What is the importance of handmade craft today? Perhaps a more appropriate
question is: In what contexts do handmade craft have value today? For whom
is this valuable and why? What are the obstacles and how can the
significance of handmade craft be increased? What learning takes place by
different parties in the process of increasing the visibility and viability
of craftwork in the world today?
I have been a weaver for many years and I
have studied textile traditions – particularly woven designs and their
meanings – to be found in cultures from many regions of the world,
traditions that go back millennia. As an adult educator, I became interested
in finding out how artisans – particularly weavers - had changed their
perspective on craftwork, given the realities and conditions of their lives,
which have been impacted by industrialization, mass production, and
commercialization. First I traveled to India and later to Thailand to learn
about different kinds of community-based organizations that aim to benefit
weavers, their families and communities. In no uncertain terms I learned
that new meanings associated with weaving are linked to economic survival.
One of the key findings of earlier research was the importance of supporting
artisans with product development initiatives in order for them to adapt
their traditional craft skills and aesthetics into marketable products. As a
result, I am currently investigating product design interventions in artisan
production. What are the issues and challenges of product development? Who
learns what and how? I am interviewing North American product design
consultants who work with artisans in Africa, Central Asia, Latin America,
Eastern Europe, Caribbean, India and Bangladesh. And I am learning about the
impact this exchange has on lives and livelihoods.
Traditionally craftwork was an integral way of life and things were made
that functioned in daily life, as well as for ritual and sacred occasions.
Frequently books on craft traditions in different regions of the world end
with a statement about the loss of skills, the demise craft traditions, and
the replacement of cheap commercial products in local markets. Often left
unstated are the reasons and consequences of this enormous cultural shift.
Reasons are to found in the destruction of environments and ways of life,
and the impoverishment and displacement of rural people. The value of craft
today must be examined in the context of efforts to improve the livelihoods
of artisans. How can this be done? And in the process, who learns what?
turn the situation around, craft needs to be viewed within new paradigms,
such as: sustainable rural development, women’s home-based work/employment
in the informal economic sector, and fair trade/ethical business practice.
Each of these frameworks gives credence to the dignity of artisans, the
right to sustainable livelihoods and the responsibility of consumers in the
The world of the craftsperson in developing countries is far away from the
affluent consumer culture of the North. How do artisans bridge the gap? And
how do consultants and agencies work to bridge the gap? I am going to
address several issues from the standpoint of who is learning what. And how
are these learning processes transformative?
1. adapt and
acquire new skills in order to make marketable products,
organized within their communities to work together, and
business practices that help them enter new markets.
In each of these
areas artisans transform their perspectives of the world and what is
possible for them.
designers learn to
cultural sensitivity – they appreciate the knowledge, abilities, eagerness
and determination of the people they work with;
hardship, struggles and constraints inherent in artisans’ lives and work –
they learn to initiate appropriate measures for supporting the artisans’
efforts to improve their livelihoods – for example, materials banks,
workshops on quality control and business skills; and
appreciate the enormous challenges of creating sustainable artisan
1. the scope of
the need for support, education, market access;
importance of partnerships with business, government and educational
institutions to create awareness and promote crafts trade in the global
3. ways to increase consumer awareness of the impact of their purchases on
Networks are active around the world, linking people who are concerned about
justice and basic human rights of health, education, social security and
livelihoods, and particularly the concerns of women. The concerns of
artisans are coherent with the agenda of emerging development alternatives
of local participation in matters of local importance, including economic
Several organizations in North America and United Kingdom that are
addressing the needs of artisans include: The Crafts Center, Washington
D.C.; Aid to Artisans, Hartford Connecticut; Fair Trade Federation (FTF) in
USA; International Federation of Alternative Trade (IFAT) and HomeNet in the
UK. These organizations have extensive outreach to artisan groups and also
do consumer education. E-commerce has also increased the visibility of
artisan work; websites that show products provide stories about the
craftspeople that made them, and the potential of on-line purchase of craft
has become a powerful tool for the benefit of artisans.
To increase the viability of artisan activity as a way of life and
livelihood in distant parts of the world, we in North America have a part to
play. That is to increase awareness in such a way to make a difference in
the choices we make as consumers and to see the connections we have with
the well-being of others far away who need our attention and care.
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