Working with artisans
In honour of Fashion Revolution Week, i wanted to write about my experience working on the ground in India - working with artisans and the industry here. The reason why, in an absolute 'YOLO' moment, i decided to pack my bags and move to India was because i wanted to work with artisans, i wanted to see textile processes in the making, i wanted to be inspired by the endless crafts and arts of India. It was so exciting, I had so much to learn and i was willing to stay for as long as it took. But let me tell you now, it has been difficult, it has been stressful and at times, very discouraging. I was fairly lucky to find work straight away and not have too much trouble finding accommodation, but living in Delhi takes a toll - the pollution, the traffic, the weather, the people - it adds up very quickly.
So when i fell upon an opportunity to travel out of Delhi to meet and work with artisans and textile suppliers, i jumped on it. It was just perfect, i travelled to some very remote areas in India and met amazingly talented people who were experts in their fields. But one thing stuck out in majority of these artisans and i began to see a pattern. For me, design and textiles are a passion, it's like an all consuming fire, i want to keep learning, keep creating, keep building. But soon after working with people in India, it became clear this was not the case for them. Seeing the artisans work and create their art has been awe inspiring but seeing their discouraged faces and spirits has been completely disheartening. They do not see or recognise their own talents, for them it's labour to put food on the table at the end of the day and sometimes even that is not possible for some and this heavily impacts their work ethic and attitude, they feel defeated.
The general opinion towards hand made goods in India is not very positive, many believe that it's cheap and not good enough. Majority of the population with decent purchasing power still want brand names, they want a foreign name on their clothes without really acknowledging that most likely an Indian stitched that garment. On top of that, there is a big lobby by the machine made sector that is working to label the hand made sector irrelevant. So in a country where arts and crafts are such a large part of its identity, they are wildly under appreciated. To add further to that recipe is the decreasing interest by the younger generation to learn their ancestral occupation, fuelled by parents wanting a better and more secure future for their children. With all these factors at play, the age old crafts of weaving, printing, dyeing and hundreds of others are at a great risk. Albeit there are efforts at hand to improve the textile industry - giving artisans and makers resources and market knowledge, organisations practising social responsibility - however small, it is happening.
There are movements slowly building up around the world, of ethical and slow fashion, contemporary designers that are utilising handmade techniques and implementing a 'quality over quantity' policy. Thanks to this, there is an increased interest from the foreign market in traditional artisanal textiles produced in India, but more of an effort really is needed in the local market. From my own observations, Indian designers practicing with artisans to produce quality and sustainable products tend to do much better at selling their collections overseas than in their own country. This may be a good thing for the export market but I do wonder what a waste it is, a local market as big as India that is untapped.
On the other hand, collaborating with artisans as a foreigner is one of the most difficult things i have done in my life. There is a lot of distrust, artisans are discouraged and many are just looking for a short cut. The lack of organisation and discipline in the industry makes it near impossible for foreigners to put a step through the door, hence the overpriced agents who aren't always honest. Moreover artisans are not trained at all in quality control and presentation, which unfortunately undercuts their art to a great extent. Even as an Indian born, I've had to deal with these difficulties, communication is often lost, along with mutual respect. As a young single girl, often it's hard to be taken seriously by the artisan community (majority being middle aged men) as well as face prejudice as a foreigner (this being used at their own convenience), you feel like you're being kicked from all sides.
There is a romantic notion of working in India with artisans who make beautiful textiles and products and many people tell me I'm living the dream. It really is not that simple nor is it anything like a dream. Working with artisans is almost like raising a child, it takes years, all of your mental, emotional and physical energy, a lot of disciplining and a hell of lot of nurturing. I've only done it for a year but i know already that i need to be in this for a very long run if i want to reap the benefits.
Having said that, I have absolutely no regrets. My experience is small but compared to working and living anywhere else, i have learnt much more than I thought possible. The key, I've realised, is to not lose yourself in the mess, it's very easy to fall into 'Indian timing', very easy to have constant chai breaks and push everything to tomorrow. If anything, living here has made me appreciate the value of hard work that much more and how important it is to keep that fire burning, whether it is for your work, your relationships or your hobbies. I have had great opportunities and no matter how difficult and painstaking even the smallest, most mundane tasks can be, I am thankful.