TAFA: The Textile and Fiber Art List

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Creative Women: Fair Trade Hand-Woven Textiles

Who We Are

Creative Women cares … about beautiful hand-woven African textiles, about good design, and about improving women’s lives. We are a Vermont based, women-owned company, working in partnership with two textile design studios in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and a textile studio in Swaziland, to create traditionally inspired contemporary accessories and home textiles. More than just designing and selling textiles, Creative Women works to promote equitable trading practices and to support women’s economic independence. “I founded Creative Women as a way to create jobs in Ethiopia and sustain an ancient art form by introducing the West to the beauty of Ethiopian textiles”, says owner Ellen Dorsch. “Today Creative Women provides a socially responsible link between producer and consumer by opening markets for these high-quality textiles."

Why We Came to Be

Creative Women began in Ethiopia. It grew out of my experiences and travels. I saw sex workers training to be hairdressers, only to find there were no jobs available; I visited rehab centers where women were sewing and embroidering beautiful table cloths, but the only market for their products was a small bazaar for the ex-pats living in Addis Ababa. I realized that by finding markets in the US, an opportunity existed to improve women’s lives and to maintain a centuries-old art form by introducing the West to the beauty of Ethiopian textiles.

Woman with Camel in Rural Ethiopia

Our Partners

Today, working with four women-owned businesses in Ethiopia and Swaziland, and finding markets for their handsome and unique products in the United States, Creative Women supports the emerging private sector in both these countries and most importantly, creates jobs for women in societies where good jobs are rare. Each business brings something unique to our array of textiles. The weaver/artisans at Menby's Design, Addis Ababa, produce the centuries-old tibeb, an intricate hand-woven border; then the seamstresses transform the tibeb into Creative Women's pillows, wall hangings, table runners, mats shawls, scarves, and handbags. At Sabahar, silk production has been reintroduced into the country. Here, workers spin the silk from local cocoons, hand-weave the textiles, and using natural dyes, create vibrantly colored shawls, scarves, throws and blankets. The artisans at Negist weave the most gossamer looking scarves and panels, dying them in contemporary colors that flatter all women.

Seamstress at Menby's Design in Ethiopia

In 2006, Creative Women started working with Coral Stephens, a business in Swaziland where three generations of women have been weaving mohair, and now raffia and other raw materials, into elegant and lush home and personal accessories. This committed Swazi business employs 60 women and provides them with training, skills, and financial independence … all difficult to find in rural areas of Swaziland.

The Hand-Weaving Tradition

Creative Women capitalizes on this energy by working in Ethiopia and focusing on the tibeb, a hand-woven traditional textile. For generations, Ethiopian weavers, mainly in the Dorze and Chencha areas of southwest Ethiopia, have woven netelas and gabbies on traditional looms using centuries-old patterns and designs. On Monday and Thursday mornings, weavers from these areas walk from their homes -- sometimes over an hour each way -- to sell their fabrics at the textile market. Merchants from Addis wander through the crowd of weavers, negotiating for the best deals, while local women look for a good price for their limited purchases.

Weaving is a family activity in Ethiopia: sometimes a supplement to a family's farming, sometimes the entire source of income. Women are responsible for gathering the cotton grown in the Rift Valley lowlands, carrying huge loads on their heads and climbing steep mountains back to their villages. Women of all ages spin cotton, using a simple drop spindle to make the thread used for the weft (horizontal) threads on the loom. Most of the cotton used for the warp is factory made.

Spinners at a training session

Traditionally, the men do the weaving. Their pit-style looms typically are set up outside the house. Whenever possible, they are built into a hillside and the weaver digs a hole, and sits with his feet hanging into it. Four vertical posts and two horizontal pieces connecting the posts support the Doko loom. Two harnesses, with many string heddles, are suspended from the horizontal pieces. Attached to each harness is a long rope that forms the treadles of the loom. In front of the harness is the reed that holds up to 600 threads.

Weaver in Addis, Ethiopia

Today, many of the Dorze and Chencha weavers have moved with their looms to Addis, and sell their fabrics at the big market at the foot of Entoto Mountain. There, among hundreds of overflowing stalls of weavings, Ethiopians and ferengis (foreigners) look for the ideal piece of fabric to make a traditional, or sometimes Western, dress … each with just the right touch of tibeb and color that says, hand-made in Ethiopia.

The Craft and Weaving Tradition in Swaziland

I spent much of my time in Swaziland meeting crafts people, particularly basket makers, and working with the weavers who supply us with our wonderful mohair and cotton products. Women have been weaving baskets out of sisal, straw and other grasses for generations in Swaziland. Today you can see examples of many types and qualities of baskets. The traditional and functional baskets remain simply made, with little decoration, but serve many utilitarian purposes around the home. New businesses and non-profit groups have moved this traditional craft into the 21st century, adding colors obtained with eco-friendly dyes, and very complicated designs, and marketing Swazi baskets to a global market. (See www.tintsaba.com and www.gonerural.com).

Spinner at Coral Stephens

Textile weavers in Swaziland, as opposed to Ethiopia, are women. They weave the warm and richly colored mohair used in our Swazi shawls and blankets from hand-spun Lesotho mohair. In addition to these classic home accessories, our Swazi producer draws from Swaziland's long history of basket making and grass weaving, to produce unusual raffia pillows and floor cushions in a variety of colors and stripes.

Art historians suggest that the missionaries who came to Swaziland in the 1800s first encouraged women to use their basket weaving skills to weave textiles. Subsequently, they were encouraged to use their hand-woven textiles to change their style of dress and cover their breasts in the Western style. Another theory suggests that international development organizations capitalized on the weaving tradition and set up weaving training programs for women so that they could generate income for their families and communities. Regardless of how it happened, most weavers in Swaziland today are women. And whether its baskets or textiles, they are creating products that incorporate Swazi culture and beauty into each piece.

Ellen visiting the weavers at the Monday market.

A Personal Note from Ellen:

"After a 35 year career in public and reproductive health, both in the U.S, and internationally, I knew it was time for a change. I wanted to start a business that would make an impact on women's lives, allow me to travel, and to be surrounded by beautiful things. I held my breath, jumped, and started Creative Women. Creative Women brings all of my passions... including my family... together. Whether making sure that bills are paid on time, an order arrives intact, or pleasing a new customer, I never lose sight of our goal ... creating jobs and improving women's lives. At the same time, I take enormous pride in knowing that we are sustaining an ancient art form by introducing the West to the beauty of Ethiopian textiles."

Women staff at Coral Stephens, Swaziland

Visit Creative Women Hand-Woven Textiles for more product info and find shops, catalogs and websites that carry these gorgeous textiles through their Store Locator.



  1. These are beautiful textiles. How do you find so many interesting items? I love it that yuou do. It is like going to school to visit your blog each day - and I mean school in a very good way!

    I also LOVE your mola slide show! :)


“Sing like no one's listening, love like you've never been hurt, dance like nobody's watching, and live like it's heaven on earth.”

“Whatever you say, say it with conviction.”

(Both by the master, Mark Twain)

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