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Fair Trade Textiles From Creative Women Grow Global Connections

State of the Arts


Published November 30, 2011 at 11:48 a.m.


If you’ve ever spotted a handwoven item in a high-end store — say, a tablecloth made of Ethiopian cotton at Erica Tanov in New York City, or a Bolivian alpaca throw at Anthropologie — there’s a fair chance it got there by way of Ellen Dorsch of Grand Isle.

Dorsch opened her Burlington textile-import business, Creative Women, eight years ago. Since then, she has carved out an upscale U.S. market for beautiful textiles individually woven by women in Ethiopia, Swaziland, Afghanistan, Senegal and Mali. Last spring, she expanded to South America. Dorsch currently imports from three Ethiopian weaving businesses and one each in Bolivia and Peru.

Creative Women’s Chace Mill studio is filled with these women’s work, from napkins to hand towels to beach blankets. This weekend, at the annual holiday studio sale, all will be available for “less than reasonable prices,” Dorsch promises with a smile.

Creative Women’s products have changed over the years. Dorsch was originally inspired during a trip to Ethiopia to provide women weavers with steady employment by finding Western markets for their traditional designs. Gradually, though, she moved toward collaborating with the weaving businesses on designs Westerners want to buy.

“One of my important missions was to create jobs,” Dorsch explains. “Are you going to do that making things that sell or making things that don’t sell?”

Today, the rows of folded items filling the small studio’s shelves are mostly on the elegantly plain side, in muted colors or white with subtle accents; only some discontinued pillowcases bear traditional designs. The airy, Hamptons-like look sets Creative Women apart from what Dorsch calls the “more ethnic” flavor of the Mennonite enterprise Ten Thousand Villages, of which a branch recently appeared on Church Street. Creative Women is closer to the muted tones of West Elm. (That giant home-décor catalog company recently called Dorsch to propose a deal, but it fell through.)

Dorsch’s collaborative approach has had the biggest impact in Ethiopia. Her largest producer, Sabahar in Addis Ababa, had just three weavers when Dorsch began importing their textiles in 2003. It now has 70 full-time employees.

All are fairly treated, Dorsch maintains: “We only work with businesses who pay their employees fairly, and have decent working conditions within their own culture.”

She depends on the Fair Trade Federation for many of these assurances, but Dorsch also observes working conditions on her annual visits. “I don’t know how much is paid to the workers,” she says, “but I see that tea break occurs twice a day, the bathrooms are clean, the women all wear smocks.”

The holiday sale is not the only chance to get Creative Women products outside SoHo. They’re also sold at Vermont Farm Table in Burlington and Procopio in Woodstock, and the studio is open for retail business every Wednesday afternoon. But this weekend’s sale includes seconds, discontinued lines and new pieces priced at wholesale — far less than they would be at high-end stores.

And shoppers can rest easy knowing the women weavers have already been compensated for their work. “I pay them for everything up front,” Dorsch assures, “so whatever doesn’t sell on these shelves is my loss.”

Creative Women, Seventh Annual Holiday Studio Sale at the Chace Mill, Burlington, on Friday, December 2, noon-6 p.m., and Saturday, December 3, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. creativewomen.net