San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Handmade, Fair Trade at Escazú Store

When two world travelers dedicated to protecting human rights decide to open a store in Escazú, you can be sure they have something up their sleeves. In the case of Escazú native Sofía Salas and husband Vichitraweer Singh, from India, it’s a noble cause – and their sleeves are handwoven.

Together, Salas and Singh recently opened Vastra, a store aimed at making handmade products from India, Nepal and Thailand available to people in Costa Rica while helping small artisans from those countries through fair trade.

“We were inspired by the thought of joining people across the world. For the artisans, it’s their daily bread. And it gives them a sense of pride to know their products are sold in Costa Rica,” Salas said.

The couple was originally inspired to open the store while Singh interned for a nongovernmental organization that combats AIDS in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Singh said they used to visit a colorful market in the city in northern Thailand, where they got to know local artisans and bought some 30 handbags to sell in the United States and Costa Rica. They started a website with the idea of joining people and their stories, so buyers could get a sense of who was behind these handbags.

Years later, Singh and Salas moved to Nepal to work for the International Organization for Migration, assisting Bhutanese refugees. Salas said she and Singh gradually started to lose the humanitarian feel of their work as their jobs slowly became more administrative.

“We had become like machines in an office and lost contact with the refugees. We decided we wanted to work more closely with people and create something of our own, on our own terms and make it meaningful,” she said.

That is how Vastra, which means “textiles” in Sanskrit, was born. The store opened its doors in January in Guachipelín de Escazú, a suburb west of San José. Right now, textiles are Vastra’s specialty. Singh and Salas import lovely hand-woven clothes from India for men, women and children. The store carries embroidered clothes and textiles decorated with a technique known as block printing, which consists of carving a wooden block with an intricate design and printing it onto textiles by hand. Block printing results in very delicate designs, and Vastra has clothes, scarves, bedspreads and place mats made using this method.

Items for home decoration include cushions and copper bells produced by herding communities in West India.

Singh said bell making is an ancient Indian tradition. Artisans used to design bells to have different tunes so people could tell their herds apart.

Fun gift items sold at the store include kites fashioned by Indian kite masters and used by children in the style described in Khaled Hosseini’s book “The Kite Runner.”

Vastra’s colorful handbags come from Chiang Mai and Nepal, and accessories include the store’s only Costa Rican product so far: wooden key rings.

Salas and Singh plan to include more Central American products and are looking to introduce handbags made by indigenous women from recycled materials.

They are also hoping to sell Nepalese tea at the store soon; the two learned a lot about the art of tea drinking in Nepal, where their home was surrounded by tea plantations.

In setting up their store, a big concern for the couple was settling on prices. “Our goal is to teach people, to give them a sense of what is behind what they wear, so we wanted to make prices accessible,” Singh said.

Items run from about ¢5,700 ($11) for a key ring to ¢70,000 ($133) for a bedspread. Vastra products have Craftmark certification, a guarantee that products are made by hand using traditional processes.

Singh and Salas buy products directly from independent artists or artisan cooperatives, avoiding intermediaries that often cheat artists of the payment they deserve. In turn, working for fair wages motivates communities to respect traditional artistic processes.

Vastra is above the ampm supermarket in Guachipelín de Escazú, near Multiplaza shopping mall. It’s open Monday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. For information, call the store at 2228-2741 or visit its Facebook fan page.

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