Step into Cultural Cloth, a home design shop in tiny Maiden Rock, Wis., and expect your horizons to expand.
When you open the door, you’ll see Wounaan baskets from Panama, said to be among the finest in the world. Keep moving to discover pastel Kantha quilts of vintage fabrics hand-stitched in India. Another room reveals colorful, patterned rugs hooked in Guatemala.
All the wares, commissioned and curated by Cultural Cloth owners Mary Anne Wise and Jody Slocum, make their way from all corners of the globe to this Midwestern town, population 99, where they get a test run to see whether they’re a fit for the American market.
“If they can make it here, we know there will be other opportunities in the global marketplace,” Wise says.
While the store’s function is to supply homes with one-of-a-kind decor, its deeper purpose is to discover and nurture talented women from developing countries and partner with them to market their work. They’ve found women making gorgeous rugs, but knew they wouldn’t sell because they weren’t a standard U.S. size. The solution: “We bought them a loom with the right width so they could continue to weave,” says Slocum.
Nearly every piece in the shop comes with a story. That wild purple and teal shag-like rug? Wise points out that what looks at first glance like pale leaves in the pattern are the hands of Fatima, the prophet Mohammed’s beloved daughter, symbolizing power and protection. Embroidered birds on a hand-woven cloth pillow symbolize a long-ago Guatemalan conflict, where birds were said to have protected a tribe. And that ottoman with spots? Women in an Afghanistan village were ordered, after a recent Taliban takeover, to stop making depictions of the dappled horses common to the region — or of any other animals or realistic forms. What the women wouldn’t let go of was the pattern of the horses’ hide.
“It’s amazing to think that just like that, their lives can change,” Wise says, of hearing from the women why their work was suddenly different.
Though they worry about their vendors — their friends — facing a pandemic and losing the ability to ship their products, in addition to other hardships, Wise and Slocum stay true to their life’s work.
Says Slocum: “We meet people so deserving of attention, whose work merits a wider audience. Why should they be living in poverty, when what they do and bring to the world is so extraordinary?”