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AN INTERVIEW WITH SALLY STRASSER

Taleo Handmade founder Sally Strasser has spent a lifetime learning about textiles. In this conversation with THE KINDCRAFT’s Justin Lancy, she talks about her background, the origins of her brand, and the lengths to which she’s gone to source the rare, unique fabrics she uses in her designs.


Tell me about your project.

Taleo Handmade designs sustainably-crafted bags and homewares. Our products are co-created with women artisans in Southeast Asia and directly support the continuation of their traditional textile heritage.

Tell me about your background.

I grew up in a small town in the Midwest. Most of my childhood friends had Mennonite farm roots, while my family originally came from Bergen County, New Jersey, the suburbs of New York City.  I always felt like an outsider in this small town, but I now realize I was deeply influenced by my Mennonite friends. Their beliefs emphasize service to others, they have enduring traditions of making and self sufficiency, and they  have a strong commitment to community. 

Quilting and sewing, as well as gardening and canning, were part of the everyday rhythm of Mennonite family life. In elementary school, many of my friends wore clothes made by their mothers. We shopped for clothing in my family, so I was fascinated by the creativity and resourcefulness I saw in my friends’ mothers who could transform stacks of cotton poplin into dresses, and eyelet into blouses, often without even consulting patterns.

It sounds like their culture made a deep impression on you.

Yes, I think it did.  The Mennonites are credited with starting the Fair Trade movement in the 1940s, bringing handicrafts back from their international service postings (and creating a business model that would eventually grow into the Fair Trade stores, Ten Thousand Villages.)  In early high school, I remember seeing handmade pottery and baskets from Africa and Central America spread out on tables at the local Farmer’s Market. I also remember meeting recently resettled Lao Hmong refugees who were selling story cloths and kitchen linens like pot holders and place mats showcasing their traditional piecework and embroidery skills.  The baskets, textiles, and pottery were beautiful, and I was moved by the Mennonites’ mission to support makers from all over the world. This was around the same time that I was learning how to make things in Home Economics class: How to use a simple sewing machine, put in a zipper, make gathers using a basting stitch — lessons which stayed with me far longer than geometry or chemistry.  I still have the wrist pin cushion we made using fabric we were expected to bring from home. Mine featured brown wide wale corduroy (this was the mid 70’s!), a scrap from my sister’s worn out winter coat. 

So by the end of high school, textiles fascinated you?

Yes, but I went to a liberal arts college, so art history was as close as I could get to studying textiles. I was interested in all the decorative arts: furniture, pottery, textiles, metals, etc.   People were just starting to think of quilts as uniquely American folk art and so, to make some extra money, I’d go home to rural Indiana on weekends to buy antique quilts and, through my sister, sell them to folk art and antiques dealers she knew on the East Coast. 

By the time I entered grad school in American Studies at William and Mary, I thought I wanted to go into academia or become a textile curator. After a year, though, I knew that was not the career for me.  I couldn’t imagine being sequestered in a windowless climate controlled room, wearing gloves and analyzing the glaze on an 18th century whole cloth chintz bed covering. Though I saw and worked with extraordinary textiles and learned so much about techniques, materials and their historical context, I could never have spent my working life in the department of collections at a museum.. I felt like these treasures and the stories of the women who made them deserved appreciation by a larger, more mainstream audience outside the rarefied world of museums and academia.  I also wanted to see these extraordinary designs given a new life through reproduction and re-interpretation. 

How did you see that working?

It was around that time that I got married and moved to Chicago. I was trying to figure out how to build a career in textiles outside of academia and museums and ended up working for a fabric company at the Merchandise Mart, selling to interior designers. If you’d asked me what my dream was then, I’d have said it would be to work for one of the big fabric companies like Brunschwig & Fils who reproduce historic textiles. At the Merchandise Mart I worked with professional salespeople who knew how to gather fabric selections for designers, but knowing the difference between a printed or woven jacquard was not important as long as the colors were coordinated. I didn’t see a future in selling to designers, so I ended up taking a job in advertising for a chain of suburban newspapers before taking time off to have my children.  

I kept my hand in textiles, though, working with seamstresses back in Indiana who sewed pillows I’d designed using repurposed vintage textiles.  I sold them to shops in the North Shore Chicago suburbs. But that was really just kind of a hobby, a creative outlet and diversion when I was home all day with two babies.

You also worked as a teacher, right?

Yes, I was a stay-at-home parent until my kids were in middle school. Our son, the younger of our two children, had some learning differences. I felt frustrated because I felt like he wasn’t getting what he needed in school, but I didn’t know exactly what was missing. I went back to school to get my teaching degree so that I could understand what might help him succeed in school. I didn’t know if I would actually work as a teacher, but I ended up teaching middle school social studies for five years — which I absolutely loved. I taught ancient civilizations, basically through the lens of art history. Having a liberal arts background, I could take the textbook and kind of reorient it in a way that I thought would make it more fun and interesting for my sixth graders. We did lots of art projects to understand how civilizations grew up around fertile river valleys and we did a whole unit on what the objects found with Otzi the Iceman can teach us about people who lived before written records. Otzi was a maker extraordinaire!  

What brought you back to textiles?

My daughter graduated from college in 2011 and moved to China. She was living in Hangzhou, teaching English through Princeton in Asia. She had a month off for Chinese New Year, so we visited her and traveled to Shanghai, Beijing, and Xi’an. My husband and son had to come back to the USA after two weeks for work, but I planned to stay for the rest of her holiday break and take a mother-daughter trip somewhere in Asia. We’d each researched where we wanted to go and, when we compared notes, discovered we both came up with Laos, the least developed country in Southeast Asia. 

We flew from Shanghai to Kunming, where the ticket sellers at the bus station were using abacuses, and took the overnight sleeper bus to an outpost near the Lao border.   After crossing into Laos, we were met by our tour guide in Luang Namtha. We spent over two weeks meandering through the countryside. It was such an overwhelming experience for me to walk into remote Lao villages and see women spinning, dyeing and weaving, activities that I thought of as historic textile techniques that were only brought to life at places like Colonial WIlliamsburg.  It was if all that I had studied was right in front of me, living and breathing in full natural colors! I was amazed that this was still a way of life in rural Laos. It also took me back to my own roots: my friends’ mothers making their clothes, the fair trade handicrafts, my interest in historic textiles and techniques — it was like it had all come together in the most unexpected place. 

So is that when you started Taleo Handmade?

No, I wasn’t looking to start a business. I wasn’t even thinking about that — but I wanted to support the women we met. So I bought things, just for myself or to give away. I came home and told everybody who would listen about how amazing Laos was. 

After that trip, my daughter received a Princeton in Asia project grant which allowed her to move to Laos and install gardens at rural schools to try to alleviate malnutrition. Her living there gave me a chance to visit some of the villages again. Still, I wasn’t thinking about a business at all. I was going as a textile fan and thinking “What can I do to support these women and help these traditions survive the deluge of cheap manufactured goods from China?“

What was it about these women that resonated with you?

I really wanted to support what they were doing because I knew the techniques weren’t going to survive unless they were paid a fair wage for their work. Their daughters would not be motivated to learn the traditional skills if they thought they could make more money doing something else.  These women have extraordinary talents: I thought, if they could sell more and make a steady and fair income, maybe their lives would be better and they would get the recognition they deserve as caretakers of their heritage. And if their daughters saw that their mothers were making a good living, maybe the traditions would survive for another generation. It was a pretty simple idea.

I was thinking along those lines. I wanted to learn more about Laos and how to support women and their handicrafts traditions there; I wanted to make a bigger impact, do more than just buy a few textiles for myself and some friends. So, I went to an international conference sponsored by an organization called the Center for Lao Studies, volunteered for Lao artisans at the International Folk Art Market in Santa Fe, New Mexico and also connected with the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Center in Luang Prabang, Laos to learn about the work they do in these communities.

I wasn’t looking for it but, at some point, I realized that this was bringing together everything that I’ve always been interested in: People making things for their families, historic textiles, and fair trade. 

* * *

THE BEGINNINGS OF TALEO HANDMADE

So how did that develop into Taleo Handmade?

When we were still living in New Jersey, I volunteered in the Princeton in Asia office. They have partner organizations all over Asia, one of which is Vientiane College, an English language school in Vientiane, Laos. They had contacted Princeton in Asia and said “We’re short a teacher next term. Do you know anyone who could come on short notice?“ The people in the office knew I was a certified teacher and that I loved Laos: When they offered me the job I told my husband,  “I have to do this. I just have to.“  So I went, learned to ride a motorbike, and spent every spare minute I had trying to get back out to the villages, to learn about and explore Laos’s textile traditions. I still wasn’t thinking about it as a business. I just wanted to learn more and figure out a way to be supportive. 

When did you start to think about it as a business?

Right after I went to Laos, so 2013-14, I took a long weekend and went to Chiang Mai, Thailand.  I went to the Hmong market there, hoping to learn more about their fabrics. As I walked from stall to stall, I noticed there was a guy who was constantly looking at the same pieces I was... there’d be a giant pile of fabric and we’d both zero in on the same thing. 

We finally got to talking and he said that he bought textiles and sold them to designers in L.A.. And I thought “Well, I live close to New York. Maybe I could do that...”

Sort of a continuation of what you did with the quilts in college? 

Right… but, this time, they weren’t antiques, so I wanted to buy them directly from the weavers.  I thought “Maybe what I’ll do is find really fabulous fabrics and get them to designers in New York, who’ll then order enough fabric to guarantee a steady income to the weavers.” These women would see that people value their work and it would show the next generation that this is a sustainable way to make a living and that they could help these traditions survive. That was my eureka moment.

What happened next?

I brought a pile of beautiful handmade fabrics back to the US and took them to some New York artisan and flea markets. I would get a few people - mostly FIT students or people working in fashion design — who would see the materials and be like “Oh my gosh—look at this!” and want to buy six inches to do a cuff on something they were making. 

But I wasn’t connecting with interior designers or people who wanted to buy any real quantities, so I thought maybe I should make a few things with the fabrics to sell, hoping to inspire other makers with the design potential literally woven into the traditional textiles.  I worked with a couple of seamstresses in Laos and Vietnam to create my designs, and I took them to markets in New York and Boston. I’d do one and then meet artisans who’d recommend other selling venues. 

What products were you designing as the vehicle for these fabrics?

I knew that I had to keep it pretty basic and I so I thought: Pillows, table runners, simple bags. But I designed them in a way that always let the fabric dictate what the product would be.  

My aesthetic tends to be kind of minimalist. Simple shapes and simple techniques. Not a lot of embellishment -- just letting the fabric be the centerpiece. Honoring the fabric. 

How did you source the fabrics from the villages?

In some cases, I’d just buy their fabrics to sell as is. There are shawls and scarves that come from a remarkable Tai Lue village in Luang Prabang Province.. They grow their own cotton, they spin it, they weave it, they dye it — the whole process, truly field to fiber, or farm to scarf, if you will.  In the south of Laos near Savannakhet, there are ikat weavers. I’m also buying their things to sell, as is — their scarves and shawls.

But I’ve been known to do some crazy things to find great materials. One time I was on a plane and saw an article in the in-flight magazine about a small village in Isaan, Thailand that specializes in natural indigo dyeing and cotton weaving. There was a photo of an elderly woman, her hands stained blue from years of dyeing her cotton threads in indigo. I was determined to meet her, so I actually flew to Sakon Nakhon and parked myself in a hotel until I found someone who knew her! I did the same thing in the south of Laos, in Pak Se, hoping to meet Katu weavers. I settled into a local hotel and just talked to people until I got connected. 

This reminds me of what you said about your grad school days — wanting to interact directly with people who make things.

I do! I always want to get to the source. I don’t want to go through three or four layers. I want to connect with the people who are doing this and I want them to know me and to trust me. I want them to know that I honor what they’re doing and I want to pay them fairly. These women are national living treasures. They need to be celebrated and they need to be paid a lot more than they’re currently charging. So that’s why I’m willing to go to all lengths.

Tell me more about some of these women.

The woman that I met in Sakon Nakhon who was featured in the in-flight magazine: Her name is Pon and she’s in her 80s, maybe 90s.... she doesn’t know. She’s lived in the same house her whole life and she’s an expert ikat weaver and indigo dyer. 

What’s so incredible about her is that she knows her traditions, but she isn’t bound by them. One time when I was there, she gave me a gift of a hand-woven ikat shawl with airplanes in it.  And I said “What is this? It’s amazing!” She explained, “I got tired of weaving the same patterns over and over again, so I decided to make something different.” I asked her if she’d ever been on an airplane. “No,” she said. When I asked how she knew what they looked like, she said “I just looked up and I saw them in the sky.” Just from looking, she’d figured out how to tie an airplane pattern in her ikat thread and weave it and she gave the shawl to me. I think it’s remarkable that someone her age, someone who’s lived in the same house her entire life, can step outside of that and create something original with her talent and imagination.  I’d love for her to be exposed to all kinds of new things, to meet other weavers to inspire each other.

I’ve also met a Hmong batik artisan in northern Vietnam who has gone a bit rogue with her designs. She’s elderly. She’s been drawing wax batik designs on hand woven hemp her whole life, but instead of adhering to traditional Hmong motifs, she draws chicken, dogs, people and houses with an exuberance that is not found in the more precisely laid out patterns.

When I meet women who have the drive to improvise on their traditions, I dream of having them meet each other to share their creative energy.    

Why did you name this project “Taleo”?

I knew I needed a brand, and I began thinking about the delicate woven bamboo talismans I’d seen tucked over doorways on homes and village gates throughout rural Laos. I’d been charmed by these humble, local handmade star-like structures that seemed to hold such importance for families and communities.  I learned that they were called taleo, which translates to “hawk’s eye.” They function similarly to a hex sign painted on a Pennsylvania Dutch barn or a mezuzah attached to a doorway in a Jewish home .. they’re a symbol that protects families and communities. I thought “That’s what I want to do. I’m trying to protect women through paying them fair wages. I’m trying to protect textile traditions, and I’m trying to protect resources by using natural materials.”  So it just seemed like the perfect symbol....

What was the reaction when you brought that first collection to market?

For people who knew textiles — if they were weavers or sewers or natural dyers or knitters or anything — the response was extraordinary. They couldn’t believe that these things are still being made the way they’re made. I’ve also noticed that people who come from places where they’re more exposed to handmade traditions — Europeans and South Americans — really “get it”. The hardest part for me is seeing people at these markets wearing mass-produced, digitally-printed patterns, ikats, for example — like on a T-shirt or a tunic or something — and walking by the real thing without even noticing it. 

But what you’re doing with Taleo Handmade is part of that cultural shift, where people are becoming more thoughtful about how things are made and striving towards greater sustainability.

I started using “ethical, sustainable, authentic” as my tagline because I think it speaks to what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to be ethical with my artisan partners. I’m trying to focus on sustainable materials. And authentic — I’m not using any cheap reproductions and I’m giving credit to the people who are making the product. Those words, I think, are pretty good at conveying the mission of Taleo Handmade.

Where do you see this project going in the future?

I hope to reach the point where we are selling enough products that we can support whole communities of weavers or batik artisans and provide scholarships for their children. Although we embrace all fair trade principles, Taleo Handmade is not fair trade certified.  That’s the next important step, and I’m also looking into becoming a registered non-profit which would open up different markets for our products. I’d like to continue to work on product development with our artisan partners so that they have more success selling to tourists in Laos and Vietnam.