Why should young designers be interested in learning from the work of artisans?
This article demonstrates the importance and necessity of the work of artisans, done by Natalija Jovasevic for Fix That Shirt. Natalija is also a collaborator at Hecho por Nosotros and Animaná (an NGO working in the domain of sustainable development).
Artisanal techniques continue to be practiced across the globe, with certain methods and designs dating back to the earliest civilization’s. As designers look for more sustainable practices, this article demonstrates the great potential that artisans can offer through collaborative work.
So if you are a fashion student, educator, researcher, enthusiast, or a stakeholder in the fashion industry in any way, we invite you to give it a read.
What are artisanal textiles?
Artisans are mostly known for being skilled craft workers who predominantly work with their hands. Artisanal textiles can be found across the globe, with each product being unique and reflective of both the region and culture that it originates from. They are also often recognised for their intricate detail, and the patterns and symbols which date back many centuries. While these textiles aim to value one’s culture, whether it is in Latin America, Africa, Asia, or Australasia, the beauty of artisanship is that these methods of beading, weaving, spinning, all reflect traditional techniques that were originally developed by their ancestors.
Naturally, many artisans have adapted to the 21st century and incorporated certain modern elements, such as the use of a zipper or app, however, the core emphasis of their work remains grounded in their surroundings. This is why artisanal textiles are made of natural materials, and why for example artisans across the Andes use alpaca fibres vs. Asian artisans using natural indigo dye. These techniques and methods are passed down generation after generation, instilling a sense of both familial and communal ties.
How do artisanal textiles promote sustainable practices?
As artisanal textiles are largely handmade, often requiring limited machinery, the process of creation is slow. Unlike fast fashion which mass produces garments across developing countries, violating both human and environmental rights, the slow production of artisanal textiles emphasises the need for quality over quantity.
This means that we the consumers are provided with not only a high-quality garment, but a beautifully intricate piece of clothing that may last us a lifetime, rather than 2.2 years, which is the average lifetime for a piece of clothing (WRAP, n.d.).
Furthermore, the slow production of artisanal textiles ensures that the products are made with great care and love. As many artisans are part of a longstanding community, the creation of textiles is simply a way of continuing their culture and educating family about the stories behind the designs and symbols.
However, there is also a crucial economic factor, as many of these communities are highly dependent on the income of their textiles. And while it is crucial that we support such communities and ensure that these stories and traditions are not lost, by choosing the work of artisans we are also providing them with a fairer wage and ethical standards of production.
What issues do artisans face?
The majority of artisans live in rural areas of the world. Including villages and towns, that are sometimes a day away from the nearest city or market. Artisans are exposed to many issues, but many are as a result of their rurality.
One of the key issues that they experience is a lack of infrastructure, this may include inadequate roads or limited/no access to power supplies such as electricity. With the majority of their consumers and potential consumers being in Western countries, artisans are halted by being unable to establish supply chains and provide their consumers with a direct means of communication and distribution. Consequently, they are forced to work with intermediaries who take over the process of communication and delivery to the consumer, whilst also taking a large portion of profit from the artisans.
Additionally, artisans have limited access to financial facilities, including credit. This means that they are unable to invest in factors that would otherwise benefit them both in the short and long-term. Financial struggles are heightened further by the unpredictable and highly seasonal nature of the artisan industry, which results in irregular cash-flows and artisans being unable to save towards the future (Foote, 2015).
How are governments supporting artisanship across the globe?
There are millions and millions of artisans around the world, but particularly in the ‘Global South’, which faces great issues of informality and poverty. Being in rural areas, many artisans are also reliant on their agricultural products as a means of income. The agricultural sector being the largest source of employment, and the artisanal sector the second within the Global South (Foote, 2015). Consequently, both sectors have been a key focus of governments’ development policies.
There are many organisations across the globe that focus on promoting sustainable fashion and the work of artisans. Within the EU for example, The Ethical Fashion Initiative is one of the leading organisations, working in several countries, ranging from the Caribbean, to Africa and South-West Asia (EFI, n.d.).
The EFI focuses on helping rural artisans gain access to the international market, whilst also providing support and training that will enable artisanship to continue sustainably in the long-term. The EFI is simply one of many organisations that is supported by the European Union. It is clear that governments are becoming increasingly interested and dedicated to sustainable fashion, as in 2018 The United Nations Alliance for Sustainable Fashion was created. This program aims to focus on social, economic and environmental factors (EFI, n.d.).
How can designers support the creations of artisans?
Vivienne Westwood, who has been collaborating with the EFI since 2010 demonstrates the importance of designers supporting artisans. Her Ethical Africa Collection, which included a range of bags, was inspired by traditional African textiles and African artisanship.
The collection used recycled canvas, reused roadside banners, and unused material off-cuts. The process of production was highly collaborative, with Vivienne Westwood and local artisans working together, sharing opinions, in order to create a beautiful product (Farrell, 2012).
One of the main benefits of artisanship is that it is a collaborative process. As the production of the textiles is handmade it allows room for adaptations, whereas fast fashion involves fixed designs and no room for change.
With artisans, designers are able to communicate and build on the existing traditional designs of the artisans. This may include personalising designs, creating new designs or adapting designs to include new elements.
Designers and fashion brands have been known to use traditional artisanal designs from across the globe, however, often without the consent of artisans. It is time for designers and artisans to collaborate. This will provide transparency in terms of the consumer knowing: Where does this come from? Who produced this? How was this produced? And with consumers, especially Millennials and Gen-Z, prioritising sustainability and increasingly asking these questions in order to ensure that their garments are applicable to their social norms, artisanal textiles are becoming increasingly relevant and important. Over 50% of Gen Z and Millennials are willing to pay more to for sustainable clothing, whereas only 23% of Baby Boomers agreed (Petro, 2020).
After the international recession of 2008 we saw an increase in the demand for artisanal products and this trend has since continued to grow. In 2015 the artisanal sector was valued as a $32 billion industry, equating to the fourth largest economy in the world (Foote, 2015). Given the current economic climate and also increasing awareness and demand for sustainable fashion, similar events may occur again and the demand for artisanship may increase even further.
Like this article? Join us in creating a more ethical fashion ecosystem by spreading the word!
EFI. (n.d.). About. [online] Available at: ethicalfashioninitiative.org
Farrell, A. (2012). Ethical Africa Collection. [online] Vogue. Available at: vogue.co.uk
Foote, W. (2015). Tapping The Potential Of The Artisan Economy. [online] Forbes. Available at: forbes.com
Petro, G. (2020). Sustainable Retail: How Gen Z Is Leading The Pack. [online] Forbes. Available at: forbes.com
WRAP. (n.d.). Clothing. [online] WRAP. Available at: wrap.org.uk
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