Manos Zapotecas

By Kathleen Nicholson Webber

Originally posted in HAND/EYE Magazine on February 9, 2017.

Creating handbags to educate

Five years ago, at an age when most are making retirement plans, Shelley Tennyson, who had run an outdoor adventure business, decided to start Mano Zapotecas, working with artisans in Oaxaca, Mexico to make loom woven accessories and home goods. Before her business idea came about, Tennyson had been a volunteer for a microfinance company working in a traditional Mexican village. On average, households in the village had four looms, where extended family—grandparents, sons and their wives would partake in the craft. Grandparents would teach their children to weave and most started at age eight or nine. 
Tennyson got to know the village families through her volunteer work. “We taught them things like money management skills.” What she had found was many families had up to 200 rugs stacked up in their homes that they couldn’t sell. “Tourism was down and big items like rugs were tough to sell so we looked at making woven bags. We felt like high-end bags that catered to the American market would sell. “
So Manos Zapotecas, a fair trade company, was born to help families support themselves while preserving the craft and cultural heritage. The company produces two to three collections a year, giving work to 50 families. One recent collection was inspired by artist Frida Kahlo and featured deep scarlet reds, teals and navy in the palette. 
When they first started creating the collection, the first thing the creative team did was change colorations in the bags. Instead of making them in the traditional bright colors native to Oaxaca, she advised them on on-trend colors to use each season. While their rugs are in intricate designs – they may have six patterns and 12-15 colors (in their culture the more intricate, the more valuable a piece is), the bags are less so. In a bag they will have four colors maximum. Once colors are chosen, they dye the yarn, made of churro wool, and make all the patterns. The women create their own designs based on traditional symbols. “You see a lot of the same symbols from the Navajos, Incas and Aztecs,’ Tennyson explains. “Every indigenous group will say they have certain patterns. If a style is chosen for the line, the villagers will then hire people to produce it. 
A part-time style coordinator lives in Mexico and communicates with the weavers and California where Tennyson is.  “The weavers will suggest a style and size for their pattern and Samantha (the style coordinator) encourages them to mix it up where needed.”
While they sell many bags in the U.S., they are also selling in Australia, Japan and Europe. One recent German account found the company on Instagram. This fall, she started a new line of rugs and pillows in similar color palettes as the bags.  
In the future Tennyson, who employs four people who work from home in Portland, Chico and Oceanside, California in and a production team in Mexico, would like to get into larger U.S. stores and get an Asian distributor (they just found a European one) and have a strong ecommerce site. “We want to get into museums and specialty stores and diversify into other products as well.” 
The impact these bags have had on the community who makes them has been tremendous. Last year the company sent $250,000 to the village and much of it goes to education. Many can now send their children to university, make improvements to their housing and pay for healthcare.  
“For me this business is a natural result of all of my life endeavors, including a love of different languages and cultures, social services and responsibility, business entrepreneurship, and adventure, “says Tennyson. “In some ways it was inevitable that I would start Manos Zapotecas. To the artisans I think it is a way to continue their rich cultural heritage and weaving tradition, and still make a decent living. It also allows them to work at home and stay close to their extended families.”
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