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An Interview with our founder on MEDIUM!

We partnered up with UNLEASHED World and MEDIUM for this interview with Living Threads Co. founder Amanda Zehner.  Check out the full blog below or read it on Medium here. 

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UNLEASHED Women features inspiring female trailblazers through full Q&A interviews. These women are creating new own opportunities across industries, pursuing positive impact for their communities, and leading socially productive practices in life and work at large.

UNLEASHED had the pleasure of interviewing Living Threads Co. founder Amanda Zehner, an entrepreneurial pioneer for artisan women around the world. With a passion for artisanship, design, and creating opportunities for those often overlooked, Zehner matches our mission here at UNLEASHED — to support and celebrate women artisans and entrepreneurs around the world. Our conversation with Zehner follows.

What is your current career & role?

Founder & Owner of Living Threads Co.

Can you describe the mission of your company Living Threads Co., how it originated, and the inspiration behind creating the brand?

Our mission is to preserve traditional art and improve livelihoods, by connecting rural small scale artisans to markets. I was inspired to build Living Threads Co. after living and working in Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Honduras where I was doing international development work with several not for profit organizations with focuses on sustainable agriculture, health, and education. During this time, I personally became good friends with the women and families who now make up Living Threads Co. Living and working in country I was also able to see first hand the many challenges artisans in poor communities with little access to markets and resources faced — primarily access to markets, credit, training and support, and design. Together, we created Living Threads Co., a home décor brand that considers social and environmental impact as well as quality and design.

How did you become interested in craftwork and design — what experiences or individuals helped spark your interest in the industry?

The space I live in and the things I surround myself with have always been important to me; from one year of interior design school at the University of Cincinnati as a freshman in college to my mud hut in The Gambia as a Peace Corps volunteer, which I spent days re-decorating with new paint, a new mud floor, and wall hangings of traditional West African mud cloth textiles. Continued travel and time living and working abroad only encouraged my love for textiles and artisan craft as well as the people and culture behind it all. While traveling around Morocco and Senegal, I gradually collected enough textiles to open my own storefront (although our first storefront didn’t actually come until 2015). Working in Guatemala and Nicaragua I learned more about the tradition and technique of weaving and become more passionate about the preservation of the tradition and art form, as well as an understanding of the importance of the creative economy and artisan income around the world in some of the poorest and most remote communities.

Who is your sheHERO (a woman that inspires & encourages you)?

Danelia, the grandmother of the family cooperative I work with in Nicaragua is a constant source of inspiration. After living through the conflict in Nicaragua in the late 70’s, as well as the death of her son because of lack of access to medical care, Danelia has fought to give her children and grandchildren a better life than the one she has had. She is reminder that with passion, hard work, and team work you can accomplish great things that will have a lasting impact on the people around you. Because of her work, she has a grown a small family weaving cooperative to include members of her community and her daughter has gone on to law school. And in partnership with Living Threads Co. we have tripled the income of the men and women she works with in Nicaragua.

Who would you like to give gratitude to that has made everything you’ve accomplished so far possible?

Predictably, without a doubt, my family. The world of ‘start-up’ is a hustle. The world of social enterprise artisan start-up, even more so! I could not have done it without the support of my family — from helping formulate our first collection’s colors, to free storage space for inventory, sewing on Living Threads Co. tags, and a whole lot of set-up and break down at markets and shows. I would not have been able to do it all without them!

What exciting projects are you working on (with Living Threads Co.)?

I am very excited about our new global artisan exchange and travel program! This program provides special access and curated art and culture exchanges with our partner artisans both here in the US as well as abroad. Our artisans are hosted by partner organizations, where we coordinate weaving demonstrations, workshops, and discussions on a variety of topics. Additionally, we design custom products and collections, hand crafted especially for these partners and created by the visiting artisan. Lastly, we coordinate and manage unique travel experiences through private and customizable trips for our partners’ members and customers. This program is exciting because it allows our customers to work directly with our artisans, getting to know them personally, seeing their home, community and art in person while also proving amazing professional and personal opportunities for our artisans.

We are currently working with the National Museum of Women in the Arts who will be hosting one of our partner artisans from Guatemala at the museum in Washington DC at the end of this year! You can get updates on her travel and presentation dates on our website and through our news letter.

What are some ways you believe personal brands are influencing corporate industries (beauty, entertainment)?

I believe that by creating unique high quality products and connecting customers to the story and impact behind each product we are creating more informed and mindful consumers. I believe that it is these mindful consumers that are influencing corporations and larger companies — requiring them to be more thoughtful about how, where and with whom they produce. More accountability and transparency at each link in the market chain helps drive real change in the way we produce and consume.

Do you have any thoughts or opinions on the future of the design and home product industry, or the future of socially productive and eco-conscious businesses?

Story telling and being able to connect the consumer directly to the maker is an important part of the success of any product and brand. I believe that we need to ensure that our business models are sustainable and profitable for all involved — meaning customers understand the value of, and pricing, of each product they purchase. As a community we need to invest more in fewer yet higher quality and longer lasting things.

What sources have significantly inspired your work (place, person, experience, worldview…)?

Collaboration and partnerships with other like minded small businesses helps to both inspire and improve our work. We can all learn from one another — helping us to all grow our impact and long term sustainability. Being a part of the larger creative economy through organizations like the Aspen Institute’s Artisan Alliance encourage me to thinking at a larger scale, challenging my own personal assumptions and helping me to think outside the box.

What are some quick pieces of advice you would give to a young professional about starting their own brand?

You don’t need to know exactly what you are doing or how to do it before you start. Just start doing. If you are passionate about it and believe in the people and a product or service, you will figure it out as you go.

What are some quick pieces of advice you would give to someone looking to start a business that values social impact?

As in the world of development, good intentions are important, but not enough. Be thoughtful, informed, understand the context in which you are working, and empower those you are working with to play decision making roles in your business. Having your partners invested in what you are building together will only help to strengthen your company and its impact.

What are some important life philosophies or values you encourage others to consider?

Thinking about how your actions impact others. Take yourself outside of your comfort zone.

What advice would you give to your 22 year old self?

Listen more carefully. Ask more questions.

Biggest pet peeve?

$2 t-shirts. A sink full of dirty dishes and an empty dishwasher.

Favorite thing that makes you happy? (small or large, in general)

Mountains and trees. Running. Running in the mountains among trees.  Traveling to new places. Meeting new people.

What are some other goals you have for the future or new things you’d like to try? What steps are you taking so far to get there?

I am excited for us to expand our product line beyond textiles to include other traditional artisan crafts around the globe. We have begun new product designing with a carpentry cooperative in Guatemala and leather work in Colorado! Our mission to preserve traditional artisan crafts and improve livelihoods for small scale artisans includes artisans from communities abroad as well as communities here locally.

Travel Design Exchange! We are super excited for a bigger focus on the people to people exchange and learning that will happen through our Global Artisan Exchange Program. Connecting people, changing perspectives, sharing culture and blurring borders all while collaboratively designing uniquely inspired products.

Why do you think empowering women and giving back is important?

Women are innovative and resourceful. Around the world, women and girls carry the majority of the burden of poverty yet they do more with less. They have the power to make real change that will last.

Plus, it’s a good business model. Giving back to and investing in men and women means building your capacity and ability to provide more of a better service to our customers.

And, because, women get shit done.

ON THE GROUND IN GUATEMALA

Time working hand-in-hand with each of our artisans is an extremely important part of Living Threads Co.  From learning about each woman and man's creative inspiration, their family, the impact of your purchase on quality of life, and goals for the future of their craft - this time together strengthens our relationships, quality of our products and increases our impact. 

 Founder Amanda working with our partner artisan Lidía in her home on the shores of Lake Atitlán, Guatemala.   Product : KUS Napkins

Founder Amanda working with our partner artisan Lidía in her home on the shores of Lake Atitlán, Guatemala.  Product : KUS Napkins

Our personal relationships with each of our artisans is the foundation of our design process.  Together we design unique, high-quality products that are created using ancient traditional techniques, yet are modern one-of-a-kind pieces for your home.  Each product is thought through from raw fiber, to color and dye process, weaving techniques, and hand finished details.  

Design PROCESS AT A GLANCE

Exploration of artisans skills, strengths, and design interests
Consideration of traditional design and techniques inspiring product creation
Exploration of raw materials, natural color dyes, and sustainability of product materials
Collaboratively design new product based on customer feedback and behavior, as well as artisan skill and interest
Draft product detail sheet and then bring sample to life
Hands on training for our artisans on quality control and management of orders to facilitate cooperative growth and capacity building
Final adjustments to color, design and hand finishings
Additional artisans are trained in product creation and final products are handcrafted
Product is inspected, packaged and shipped to Living Threads Co. studio in the US where it is photographed and shared with you!
With each purchase we provide additional work and income to our artisans
 Founder Amanda works with artisans Amalia and Blanca on a new napkin design. Stay tuned!

Founder Amanda works with artisans Amalia and Blanca on a new napkin design. Stay tuned!

 Interviews and home visits with our artisans and their families build lasting relationships and help us better understand our impact.

Interviews and home visits with our artisans and their families build lasting relationships and help us better understand our impact.

 The design process is collaborative and starts with locally sourced raw materials from fiber to plant dyes.

The design process is collaborative and starts with locally sourced raw materials from fiber to plant dyes.

 Training and capacity building is a central part of our work with each cooperative. Here we work on processes for quality control and management of growing orders.

Training and capacity building is a central part of our work with each cooperative. Here we work on processes for quality control and management of growing orders.

The outcomes

Each product is designed to last through years of use, considering not only the environmental impact of the products creation but also of its lifespan.  Techniques chosen for the creation of each piece are important culturally, the creation process reserving the traditional crafts of the men and women we work with.  Each product tells a story of culture, environment and individual creativity.  Furthermore, each product is a source of great personal pride for the artisan. 

 Connecting with the women and families that inspire us each day and continue to make Living Threads Co. what it is today.  Sandra with her two daughters in Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala.

Connecting with the women and families that inspire us each day and continue to make Living Threads Co. what it is today.  Sandra with her two daughters in Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala.

 Color, lines, and texture abound on a walk through town. Find these bold designs reflected throughout our collection of table top linens. 

Color, lines, and texture abound on a walk through town. Find these bold designs reflected throughout our collection of table top linens. 

 The geography provides inspiration as well the raw materials we work into each design. 

The geography provides inspiration as well the raw materials we work into each design. 

 A walk around town provides inspiration for color and design. Antigua, Guatemala

A walk around town provides inspiration for color and design. Antigua, Guatemala

The Impact of Living Threads Co. & Buying Handmade

Part of Living Thread Co.'s mission is to not only connect all of our customers to beautifully handwoven products but also to enable our artisans to continue their passion of weaving. Each purchase you make of our handwoven products impacts small scale artisans - providing them access to raw materials, microcredit, income, and training.  More than this, with each purchase you are providing opportunity for personal creativity, purpose, pride and helping us to keep alive ancient artisan traditions.  We asked our artisans how working with Living Threads Co. has impacted them, as well as what the biggest change in their lives has been as a result of that partnership with Living Threads Co. 

Don't listen to us.

Take it from our partner ARTISANS.

 Photo by Luke Pekrul 

Photo by Luke Pekrul 

Huber Cabellero, nicaragua

"Our work with Living Threads Co, allows us to have improvements in our standard of living, our livelihood and work is based out of our homes, and we have gotten to meet many people. Many people have also gotten to know and enjoy our work and products.  LTCo. has helped us by providing loans to purchase raw materials."  

Lilliam Centeno, NIcaragua

"I discovered my capacity to create beautiful pieces, develop self-esteem, and improve my financial stability. LTCo. has helped increase orders, given us zero interest loans and we have sales in the U.S." 

Daniela zapata, nicaragua

"I now have a larger income and can purchase raw materials through the LTCo. microcredit program. Living Threads Co. has helped us to progress and maintain access to the market" 

francisca mendoza, guatemala

"I am a widow and I survive on what I earn through weaving.  Thanks to this project (Living Threads Co.) us women feel proud of the work we consistently have. It is hard for women to find work in Guatemala. Through weaving and our partnership with Living Threads Co. we can now buy a pair of shoes and we can think about ourselves. Thank you Amanda and the people who buy our products. Thank you also because with your support we are able to realize the dreams of many children. LTCo. allows me to have a security in what I do."  

 Photo by Luke Pekrul

Photo by Luke Pekrul

 Founder Amanda working with our artisans in Nicaragua on finishings.

Founder Amanda working with our artisans in Nicaragua on finishings.

The History of Weaving Told By Our Artisans

 Juana in San Juan La Laguna, Guatemala

The History of Weaving

In Guatemala and Nicaragua the art of weaving and using natural dyes has been passed down from generation to generation over thousands of years. In Guatemala, backstrap loom weaving, a loom made of sticks and string and then tied around the weavers waist on one end and up into the rafters on the other,  is a traditional Mayan art. This technique of weaving has been passed down from mother to daughter for generations and used to create beautiful hand woven and then hand embroidered fabrics used in the traditional dress of women and men.  In Nicaragua, artisans today are still working to revitalize the traditional art after the cultivation of cotton and practice of weaving was banned by the Somoza regime in the 1950's.  Today, artisans weave on large foot pedal looms, often built by hand using reclaimed wood.  

In both Guatemala and Nicaragua artisans face great challenges in their efforts to keep this art alive. Artisans lack access to year round stable markets, lack financial resources to invest in raw materials, and lack opportunities to learn and grow their business. Living Threads Co. was founded to address all of these challenges. 

What do Our Artisans Say

Recently, we asked some of our artisans about their personal and family history of weaving:

Huber NIC.jpg

 

 

 

“I am always learning something new, I learned how to weave in 2006 from my mother Danelia Zapata and I have been weaving for 11 years “  
                     
— Huber A. Cabellero Zapata

 

 

I learned how to weave 55 years ago by an instructor from El Salvador through a non-profit livelihood program. 
                       
— Daniela Zapata
 
Living Threads Co. partner Artisans
I learned  how to weave in 2004 from my teacher Daniela Zapata and I have been weaving for 14 years. 
                     
—  Lilliam Centeno
 
 
My grandmother taught me how to weave when I was 10 and I have been weaving since then. 
— Francisca Mendoza

What has Living Threads Co. been up to?

TRAVEL + ARTISANS + CULTURE + ART

Recently our team has been out and about traveling throughout Morocco and Cuba

First stop, Morocco.

After a not so restful overnight flight, I walked off the plane and into the busy Moroccan city of Casablanca with a group of National Geographic travelers.   I always love traveling with my Nat Geo groups because each person has chosen to be in this beautiful country to dive deep, get their hands dirty and learn as much as they can in a short time!

True to my nature, I was ready to get out of the big city and up into the mountains after the first day.  While exploring the coast, desert, forest, and High Atlas mountains of Morocco, I learned from artisans about the rich culture and ancient artisan traditions. Down dusty mountain roads and tucked inside mud brick homes on the hillside, I spied women artisans at work on their looms with brightly colored natural fibers.

Just as in Guatemala, textiles and artisan craft in Morocco are inspired by the natural resources available to people and are representative of culture, tradition, and environment. Local plants and vegetables are used to naturally dye a variety of natural fiber: cactus silk, sheep wool, camel wool and more.  Despite a small obsession over textiles, we were happily distracted by amazingly intricate ceramic art and mosaics, horribly smelly tanneries, shiny copper and, of course, the knotted and kilim carpets. Morocco is a paradise of artisan techniques and traditions, of textures, colors, and designs. I see something new on each trip. 

 Living Threads Co. founder Amanda Zehner in the High Atlas, Morocco.

Living Threads Co. founder Amanda Zehner in the High Atlas, Morocco.

metal door in Morocco.jpg

Next stop, Cuba.

In Cuba we were inspired by the music, art and dance.  With a unique glimpse into a country and its people, my visit felt like a walk back in time. From drumming to jazz, Buena Vista Social Club to oil paints, mosaics, politics and health care, a complicated history has contributed to innovation, creativity and personal expression that is visible around every corner in Cuba today.   

Cubaartisan with oil work .JPG

Through our travels, we are continuously learning from and inspired by the people and places we are privileged to visit. The culture and art of each new place contribute to our uniquely inspired products and reinforoce the importance of our mission at Living Threads Co. to preserve artisan traditions and improve livelihoods.

Stay tuned...    

Our new summer collection is being photographed and will be up on our website soon!

This week, our collaborative designs with our partner artisans in Guatemala and Nicaragua are coming to life for our fall and winter collections!  

We are excited to announce that we will be back at NY Now this August building relationships with partner retailers and looking for new ways to grow our impact on small scale artisans around the globe!  

 Founder Amanda with partner artisans in Nicaragua working on new designs and finishing techniques. 

Founder Amanda with partner artisans in Nicaragua working on new designs and finishing techniques. 

The Art of Weaving

The Art of Weaving

Weaving is an amazing craft which utilizes beautiful wooden tools: looms, shuttles, frames and more.  These tools are works of art in and of themselves, and even more incredible is the fact that they have been around since the same time our ancestors were developing stone tools- around 10,200 BC. Not only is weaving a traditional art but it is also a sustainable method of production both for our environment, communities and culture.

Living Threads Co. impact in Nicaragua

Living Threads Co. impact in Nicaragua

WHAT IS LIVING THREADS CO.'S IMPACT IN NICARAGUA? 

Roughly 3,500 miles away resides the members of a seemingly invisible group of talented artisans. Their craft is a tradition, an art, and an income.  It inspires pride, creates livelihoods, improves quality of life, and much more to all members of our growing partner cooperative in Nicaragua.

What is your impact on the lives of our artisans in Nicaragua when you shop handmade with Living Threads Co.?  Learn more about the economic and social impacts of your purchases. 

A New Member of the Alliance for Artisan Enterprise

A New Member of the Alliance for Artisan Enterprise

From Guatemala and Nicaragua to Nepal and India, our artisans’ work to create beautiful and sustainable goods that spark creativity and help build and maintain a positive livelihood. Aligning seamlessly with our goals, we are now thrilled to announce our membership with The Alliance for Artisan Enterprise!

Custom Designing with Living Threads Co.

Custom Designing with Living Threads Co.

YOU be a designer. 

Work with Living Threads Co. to create your own customized product!  

Are you looking for personalized gifts for your bridal party?  Or are you in need of the perfect shawl for your late summer or fall wedding?  Do you have a hardcore sports fan in your family or friend group?  Are you searching for the perfect gift for a potential Little Sister or Little Brother in advance of fall sorority and fraternity recruitment?  Look no further.

Supporting Nepalese Woman - Post 2015 Earthquake

Supporting Nepalese Woman - Post 2015 Earthquake

It has been nearly a year since the devastating earthquake of April 2015 rippled through Nepal.  Not only did buildings crumble but livelihoods have suffered ever since due to a decrease in tourism throughout the country. Check out our Blog and learn more about the work Living Threads Co. is doing to help connect artisans to markets and provide you with beautiful new artisan textiles.