by Katie Noah Gibson
“Giving a woman sustainable income changes her life and that of her entire family,” says Linda Egle of Abilene, Texas, founder of Eternal Threads. And, as the Eternal Threads Web site notes, “Wherever women gather is a great place to tell the Eternal Threads story.”
Since 2000, Eternal Threads has worked with female artisans in developing countries to provide them an income by using indigenous craft skills and raw materials. The results are breathtaking: hand-loomed silk shawls from Madagascar, exquisitely crafted jewelry from Thailand, intricate bracelets and delicate beaded earrings from Afghanistan, colorful crocheted lace and tote bags from India, and unique products from Nepal made by rescued girls. Items can be purchased online through the company’s Web site, but Eternal Threads offers a unique way for American women to participate in its work: through hosting a “Gathering” sale.
Gathering sales can take the form of church or community events, Christmas parties, or a get-together at someone’s home. Proceeds from Gatherings last year provided funding for the development of a new carpet-weaving project in Afghanistan and the expansion of the Eternal Threads-sponsored anti-trafficking project in Nepal.
“Hosting Gathering sales has raised our awareness of extreme poverty in the world,” says Martha Walke of the First Christian Church in Abilene. “Most people feel they can’t make a difference by themselves, but with this project, they see that their purchases can make a real difference in people’s lives.”
The mission began with the creation of Sofi totes, crocheted from colorful fishnet twine in rural south India. During visits to this area, Linda wanted to help the women who spent every waking moment working to help their families. “They’re industrious, but they lack education and opportunities for employment,” she says. “And they have families to support.”
Today, the Sofi tote project employs more than 250 women. Income generated from the totes has helped the women send their children to school, gain access to clean water, buy their own cooking stoves and water buffalo—in short, to transform their communities and their lives.
Eternal Threads also supports artisan projects in Madagascar, Nepal, Thailand, and Afghanistan. The mission of “weaving hope and justice” is being extended to women all over the developing world.
In Madagascar, Eternal Threads partners with a group of women who carry on the ancient skill of hand-looming silk. The women harvest silk cocoons from local forests and complete the entire harvesting, dyeing, and weaving process themselves.
However, because of widespread poverty in Madagascar, these artisans formerly had little or no market for their goods. Through their partnership with Eternal Threads, the women can carry on their craft, earn a living wage, and begin to realize their dreams for themselves and their children.
In Thailand, O-Kart (“opportunity” in Thai) trains women in remote hill-tribe villages to make jewelry out of handmade silver and locally available semi-precious stones. Some of the program’s participants, including the two young men who oversee it, are Burmese refugees who have no official status in Thailand. O-Kart gives them a chance to earn a living, as well as preserve craft skills that are part of their heritage.
“Native crafts are one of the best ways to use the indigenous skills of women in poverty,” Linda says. “It’s part of my mission to preserve these crafts that have been handed down for generations, and encourage others to realize their intrinsic value.”
One of Eternal Threads’s newest partnerships involves funding three units of surveillance workers to prevent trafficking of young women and girls from Nepal into India. Currently, the units rescue an average of 200 girls per month. “One more unit would help cover the entire border,” Linda adds.
The surveillance workers are young women themselves, who watch the border crossings daily for girls who might have been taken from their homes and families. Frequently, traffickers lure girls with the promise of a job, then take them to a brothel in India, from which they have no way to contact their families or get out. The girls, usually illiterate, are a burden to poor families and are deceived by the traffickers; they don’t realize the true situation until it is too late.
Traffickers also buy girls from their families on the pretext of taking them to marry rich Indian men. Surveillance workers, supported by border police, question the girls and their escorts to determine whether they are being trafficked.
“People doing this work are sometimes threatened, but they see themselves as standing in the gap and have tremendous courage,” Linda says. “And, when you donate and help support the antitrafficking work, you’re actually standing there on that border with those girls.”
Proceeds from 2008 sales allowed Eternal Threads to provide a safe house for rescued girls, where they receive counseling and vocational and literacy training. Sewing training is also provided to girls at risk of trafficking. “I love the Old Testament command to care for orphans and the widows,” Linda says. “The modern-day version is definitely a trafficked girl.”
HOPE AND JUSTICE
On a research trip to Afghanistan in 2007, Linda and a board member studied ways to help Afghan women overcome their poverty. Eternal Threads now offers intricately beaded king’s garden bracelets, made by Afghan artisans. Profits from bracelet sales have provided literacy training for these women, and also helped them provide for basic family needs and educate their children.
One Afghan woman describes their work this way: “We are very happy with this job. It helps us forget our family problems for the hours we are working together, laughing and talking. When we are together, we talk and learn what is going on in the world. Being together makes us brave and gives us courage to fight for our rights. When we see that our children are happy, that we have money to put them in school and buy clothes for them, it makes us happy.”
Eternal Threads’s newest venture, still in its early stages, is taking hope and justice to a remote village in Afghanistan, where nomadic women are being trained in wool dyeing and carpet weaving. The needs in the village are daunting: clean drinking water, food and blankets for winter relief, a school for the children, and a herd of sheep to provide wool for the carpets. “Once you take on a project, you take on the needs of the whole village,” Linda admits. Eternal Threads is currently collecting school supplies for the children and plans a fund-raiser to raise money for a well.
Eternal Threads is a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, and a member of the Fair Trade Federation (www.fairtradefederation.org), a trade association that promotes and supports North American fair trade organizations. The FTF and Eternal Threads are committed to providing a fair and living wage to producers in the context of their local economies.
“When we make an order to a group of artisans, we send 50 percent advance payment with the order,” Linda explains. (Only fair trade companies are required to do that.) The women can then buy local raw material. They’re paid the balance when they complete their products, instead of waiting until the money from sales comes in. This system has worked well so far, but as Linda points out, big sales once or twice a year do not provide consistent income. “They need sustainable, continuous income,” she insists. “Giving women income is a huge factor in the development of a country.”
Although Eternal Threads’s projects are concentrated in countries where women are often unable to find work and subjugated by men, the organization has met with little resistance from men. “Husbands are happy that we’re helping the whole family,” Linda says. Also, “we don’t approach it as a way to change their social structure. Outsiders can’t do that.” She hopes that as women gain vocational skills, learn to read, and send their children to school, the growth of their self-confidence and personhood will spur long-term change—but Eternal Threads recognizes that such change must come from the women themselves.
However, Eternal Threads is already working in small ways to help its artisans reclaim their dignity as human beings. Akbar, Eternal Threads’s partner in Afghanistan, recently received a request from the women involved in the new carpet-weaving project. They asked if, on his next trip to the village (a three-hour journey), he could bring a hairdresser to cut and dress their hair for the first time in their lives.
Akbar says, “These women have never had their hair dressed by someone else. They have to do it themselves with huge, blunt scissors.” In addition to providing a service, having their hair dressed made the women feel beautiful—and helped them, literally, hold their heads higher.
Eternal Threads currently provides vocational training for its artisans, and also provides literacy training in several locations. Expanding literacy training, particularly in Nepal, would not only teach women to read and write, but also educate them about the dangers of sex trafficking and HIV/AIDS. The income they earn by selling products to Eternal Threads provides one way for them to protect themselves and their children from poverty and exploitation; literacy and vocational training provide another avenue of protection and independence.
“American women possess immense ability to change the world with our buying power,” Linda notes. “For us, buying these products might not mean that much financially. But for them, it makes a huge difference.”
For more information, including how-to packets for hosting your own Gathering sale, go to www.EternalThreads.org.
Katie Noah Gibson is a writer living in Texas.