Shop Talk: handicrafts with a clean conscience | Calendar | Chicago Reader

Shop Talk: handicrafts with a clean conscience 

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Three years ago a few workers at the Uptown Center Hull House started a project that evolved into the Fourth World Artisans Cooperative, a storefront at 3453 N. Southport full of handcrafted items that is run on the principle of fair wages for the artisans and a minimal markup to cover the costs of operating the store.

"It began as a craft fair in Uptown in '86 to help local artisans and small- scale importers make some money for themselves," explains Mekayle Hinkaty, one of the storefront's founding members and one of the two paid, part-time project coordinators. "Last fall we decided it would be better to set up a temporary two-month Christmas gift store, and it was so successful that it has become a permanent thing."

The store is now a full-time project of Hull House, part of their ongoing effort to, as their publicity puts it, "help low- and moderate-income people help themselves." It's designed to allow local immigrants, artisans from around the world, and a handful of moderate-income Chicagoans a chance to get a respectable price for the fruits of their labor. "We primarily encourage immigrant artisans and importers," explains Rachel Biel, the second project coordinator. "But we don't turn away other people if they come in with items that fit in with our store. We just don't actively seek them out the way we do the immigrants."

A couple of months ago a Moroccan woman, who had only just arrived in this country, showed up at the store. Gesturing with her hands as she pulled partially made items out of her bag, she conveyed to Biel that she would finish the items, make more, and come back with them. About a week ago she came in, bundled in a big blue scarf and a blue caftan with hand-embroidered trim in lieu of a winter coat. She brought along her son, an aspiring restaurateur, to translate for her. "She kept bugging me to take her by here," he explained. "And I kept putting it off. So she finally came by herself. While we grew up, she supported us on her work back in Morocco." He also said he recently bought her a loom and weaving supplies.

The woman pulled out of her bag handfuls of handwoven bracelets and belts, a strikingly intricate purse, and other richly colored woven pieces. Calmly and respectfully, Biel and Hinkaty explained how the woman could get the most money for her work, suggesting leather backings or using the woven pieces on the purse to make more substantial pillows instead of delicate purses. Biel also mentioned stores that might be able to sell her items for more money. When the woman's son agreed to things without first asking his mother, Biel firmly told him to ask his mother what she wanted. "It's her work. She needs to set her price," Hinkaty insisted. Biel recommended that the woman figure out how much she wanted to earn per hour and add in the cost of materials before she agreed to a price.

Not long after the woman left, a woman wearing a black cowl and a modern adaptation of a pillbox came in. With a flourish she produced several hand-painted hats out of her bag. "They keep your head warm," she said matter-of-factly, insisting that she is a very practical person. Among other items made by Pamela Manning, an American-born wanderer who thinks she's found her home in Chicago, are vests that she's painted with bold strokes of color.

Dennis Marino, director of economic development at Uptown Center Hull House, says he got into the artisans project because he "wanted to see recent immigrants to Chicago have an outlet for making money for themselves and their families with their craft skills." But Hull House goes even further. In the contract given to artisan members is a clause stating that Hull House will make them aware of any funding that might help them eventually open up a business of their own. So far three of the coop's members have gone on to open businesses.

The store is also well stocked with items purchased from other countries. "We either buy them directly from co-ops in the countries where they're produced, or else we buy from small-scale local importers," explains Biel. "A lot of the importers are bringing in things that are made by family members back home or people they know personally. We can't regulate what they pay the artisans, but we try to only buy from those who we have reason to believe are giving them a fair wage."

One supplying co-op was set up in Bolivia by Maryknoll sisters; the women there make sweaters from the wool of llamas that are raised right on the premises. "We just got a call from them asking for their money as soon as possible so they can buy wine and chickens for the women for Christmas," says Hinkaty. Fourth World also buys fom a co-op in India, a group of widows who make various textile items--bags, vests, pants--that are their primary source of income. Through their co-op, they are also learning to read and to do math. Another supplier is a local clothing designer--Syeed Milky from Bangladesh--who commissions a production cooperative back home to do his designs.

At Fourth World there are items from about two dozen countries--red woven shawls from Guatemala, embroidered pandau tapestries from Laos, silver jewelry from Mexico, drums with Native American Indian designs, hand-painted masks made by a Guarani Indian from Paraguay, richly patterned wool sweaters from Ecuador. Here you can avoid retail chain stores that buy huge quantities of a product for extremely low prices and then mark up the items drastically. Much of the reasonable purchase prices at Fourth World goes to the artists. And even if you aren't interested in buying, the store is a wonderful museum.

Fourth World Artisans Cooperative is open seven days a week through Christmas Eve: 12 to 7 Monday through Friday, 11 to 6 Saturday, and 1 to 6 Sunday. This Saturday there's an open house from 4:30 to 7:30, with live Brazilian guitar music and refreshments. Some of the artisans will also be there. For more information call 404-5200.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.

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