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Fair Trade Silk Bags
Martha Evatt - Bags of Character

The Beginning
I’m interested in where things come from. I’m completely fascinated by the way things are constructed and who made them and it’s this fascination that has led to the birth of Martha Evatt.

After graduating from university with a degree from the only Embroidery course in the country and the slightly disillusioned period that followed, working on a shop floor in Manchester, I applied - following advice from a friend in the pub - for a job teaching English in Japan. I wanted to travel and Japan sounded so far-flung and unknown, I decided that here was an opportunity not to be missed. In fact, it turned out to be the most incredible and eye-opening year I had ever had and was the start of a love of travelling and anything foreign.

After returning from Japan and a three month stint in Asia, I went to work for a high street shoe supplier, with the vague idea that I wanted to be a buyer. It was great experience and as the only assistant to the boss of a small company, I got to see what it really took to run a business and how everything about the operation worked firsthand. The best part was that my boss was tired of travelling out to the factory in Sri Lanka to check the shoes we were buying there, so he sent me instead. A big responsibility, but I loved every moment of it. I became good friends with the guy who managed our account in the factory and eventually we started talking about doing our own thing, but it would all be about working with small producers, not big, mass-production manufacturers.

Walking around the factory, I was able to put faces and names and labour to the goods that were coming off the production line and even if the buyers I knew were only interested in profit margins, I was seeing real people, putting real sweat, into making their goods and trying to make a living for their families. I began to think about what I could do to help them and so, after a lot of thought and wondering, I left my shoe job and set out on a mission to source and deliver a fantastic range of fairly traded handbags. I’m an accessories lover, so bags, without the challenges of fit and sizing, seemed the obvious choice. I also had a question to answer – “Is it possible to source a fantastic product and provide a livelihood in places that really need it at the same time?”.

Martha Slipp and Friends in India
The middle
We decided from the start that we would only work with suppliers who were certified Fair Trade and research soon concluded that there were quite a few in India, which was not such a culture leap away from the Sri Lanka I already knew.

We took the trip there and met Johny, who took us on a tour of the women’s self-employment centre that he manages in the slums outside Bombay. They train women in health and community care, sewing and educate them so that they can find ways of sustaining themselves. I knew that making a few bags was not going to solve the massive problem of slum-dwellers in India, but I was horrified by the reality of people living in true poverty and just felt compelled to start to do something about it. Johny’s set-up was great, they were making some really good stuff and over a period of weeks we got samples into work and began importing some bags.

I can’t say where exactly the ideas for the bags come from…. A combination of drawing, collections of fabrics and inspiration from designer goods that I could never afford, I think. There are new designs and developments forming all the time. Inspiration can come from anywhere. Samples are usually created by me here in England and then sent out to the suppliers to be copied and perfected. It can be a struggle to make something high quality, handcrafted, individual and yet, commercial and then deliver it on time. This is aside from the confusions of import and export and the usual headaches of cash flow and juggling various second jobs that all small businesses seem to face! But we now have ongoing relationships with three suppliers in India who are developing ranges for us. All of them work with people in the slums, some are a small part of much bigger charities. The main challenge for us now is to get more work for them by getting the bags out to the widest audience possible.

Bag made from reclaimed Vintage Japanese Kimono
The future
The highlights of our journey so far are all about the people we’ve met and the products we’re making. Slowly our range is growing, along with our stockists and a number of opportunities to help other designers work fair trade too. The Martha Evatt website is set to launch in a few weeks, as well as opportunities coming up to exhibit and sell in Europe.

We’ve also created a collection of handmade purses from vintage kimono silks, inspired by that first year in Japan. The fabrics are mostly sourced from a flea market near Hiroshima which makes them second-hand and recycled. Working this way is another reaction to trying to celebrate where things have come from and show what it takes to construct something beautiful and individual that takes time and care to make. In the near future, we hope that these Japanese bags will all be stitched “fair trade” in India too.

More recently we’ve found an organic cotton supplier and would like to bring this into the bags and start helping the environment as well. There’s so much to do! Above all though, the greatest pleasure comes from trying to make delightful things and sharing the satisfaction of making them with people all over the world, whoever they may be.

Click here to view Martha Evatt fairly traded and Japanese vintage kimono Bags
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