Giovanna Mantilla likes to travel. She and her mother took off about 7 years ago on an excursion through India and Southeast Asia that lasted six months.
Along the way, she kept stumbling on small artisan groups and families hand crafting beautiful accessories. Something tugged at her that finding these artisans was not a coincidence.
She wanted to help the workers sell their products back in the States and pay them fair wages. So she shipped herself boxes and boxes of goods. When she got home, she started selling the crafts at house parties.
Even though fair trade wasn’t (and in many cases still isn’t) broadly understood, Giovanna was heartened by the enthusiastic response from the friends and family who came to her house parties. They wanted to make a difference with their purchases.
Helping them make that difference sent Giovanna on another treasure hunt, this time to Mexico. Her planned itinerary was to continue through Central America and into South America.
When she got to Guatemala, “It was magical,” she says, “I felt at home.” The group she was traveling with kept on going, but she stayed in the Lake Atitlan region of Guatemala where she began talking with jewelry and handbag artisans.
This was the genesis of her business, aMano Fair Trade. (For the story of the Guatemalan artisans Giovanna works with, see my blog, “My Guatemalan Trip: I learn to make a Princesa beaded necklace.”)
A couple of years later, she began working with Hmong artisans in Northern Thailand, near the cities of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. Her nose for high quality and fashionable handmade goods led her to these artisan groups who make intricately embroidered bags.
There is one artisan group she primarily works with, 26 women and a few men. “We’re really proud of them,” she says. Through the fair income they’ve earned from selling their handbags to aMano Fair Trade, they were recently able to move to a large, open-air workspace in Chiang Mai.
The workshop has 14 sewing machines, a leather work-station, and stacks and stacks of vintage fabrics. Many of the bags aMano Fair Trade sells where leather is part of the design come from this shop.
The handbags made with cloth fabric only are created in individual homes in villages outside Chiang Rai. Each woman makes only one style of bag, like the Flora and Fauna Embroidered Bag sold by Fair Trade Designs. Three of the artisans are women with disabilities who assist the seamstresses by cutting fabric and sewing in the lining for each purse.
In addition to the gorgeous bags she sells from Thailand, Giovanna also brings stunning jewelry to the U.S. market. A beautiful example is the Piedra cuff. Hand-braided wax cords are generously covered with re-constituted semi-precious stones such as amethyst, mountain coral, and mother of pearl.
A husband and wife designed the cuffs in their home. Business has been good enough that they’ve moved into a small workshop where 12 women artisans work side by side with them.
Traveling has given Giovanna the opportunity to experience the magic and beauty of Guatemala, Thailand and many other countries. More importantly, it has allowed her to help those in need by providing sustainable revenue sources and contributing to the communities in which these talented artisans live.