By Founding Member Deborah Chandler
Deborah Chandler: After my time in the Peace Corps/Honduras, I was working at Pueblo to People in Houston, one of the biggest US fair trade organizations in 1990. We worked with artisans in maybe ten Latin American countries, a lot with textiles – my field. In the course of my work I was constantly hearing from other people doing the same work – with textile makers in struggling communities, all seeking to help those communities and artisan groups somehow. Every letter or phone call I got was a tease, and I wanted more time to get to know these people and what they were doing. I had met Linda Temple at the first SpinOff Autumn Retreat (SOAR) in 1983, and she was one of those I wanted more contact with.
Linda Temple: When Benedictine Sister Leona Lueke gave a presentation at my local weaving guild in 1985, I had no idea how much the direction of my life would change. She spoke of the widows in the on-going civil war in Guatemala and how they were trying to support themselves and their children with their weaving. Another guild member and I decided we wanted to help them. Individual guild members donated over $200 so we could purchase textiles to re-sell. For several years, we bought textiles from Santa Apolonia, Guatemala, and sold them any way we could—church events, coffee houses, house parties, etc. All of the proceeds were used to purchase more textiles. When I received a letter from my friend Deborah Chandler in March of 1992 asking “How can we do what we’re doing better?” the timing was perfect. We wanted to do what we were doing better. And, primarily through WARP networking opportunities, our little house parties have turned into a volunteer-staffed, seasonal brick-and-mortar Fair Trade Market in Oklahoma City, that provides a quarter of the budget for a rural, northern Ghanaian school that was started by a friend.
Beth Davis: “You should meet Deborah Chandler!” I heard those words repeatedly while preparing to travel to Nicaragua to work with a weaving cooperative. The director of the Sister City Project sponsoring me had recently met Deborah and was struck by the similarity of our experience with textiles and our desire to use our textile skills to help empower communities-in-need. Indeed, the first time I spoke with Deborah I immediately felt like I was talking to an old friend. Before our conversation ended, we were both in agreement: There must be other folks out there like us. We should have a meeting! A few months later I found myself on a mountaintop in Colorado with the first group of truly like-minded weavers I’d ever happened upon. Here were six other people who genuinely spoke my language! In a dreamlike setting of high altitude landscapes complete with sage brush, double rainbows, hummingbirds, and bats, we shared tales of our textile adventures in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Haiti, and India and started to dream up ideas for an organization of textile folks like us. I laugh now when I think about my first vision for our organization. I imagined there were perhaps five or maybe ten other weavers who might share our interests, and we’d converge on the same mountaintop once every year to catch up with one another. I’m sure that would have been enjoyable, but fortunately my co-founders had a much broader scope in their visions of what WARP could aspire to.
These are just a few of the opening stories from WARP. We sent invitational queries to everyone we could think of, and the first place that the most could gather was at Convergence ’92 in Washington, DC. From that coffee shop/hotel room conversation it was decided that an ongoing group should be created, so we responded by having another meeting at Elizabeth Harvat’s mountain ranch cabin in Colorado the same summer. In those two meetings we had a total of 13 people, 3 of whom made it to both meetings. The next summer we had another meeting at Elizabeth’s cabin with 13 people, 7 of them new. By 1993 we had a mailing list – this is real mail, the kind on paper – of 52, and $186 in the bank. 1994 brought our first meeting further away, at Stonehaven Ranch in San Marcos, Texas. In 1995 WARP was incorporated in the state of Oklahoma*, and in 1996 we received IRS 501(c)(3) non-profit status. (*We incorporated in Oklahoma because Linda Temple lives there and she did the work.) Now, 2022, our membership is over 500 in 15 countries, and our mailing list – now electronic – has over 1500 people on it.
When WARP was born the idea was to share stories of interest, our own or those we came across, to provide both moral support and useful information about how we were working. Members were involved in countries on all continents, in projects large and small, formal and informal. We were not any of the big guys, just women representing a lot of grassroots efforts, and just listening to each other fed our souls – as it still does. The Annual Meeting was (and still is) the jewel of WARP’s crown, and since then our 30 Annual Meetings, with attendance passing 100 people at times, have been in 16 states, the District of Columbia, Guatemala, and Mexico. Our first virtual meeting last year had 250 attendees from 15 countries around the world. (And while we are still mostly women, we do have a respectable male presence in WARP also.)
Long before the internet put the whole world at everyone’s fingertips, our two primary means of communication between meetings were the quarterly newsletter – which has never missed a beat in all these years – and the on-paper forerunner to Google Groups, Fred’s Threads, a round robin letter that was written by one person, then sent to another member who added their thoughts and mailed the letter on, and so on, each remailing getting longer as it traveled throughout the membership. We attempted various projects from time to time, but came to the realization that we did not have the resources to carry them out. What WARP could do was be a networking organization, a way to put people in touch with each other, to learn from each other.
So, thanks to the sharing of information, members have been able to both give and receive remarkable help. Some of the many examples: Wendy Weiss, a weaver and art professor, went to India to help design textiles. Philis Alvic and Hope Thomas went to Nepal to work with artisans on marketing skills, and later Philis worked with artisans in Armenia, which led to her writing Crafts of Armenia in an effort to promote their work. Linda Ligon and Thrums Books, and photographer Joe Coca, went with WARP members to Laos, Morocco, Afghanistan*, China, and other countries to document textile traditions. (*Joe did not get to go to Afghanistan. A gender thing.) Kelsey Wiskirchen and Katie Simmons went to Bolivia to volunteer with PAZA, a group of weavers and teens in Independencia supported by Dorinda Dutcher. Jackie Abrams went to Ghana, Costa Rica, and Guatemala to teach basketry. Hedy Hollyfield and two friends co-founded Ayni, Inc., a project in the Ayacucho region of Peru that aims to preserve cultural patrimony and promote social welfare in Andean communities. Babbie Cameron spent six years working with refugee women from Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia in the aftermath of the Balkan wars of the 1990’s; Rainbow Socks, the outgrowth of tons of American yarn donations, were sold (and bought) by WARP members all over the USA. Donna Brown, Catherine Ellis, Diane de Souza, and Rocio Mena taught natural dyeing in Guatemala; Rocio lived in the community of San Rafael, Rabinal, with the dyers for two months to hone their skills and develop a yarn kit for US weavers. Mary Joan Ferrara-Marsland became the US distributor for both UPAVIM and Mayan Hands, two strong women-run fair trade organizations in Guatemala; Debbie Durham was one of their customers when she ran a fair trade store in North Carolina. These and hundreds more are the stories of people weaving a real peace, and while they are not included here, many have been the cases where artisans from other countries came to the US to teach or exhibit. The reaching out goes both ways.
The spider web of WARP networking is vast and complex, like a plate of spaghetti, or better, the roots of many trees growing around and through each other, touching at many points, nurturing each other’s growth, helping each one to reach skyward. The membership is made up of people working in the field, academics writing about textile cultures past, present, and future, textile artists who appreciate the benefits of textiles on every level, from material to spiritual, professionals and amateurs, makers and appreciators, travelers and dreamers, people starting out and people winding down. (As of this moment our youngest members are in their early 20s and our oldest member just celebrated her 100th birthday! Go Dale!) Definitely not all weavers, textile arts includes basketry, rug hooking, crochet, knitting, sewing, quilting, felting, and just about anything else you can think of that involves fiber of any kind.
Cameron Taylor-Brown, a WARP member from Los Angeles, talks about one of her Aha! moments, when she got it why textiles are so important. She had learned about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, how our survival and happiness are dependent on the fulfilling of these five categories of need. She said she went over the list thinking about textiles, and realized that textiles are an integral part of every one of those categories. They infuse our lives, and those of everyone on the planet. Only food comes first, and in most of the world that is transported in textiles of some kind.
WARP has taken tiny and huge steps along the way, but nothing has come close to having the impact that the Pandemic and Zoom have had. As we have always envisioned, WARP is now reaching a much wider international audience, and therefore also serving one. We give scholarships and assistantships to people who want to come to the Annual Meeting but could not afford it without that help. We have an online Artisan Textile Resource Guide that showcases member projects who have beautiful textiles and experiences for sale. This past year WARP gave twelve Covid Emergency Grants to struggling artisan groups in seven countries on four continents; it was so successful that we have decided to continue giving small grants, a tangible way we can help in a dire time. In the realm of greater communication, more opportunities to hear each other speak, we have monthly programming in English and Spanish, a Business Networking Group for fair traders to share the joys and agonies of working to support artisan groups around the world. Online, both members and non-members can find the newsletter, a blog, and a social media presence, and more options are being offered all the time.
It is truly amazing to think that WARP is 30 years old – an entire generation! Most impressive to me is that the very fact of that suggests that WARP could be here in another 30 years. The world needs us, needs anyone working toward peace on any level. So the question is, “What are we going to do to make things better in those next 30 years?” This is the story of WARP’s past. What will be the story of its future?