Out & About: Making a fair trade

If the thought of overcrowded malls and mass-produced merchandise makes holiday shopping a chore you’re already starting to dread, fear not. There are other options—and some are right here on campus.

Hoping to stave off my own holiday heeby jeebies, I took a recent lunchtime stroll to Penn Museum to scout out the offerings in its stores. This year, Museum Shop Manager Susan West has collaborated with several fair trade cooperatives that work with rural communities in South America, Africa, Afghanistan and India to offer handicrafts you can feel good about buying, since money from their sale actually makes it back to the artisans and communities that made them.

To give customers a better sense of what they’re supporting, West has invited several of the cooperative leaders to visit the Museum in December to talk about their products and the programs they run.

Knitted critters

One of these programs helps the Kenana Knitters from the farmlands of Kenya. Made up of rural women who use their knitting skills to support their families, the group gathers daily to knit “Critters”—scarves, mittens, hats and puppets fashioned to look like zebras, lions, tigers and other majestic dwellers of the African plains. Made from homespun yarn dyed with extracts from the roots, flowers and leaves of local plants, the Critters are part clothing, part stuffed animal and wholly charming.

The teens and tweens on your list may appreciate a gift of Zulugrass made by the Maasai women of the Great Rift Valley. To provide work opportunities for the women while their men are herding cattle hundreds of miles away in he drought-devastated pasture lands of Kenya and Tanzania, Philip and Katy Leakey, who live among the Maasai in the Kenyan bush, came up with a creative idea that utilizes the women’s beading skills.

The Maasai women harvest grass, a sustainable resource, which they then dry, dye in different vibrant shades and cut into bead-size pieces. Brilliantly colored Czech glass beads are added for a more contemporary look, and the jewelry is sold as single 27-inch strands, which can be worn as necklaces, bracelets or chokers.


Ruby Ewe helps South African women supplement their living as domestic workers with creative hand-piece work. This season, the Museum shop is stocking one of the more unusual product lines, featuring recycled—that’s right, used—tea bags. If that sounds weird, the results, surprisingly, are not.

Once the women have dried the bags in the sun, emptied out the leaves and decorated them with hand-painted designs you’d never know their humble origins; fragile handmade paper comes to mind more readily than Tetley’s or Lipton’s. Sandwiched between glass and bound by brass, they turn into distinctive coasters and Christmas ornaments, as well as good conversation starters. The tea bags also adorn candles and spiral-bound journals, as well as greeting cards and tea light holders.

Fair trade

Fair trade cooperatives play a vital role in bringing these products to a wider market, says West. Using what’s available locally, they help artisans come up with products that will sell outside their native country. That involves a careful balancing act, she says, that celebrates indigenous creative expression while appealing to a larger audience.

Many of the gifts West has selected this season succeed on both counts and remind us—our big-box store culture notwithstanding—that thankfully we don’t yet live in a completely homogenized world.

On Dec. 3 from 10 am to 4:30 p.m. Penn Museum holds its annual Penn Community Spectacular Holiday Shopping and Celebration, where those with a Penn, HUP or CHOP ID get a 15% discount in all three Museum shops. Discounted holiday shopping continues Dec. 4 and 5 (10% non-members, 20% members), with a visit by cooperative leaders on Sat. Dec. 4 at 2 p.m. For more information, call 215-898-4040.

Originally published on November 18, 2004