Travelers often go to the ends of the earth to bring home colorful indigenous crafts to add distinctive notes to their homes.
Except for missing out on the adventure of travel itself, armchair travelers can buy some of the same unusual objects.
Crafts from faraway places can be found in home furnishings specialty stores, crafts galleries and, increasingly, via the Internet through dot-com companies and nonprofit groups.
For example, the wares of Bangladeshi artisans were displayed to retailers shopping the New York International Gift Fair in January. They are being offered through a joint venture between an American company, One Nest.com, Inc. (http://www.onenest.com) and the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee and include textiles, baskets, woodworking items and clothing.
"People of Bangladesh can sell more products and use the income to educate their children, live in better conditions, and gain respect among their peers," said Durreen Shahnaz, a Bangladesh native and CEO of One Nest. In return, Americans have access to interesting decorative objects.
One Nest is one of a number of Web sites now putting artisans from the developing world and American retailers together for mutual benefit. Another example is http://www.viatru.com.
There are also Web sites for consumers, such as http://www.novica.com, with a database of approximately 8,500 items made by 1,700 artisans and artists from around the world. Customers order directly from the maker.
Logging onto http://www.peoplink.org results in access to large database of products, countries and prices. In January, there was even a sale section with serving spoons from Africa, baskets and birdhouses from the Philippines and musical instruments from various countries.
"While many craftspeople in underdeveloped parts of the world have no electricity, those that do have access to computers and cameras to present their objects, as well as the marketing know-how to take advantage of them, and can find it helpful to sell on the Internet," says Paola Gianturco of Mill Valley, Calif.
Gianturco, co-author of "In Her Hands: Craftswomen Changing the World" (Monachelli Press, $60, hardcover), recently completed a five-year project in which she saw firsthand how making craft objects is helping sometimes desperately poor women raise their families' standard of living.
She became intrigued with the subject in 1995 and decided to take a sabbatical from her corporate consulting business to photograph and write about the phenomenon. She invited a former colleague, Toby Tuttle of Evergreen, Colo., to join the adventure.
Before each of six trips, the women lined up interpreters knowledgeable about crafts who spoke English as well as the native language.
Their book showcases the crafts and lives of some 90 women in 12 countries in Latin America, Eastern Europe, Africa, and Asia. Altogether 18 different crafts are represented, including rugs from Turkey; textiles such as applique panels, woven fabrics and knitted doll purses; pottery from Latin America; flower painted panels from Poland; straw baskets and mats from Africa; and batik work from Indonesia.
There is a great variety in both the crafts themselves and the methods for marketing them. "Some of the handicrafts are exquisite and elegant and some are funky, some expensive and others inexpensive, some for sale locally and others internationally," Gianturco said.
But while there are many variables, what doesn't change is that the profits are largely spent on education and better nutrition. Typically, about a quarter of the purchase price paid in the United States in a store or by purchasing online will go to the artisan.
Not all the customers for crafts are foreigners.
"In Bali, women used to spend as much as a third of their day creating elaborate religious offerings of arrangements of fruit and flowers," Gianturco said. "Now many of them are working outside the home and this has created a career opportunity for some women to make the offerings and sell them to other women."
An exhibition of photographs from "In Her Hands" was scheduled May 18 through Jan. 2, 2002, at the Field Museum, 1400 S. Lake Shore Drive, Chicago.
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