Jen Lewis of Purse and Clutch

Purse and Clutch employs weavers & seamstresses in Guatemala & leather workers in Ethiopia to break the cycle of poverty in countries with limited job opportunities. Know more about them in our interview with Jen Lewis!

Purse and Clutch artisans in Ethiopia. In Ethiopia, men & women are stuck in poverty because of a systemic lack of employment opportunities. Even skills training & education can’t help if no jobs exist. By employing Ethiopians to make leather designs, Purse and Clutch creates opportunities for hardworking, incredibly talented individuals.

What is Purse & Clutch?

For the last 5 years Purse & Clutch has been an online retail boutique curating high quality, well designed, & ethically made handbags.  We’re passionate about long term partnership with artisans in developing countries who create their products with an emphasis on design & quality. These artisans are treated with respect & are paid a living wage for their region.

Starting this coming Spring, we’re transitioning from a boutique curation of fair trade finished products to designing & producing our own line. This will allow us to know our artisans intimately by name, incorporate design input from our community, & control production from start to finish.

Our artisan teams consist of single mothers in Guatemala making gorgeous woven cotton fabric items & an incredible group of leatherworkers in Ethiopia where other employment opportunities simply don’t exist.

As the manager of the workshop, Israel is incredible at keeping every detail straight for each handbag & manages his team with grace & confidence. He’s also the mastermind who transforms our designs & patterns into life giving invaluable feedback with his extensive knowledge of leather construction.

What inspired the title of the organization?

It actually started with a play on the word clutch – as in the sports players who come through in the clutch, but when I looked up available domain names everything was related to car parts! From there I checked to see if was available & when it was, I bought it immediately! I loved that it was straightforward & transparent, which is exactly what I knew I wanted the business to be about.

Tell us about your story – education, prior work, and so on? / How did you get interested in ethical and sustainable fashion?

I grew up in North East Texas. My dad was born & raised in Jos, Nigeria & several of his siblings returned to West Africa as adults which meant that I grew up hearing about civil wars, lack of access to medical care, & stunning African countrysides. I knew I wanted to play a role in connecting needs & resources but really had no idea what that would or could look like.

I went to John Brown University in NW Arkansas to study Chemistry. Upon graduating, my plan was to continue my education in the field of nutrition researching ways to fortify indigenous crops with needed missing nutrients in South America but I was offered a job teaching Chemistry at a bilingual High School in Honduras. I jumped at the chance to live in Latin America. It because obvious very quickly that teaching at an affluent high school wasn’t getting at my desire to connect needs with opportunities, so after the year I returned to John Brown University to get my Master’s of Science in Leadership & Ethics. I was fortunate enough to be awarded a Fellowship with a non-profit leadership training organization called The Soderquist Center that gave me incredible insights into the non-profit world & access to amazing mentors who taught me to dream big.

After grad school, I moved to Austin to be back in Texas & closer to family as I pursued a career in non-profit humanitarian work. I got a job helping to cultivate a healthy community for a group of formerly homeless individuals that was much closer to my passion of connecting resources to needs, but I kept feeling frustrated that as a woman living alone I didn’t feel comfortable inviting the middle-aged men – many working through addictions – into my home.

At this time a dear friend from grad school had moved to Northern India to help start an organization that worked with locals to make handbags designed with their Western customers in mind. The stories she would tell me of the transformation that employment could bring captivated me.  She told me there was essentially a line out the door of eager potential workers looking for a job, and that they just needed to sell more bags to be able to expand their workforce. She shipped me a box of handbags & as they were being made I researched everything I could about how to start an online shop. From there Purse & Clutch was born.

It really is incredible how much of an impact employment can have on an individual’s life as well as on her community. By changing the way manufacturing is done – from an exploitative industry to one that lifts its workers out of poverty – we can begin to unravel the cycle of poverty.

What makes slow fashion better than fast fashion?

Slow fashion looks to add job opportunities whenever possible – not cut corners at any cost. We definitely take a slow fashion approach to production! While we could purchase already made & dyed thread to speed up production times, we wouldn’t be employing as many women along the way. We opt for choices that extend the life of a product even if it’s more expensive for us to make so that a handbag lasts season after season & doesn’t need to be thrown away or replaced every six months. We do this by committing to high quality, natural materials as well as only launching new collections twice a year (Spring & Fall) that are timeless patterns & color combinations. In slowing down the fashion cycle, we hope to encourage our community to make educated, thoughtful choices about their purchases.

What are the main fibres and fabrics used in the products?

The fabric in Guatemala begins with a boll of cotton. The cotton is spun into thread, then botanically dyed using traditional Mayan plant & insect recipes to get the perfect hue. The thread is then loaded onto a loom to become the vertical base called the warp. More thread, called the weft, is then passed back & forth to create specific patterns. The finished woven fabric is then sent to the seamstresses to make into the finished products you see on our site.

Purse and Clutch Guatemala one loom collection made from all natural fabric.

Any women’s rights activist or campaigner hero for you?

Lately I’ve been inspired by Marian Wright Edelman, founder & director of the Children’s Defense Fund who said, “If you don’t like the way the world is, you have an obligation to change it. Just do it one step at a time.”

Any recommended means of contacting, even becoming involved with, you?

We’ve just opened applications for a new Insights Focus Group that will be housed on Slack. We’re looking for a group of thoughtful & creative influencers who can act as our sounding board as we develop our brand & continue to support fair wages in Guatemala & Ethiopia in a substantive way. Apply here!

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About the Author

Scott Douglas Jacobsen researches and presents independent panels, papers, and posters, and with varied research labs and groups, and part-time in landscaping and gardening, and runs In-Sight Publishing and In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal.

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