Walking into Ten Thousand Villages in downtown Asheville is a journey into the international world of handmade, fair-trade products from pottery and jewelry to clothing, toys and food items.

Along one wall of the shop are large woven baskets, hampers made with recycled saris and a whimsical collection of vicuna-covered llama figures handcrafted in Peru. Scarves, knitted hats and unique items such as planters with cat heads are also on display for regular customers and occasional shoppers.

“We have locals who come in for coffee and chocolate during the holiday season,” said Jennifer Elliott, Ten Thousand Villages manager. “It feels like a reunion.”

Also popular at this time of year are the Christmas tree ornaments and nativity sets, she added.

The multitude of items filling the shop are created by artisans in 25 countries who were selected to be a part of the non-profit franchise launched many years ago to help impoverished people.

“The idea is to alleviate poverty through job creation … to employ people who otherwise would not get that chance,” Elliott said.

The craftspeople chosen to make goods for the shops are vetted through an extensive process. And most of the artisans who are a part of Ten Thousand Villages have a 20-year relationship with the organization, Elliott said.

“We’re making a long-term commitment,” she said.

With this mutual stability, artisans can count on income and plan on how to use it for projects such as home improvements, or the education of their children.

While many of the artisans working with Ten Thousand Villages live in Southeast Asia, Africa and South America, some are in this country, Elliott said. The Women’s Bean Project in Colorado makes soup and cookie mixes and Thistle Farms in Tennessee makes candles, lotions and essential oils sold at the Asheville shop.

“To be able to buy products and support these women is exciting,” Elliott said.

In the years since the Asheville shop opened, both the space and its offerings have expanded and now include fair-trade clothing lines.

Another feature of Ten Thousand Villages is the mix of volunteers and paid sales staff who work at the shop.

“I started as a volunteer, and I just loved it when I found out the mission of the organization,” said Elliott.

Assistant manager Julie Johnston also began working at Ten Thousand Villages before being hired as a staff member.

One aspect of the organization that Johnston especially appreciates is the effort to preserve native craft-making such as glassblowing and the use of silk stone.

A charitable beginning

The founder of Ten Thousand Villages, Edna Ruth Byler of Pennsylvania, became intrigued with hand made crafts in the 1940s while traveling with her husband in Puerto Rico where she met women living in poverty who were struggling to feed their children.

She saw the pieces of fine needlework the Puerto Rican women created, but had no place to sell. Byler brought some of this handcrafted work home and began selling it to friends and neighbors.

By the 1950s, Byler was taking global needlework to women’s sewing circles and parties and sharing stories of the makers. She explained how purchases of these goods helped women gain economic independence and give their families a brighter future, according to an historical account of the genesis of Ten Thousand Villages.

An aid and relief agency within Byler’s church, the Mennonite Central Committee, recognized the long-term value that sustainable income opportunities would bring to impoverished villages such as the one on Puerto Rico and began supporting her efforts.

The Mennonite Central Committee remains a partner in the present franchise that operates shops throughout this country and in Canada.

Ten Thousand Villages, at 10 College St., is open Monday through Thursday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, call 828-254-8374 or visit the website at www.tenthousandvillages.com.

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