These retail business saw increased sales during the pandemic, both online and in person, as people sought comfort in cooking and decorating their homes.
One of the most challenging and rewarding projects I helped broker was for Day of the Dead paper decorations from artisans in Mexico for sale at World Market stores. These paper banners and crepe paper flowers are often reproduced in India and China using machinery, but the authentic products are handmade by artisans in Mexico. I called the owner of a local store in our Mission District, Nancy Charraga, who used to sell these products, including a paper Trump piñata, but closed her store during the pandemic. Nancy explained the art of cutting the paper banners from stacks of tissue with a hammer and chisel, just like it was first done in China ages ago and then later learned in Mexico.
The crepe flowers are hand rolled and attached with wires covered in paper by other skilled artisans who have passed the tradition down through family generations. Nancy supervised the different groups working on the orders and made sure to meet the deadline for shipping the products to World Market's warehouses on time. We hit one snag in the process when the World Market visual display team discovered the holes in the packaging were too small to fit on the store's display pegs. Nancy stopped the shipments at the border and hired a team to reopen the boxes and punch the product tags with larger holes before sending them on their final leg of their journey. Happy to say we got a reorder for this fall.
Last year I lost my oldest sister Kris Reynolds to Parkinson's disease, and attended her memorial in Colorado with my other sister and brother. I learned so much from Nancy about the Day of the Dead celebration in Mexico, and how loved ones are remembered with special alters on the occasion. So last fall I made my first Dias de Los Muertos alter in the store, honoring my sister Kris along with other family members and friends who I've lost, but are still with me in memories and dreams. Having their photos and alter in the store gave me a sweet sense of love and honor each time I saw them, and spoke of their memory to customers who inquired. This is a tradition I will continue.
Another group I was thrilled to start working with last year is Powered By People, co-founded by the fabulous Hedvig Alexander from The Far and Wide Collective, which was a beautifully curated collection of artisan crafts, similar to 12 Small Things, but much more comprehensive and ambitious. Hedvig chose to pivot to a different business model which links international artisans directly to the end consumer, and created Powered By People, showcasing over 100 international artisans, and reaching out to wholesale and retail buyers around the world.
World Market ordered paper mâché hand mirrors, decorative boxes and magnets from Nepal, along with ME to WE beaded bracelets from Kenya, all from Powered By People, that are currently for sale in their retail stores and online. We are in the process of getting ready to ship notecards from Kenya and fabric bookmarks from India, and presenting dozens more products for consideration for next holiday 2023 already, if you can believe it.
I did venture out of the office last summer to attend the NYNow gift show again and also to the Las Vegas Market with some fun stops along the way. Before going to New York I took a detour to visit my friend Laurie on her family's summer home on Chokecherry Island near Chippewa Bay on the St. Lawrence River. Talk about a little slice of heaven, complete with rowing skiffs, good food and drink and lovely company. From this remote charming island, to be back in New York City was quite a contrast, but always a fun experience. The NYNow show was hit hard by the pandemic along with the competition from Shoppe Object that was being held at a different time that year.
NYNow had asked me to be a mentor to some of their new exhibitors and I was very pleased to meet and review the different groups including Abby from Abby Alley, working with jewelry makers and leather smiths in Kenya. Abby had gone to Kenya to teach English and ended up staying to work with the local artisans to help them market and sell their products in the US. I don't sell a lot of leather bags at my store, as the price points are usually high, and people often want a designer brand when buying fashion accessories. But I admired the bags Abby was selling and placed an order that sold very well at my store, and I've since reordered. The organizers of NYNow are hosting SFNow next month here at Fort Mason and have asked me to mentor another three groups who I'm looking forward to meeting.
I also had a chance to see some of my familiar vendors returning for the show, including Natalie Tancreed with Prosperity Catalyst representing products from Haiti and Iraq. I also saw the group from Belart in Colombia and bought some colorful straw ornaments for holiday. I also bought holiday notecards and felt garlands from Giftlands in Nepal, more organic shaped ceramic vases from the Art Floral Trading working with artisans in Thailand, and bought lots of famous personality felt ornaments from The Silk Road Bazaar in Kyrgyzstan, including Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris, that all sold well in my store. That night I had dinner with Natalie outside at a French Bistro until a sudden thunderstorm forced us inside, which was a lot more comfortable, even though we were still in a spreading pandemic.
My visit to the summer Las Vegas Market was a lot quicker but still worth the visit, as I found two new vendors from Indonesia, Jitana and Ceremonia, who both had beautiful handmade decor I thought World Market might be interested in. I also continued my Day of the Dead research and found wonderful small painted animals or Alebrije from Oaxaca along with painted skeleton figures that I also plan to carry in my store for our local Dias de Los Muertos celebrations in San Francisco.
All seemed to be going well with my wholesale representation and at the store, which was thankfully very busy with holiday sales, but also a bit stressful trying to juggle both business and personal plans. Unfortunately that was just the time the new omicron virus decided to visit me and I was forced to cancel our Christmas plans. Talk about the grinch who stole Christmas! I quarantined in my daughter's bedroom for five days as Christmas went on without us. Fortunately it was a mild case thanks to my vaccinations, and we were all able to celebrate together after testing negative on New Year's Day.
The new year brought some new projects including mentoring again for Aid to Artisans with entrepreneurs in South Africa over Zoom. I had the pleasure of getting to know; Stephen and Linda Nessworthy from Cape Alpaca who run an alpaca wool farm and make beautiful yarns, blankets and socks, Candice Lawrence from Modern Gesture who is a lighting designer of wonderful hanging lamps and custom installations for home and commercial interiors, and Johan de Meyer from Macassar Pottery ceramics studio, who employs youth from the community to produce custom orders for large retailers. I am truly inspired by these talented individuals and hope I've been able to help them with issues I've also dealt with in my professional experience.
Which brings me up to date with my current project, 12 Small Things Destinations. Before the pandemic I was aware of the growing consumer trend in creating experiences for purchase, rather than shopping for merchandise. Anticipating this shift, I curated a collection of some of the most popular items from my store, that I thought would compliment a boutique hotel, spa, or winery destination; from sun hats, to warm shawls, beach cover-ups and candles, made by artisans in need of support around the world. And then the pandemic hit and travel slowed to a halt. Now that its picking up again, I've printed a Destinations brochure and created a wholesale website and am hitting the road again, visiting hotels in the Bay Area, Santa Barbara and Los Angeles, that I think might be interested in carrying the collection.
I also signed up for my first ever virtual spa conference hosted by the Green Spa Network, where I will present my collection to spa buyers across the country. I'm excited to learn more about the hospitality industry and bring my collection to customers who will hopefully appreciate the beauty of quality, handmade products, that are preserving crafts and helping to support communities in struggling economies around the world. I am working on a way to add QR codes to my product's hangtags, so customer can scan and watch a video of the products being made by the artisans who made them.
Be on the lookout for 12 Small Things on your next travels, OK, maybe next year, but hopefully coming soon! Laurie
Last month I participated in Aid to Artisans E-Market Readiness Program with attendees from around the world, attended the online gift show Shoppe On, where I bought products for 12 Small Things and listened to a great panel discussion moderated by Patti Carpenter on Building Diversity, sat in on a conversation with Vanity Fair's editor Radhika Jones, interviewing Ta Nehisi Coates about their brilliant The Great Fire September issue, and watched Beyonce perform songs from her new album Black is King, all from my laptop computer and was elated.