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International Craft Trade With Integrity: Maiwa as Model

Jongeward, Carolyn is an independent researcher and consultant on artisan issues and trade support.

March 2007 Update

To improve the situation for many artisans worldwide, there is a need for more international craft traders with integrity. Maiwa is one such trading company. Since 1986, working with artisans primarily in India, they have developed an exemplary trading model that is having a positive impact for artisans. Maiwa has two stores and a studio Vancouver, British Columbia, and a recently built facility in the village of Bagru, Rajasthan. Charllotte Kwon, founder of Maiwa, discussed the work they do to establish healthy trade relations with artisans: following are highlights from an interview, and quotes from Kwon, that reveal Maiwa’s basic principles and approaches.

Maiwa’s Principles
Respect: Craft is a center of culture and community identity and a source of creative pride. But artisans are not honoured enough and pride in craft is lost. Craft producers, especially the women who are not often honoured, need to be respected. As well, retailers who represent the craftwork – usually women subject to minimum wage – need to be recognized. “The intelligence, skill, and professionalism of these people should not be underestimated.”

Craft and community building: Artisans have a vital role in community building; they depend on each other and work socially instead of independently. Although business structures in the West – and around the world – encourage people to work independently and be competitive, this approach does not work for craft. “The desire to work together socially is a sign of a healthy craft within a community.”

Healthy trade relationship: Work with artisans must not be isolated from the process of marketing. But international efforts involved with craft must come from a holistic, ethical way of relating to each village. As well, international involvement needs to have the point of view of the integrity of the artisans’ cultural craft at the local level and within the national context. Craft marketing needs to be a living relationship with a culture, not simply a product transaction. Artisans should be viewed as creators and partners, not suppliers. When artisans are treated as suppliers – making craft for mass export or tourist art – craft becomes what the buyer thinks the artisans’ response should be to their culture, rather than what is the artisans’ creative response. This lowers the benchmark for the quality of craft.

Socially responsible business: A craft business can pay fair wages and also be profitable, without being subsidized or having craftspeople work in a manufacturing situation. When craft trade is more direct, retail staff can be paid good wages and the artisans can be paid much more than the usual amount they receive for their work. This requires eliminating the middle people – agents, wholesalers and dealers – from the trading process.

Maiwa’s Approach
Work with cooperatives as often as possible: Maiwa works primarily with village-based cooperatives, for example the embroiderers of KMVS in India. In situations where there is no cooperative, Maiwa used to work directly with craft producing families, but they realized this approach had a divisive impact in the community. Now they set up something like a board for the artisan group, and each family involved in craft production has the opportunity to work with MAIWA and be represented on the board. As a guiding rule, the person who does the craft is the board member. This makes it possible for woman to be on the board. At meetings of the board, issues are brought forward in a proper manner and can be discussed with everyone present.

Encourage different marketing approaches: Maiwa would like every village to have a combination of marketing approaches: local, tourist, export, and masterwork – the museum quality work. Kwon says it is better to leave the craft alone and not do export trade if there is a healthy local market, even if the craftspeople want to export and even if she loves the product. If there is a good local market, Maiwa will reduce any orders that start to overtake the artisans’ production capacity. They also encourage artisans to know about the tourist market as well, because they can earn cash quickly this way.

Partnership with artisans: Maiwa works with the artisan groups to establish the cost and quality of each item. This helps artisans gain knowledge about global trading and become confident enough in their work to be able to establish clients in England and Europe. Kwon insists that artisans know and stand up for the value of their work (they are more often told to lower their prices), and she shows them labels from products like theirs that are sold for very high prices in London stores. Artisans are also informed about all the costs required to send products from their villages and to label, package, and export the goods to Maiwa’s Vancouver store. The goal is to help artisans establish business contacts and then let them go on their own: “You can trade with anyone, but don’t undersell yourself again.”

Good quality, good pay: “Artisans don’t believe in themselves and they let their work down in ways that have nothing to do with their creativity, mastery, or excellence.” The quality problem has to do with little things: keeping raw materials properly (not letting bugs get in); keeping embroideries clean, especially after working four months on them; and finishing details and presentation. Kwon insists on high quality work, and the artisans know the expected standard. They call it “MAIWA quality.”

Maiwa buys what the craftspeople produce, but the amount paid for craftwork is linked to quality. Only “A” quality work is exported, and the pay is equivalent to a professional wage. The pay for “B” and “C” quality work is comparable to a labourer’s wage. The significantly larger amount paid for high quality craft is a big incentive. After years of working with the embroiderers, Maiwa and KMVS have seen that the women have re-introduced high quality work as part of their village traditions. For example, the dowry pieces they make for themselves are now museum quality; this is the kind of work they now know and do – and not just for foreign sales.

Product finishing: Product finishing used to be done primarily in Maiwa’s Vancouver studio, for example the making of pillows or the cutting and sewing of clothing from hand printed cloth. For many years, Kwon wanted to leave things to be finished in the villages, but only a few artisan groups had been trained in finishing. And sometimes when training was offered, craftspeople said, “No. We are not tailors.” Maiwa constructed a building in Bagru, Rajasthan, to house their India office (formerly in Bombay), a finishing and natural dye facility, and a training center. They trained 12 tailors, who now do most of the sewing and finishing; five sewers in the Vancouver studio do the rest.

Link to the retail community: Maiwa is linked to their retail community through a range of methods to inform their customers and inspire interest in what Maiwa does. Seen as a different kind of retailer – one that is “linked and connected” – they have become trusted and part of the local community. They host events to help their networking locally; for example they will hold a big party to launch a significantly new shipment of work from one of the craft groups. They have also hosted an international textile symposium and organized a major exhibition of Kutch embroidery at the Vancouver Museum. Maiwa further informs the public through their website www.maiwa.com.

Miawa archive: Miawa has created an accessible library and archive in Vancouver. The archive contains a vast slide record of all products that have been in the shop and a permanent collection of the best craftworks (things that might not go into the shop). There are 3000 books on all aspects of craftwork and textiles, and binders of information about all the villages and craftspeople that MAIWA works with. Kwon always budgets for the permanent collection, and she also regularly commissions works. For example, she commissioned a master weaver to continue weaving the very best, even if it took three years to complete.

Teamwork. Maiwa is a team guided by Charllotte Kwon, who maintains the Maiwa vision and coordinates all aspects of the operation. Kwon also delegates responsibility, hires people who can do things she can’t do, and inspires staff so that they feel part of the enterprise and are passionate about what Maiwa does. She appreciates the hard work of staff who are constantly educating customers in the store, and she knows the business wouldn’t happen without all those who contribute, including the sewers, a colorist, and the people doing shop display, videoing editing, and maintaining the archive.

Communication: The important role of on-going communication involves talking with artisans in the villages, staff in India and Vancouver, and customers at the store. Kwon’s approach is always to listen to people, be sensitive about what they are saying and get to the bottom of uncomfortable situations. She wants to know, and she makes time to find out what is going on and to deal with problems and issues when they arise. On a larger scale, the Maiwa textile symposia and workshops exemplify Kwon’s dedication to increasing communication; these events provide special opportunities for artisans to learn from one another and also speak to a wider audience about their experiences.



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