Tag Archives: world craft

Hand/Eye coordination in world craft

I must say, I am a devoted follower of Hand/Eye. Their blog is an essential part of my reading diet, and I have just finished reading the Summer issue of the print magazine. The stories provide a powerful testament of the passions evoked by traditional craft practices. And the images offer an extraordinary feast of colour and texture. It is able to capture a broad range of craft development projects from across the world, even including countries from the minority world, like the USA.

It is sometimes uneasy reading. The situation with traditional craft is often quite fragile – see the article about what happened to embroidery during the Taliban regime, and how Kandahar Treasures is trying to restore it. Craft practice, like languages and biological species, seem under thread by a homogenising world. If nothing else, Hand/Eye demonstrates the richness that is being lost as we become more urbanised and digitised.

Generally, the magazine advocates for the preservation of craft tradition through product development – ‘design as a tool for development and income generation.’ This does leave many questions to be answered:

  • What happens when it is the artisans themselves who want to abandon their craft?
  • How does the commodification of craft for foreign markets affect the meaning of craft traditions?
  • If external designers are involved in product development, what are the terms of their collaboration?
  • How can traditional craft adapt to the changing patterns of consumption, particularly the move towards more virtual goods, such as apps and Facebook?

These are the kinds of questions that academics often like posing, as a critique of naive liberalism. I have great admiration for those who dedicate their lives to sustain and celebrate distinctive ways in which we make beauty from our world. But to extend the reach of this work, it seems important that we do find a safe place to ask the hard questions. The Sangam Project is one way of attempt to do this.

The latest gossip about Gup Shup in Pakistan

Here’s some news from the Gup Shup project in Pakistan (‘gup shup’ refers to the gossip that happens around cups of tea).

Winter has truly arrived, and the Chitral valley is surrounded with the snow-covered peaks of the Hindukush. In this cold weather, the women gather around the fire, chit-chatting and embroidering. Somehow, Israr and his team from MOGH Ltd (our local partners) miraculously manage to get us the textiles across the Lowari Pass (3200m altitude). Sometimes by air, sometimes through the new tunnel, sometimes across the icy mountains. So if you have had to wait for a bag you are coveting, there are very good reasons!

Pot Swap

Pot Swap

Pot Swap

Zaibonda sold ‘Pot-Swap’ on the opening night of the ‘Gup Shup’ exhibition at the National Art Gallery (NAG), in Islamabad on International Women’s Day 2009. Using part of the money from the sale, her son Sajjid started his commerce degree at the Commerce College in Chitral. He had initially wanted to go to Peshawar, but the tense security situation in the city kept him up-country, close to his family.



The ‘Pot-Swap’ bags remain popular. As one key supporter, who carries ‘Pot Swap’ on a daily basis, emotionally exclaimed “I feel such a connection to the woman who created this bag!”.

And other news – Naseema (one of the artisans responsible for the creation and embroidery of the lovely ‘Mantlepiece’, ‘Mehndi’, ‘Calender’ and ‘Harvest’ textiles) had her own mehndi in October. She is happily working as the warden of a nurses’ hostel in Chitral town, living with her husband, and occasionally travelling the 6 hours even further north to her husband’s village.

Though the crops were harvested in October ‘Gup Shup’ continues to bear fruit. Some news from across the globe:

Gup Shup Exhibitions

Following the success of the textile exhibitions in Islamabad (8th March 2009), and Karachi (28th May 2009), we are hoping to be in Lahore next … the cultural capital of Pakistan. We’ll keep you posted on the exact venue and dates when we are passing through early next year.

Drawing for 'mantlepiece'

Drawing for 'mantlepiece'

Drawing for 'Mantlepiece'

The textile ‘Mantelpiece’ recently sold, to an Islamabad resident. And ‘Ice-cream’ has found a happy home and should be landing in Dubai soon. If you are interested in a textile, please do get in touch, as there are only a handful left …

‘Gup Shup’ went international, to Polly&me’s home shores of Australia at Craft Victoria in Melbourne, June 2009. Two textiles (‘Sultan the Sitar Player’, and ‘Games with Didi’) did us proud down under.

With such a multitude of loyal supporters in Dubai, we are eager to bring the ‘Gup Shup’ textiles with all the narratives and the endless cup of chai to Dubai, March 2010 – watch this space!

Do you want to know more? Email Ange at info@pollyandme.com

Proudly Produced in Pakistan!

Finding a good home for Lao silk

Samorn Sanixay is an Australian woman born in Laos who has established a company Eastern Weft that seeks a market for Laos silk in countries like Australia. Her project requires a good fit between two radically different worlds. What seems critical to Samorn is an appreciation of serious craft – something more likely to be found in galleries than shops.

She describes how she was drawn to silk production in her home country:

In 2002, my husband was offered the position of United Nations Advisor on Human Trafficking for South East Asia based in Vientiane Laos. Soon after I got a job with UNICEF and all Lao women must wear the traditional sarong. So I went to the markets to look for material but everything was in fluoro colours so I decided to have my neighbours who were weavers produce silk especially for me. I would sit and watch and developed an interest ever since.

Samorn sees a tradition that is passed down relatively unconsciously through family lines.

All Lao silk is woven on traditional looms, there is no industrialisation as yet.

Lao silk is  intricate, sophisticated and of high quality. With Lao silk there is a continuity in the way that it is still passed on from mother to daughter as opposed to having a romantic notion that `this is our culture’ or part of our tradition. Most weavers are poor and mostly illiterate but there is great technical skill required for weaving. There is also a fragility about Lao silk. Unlike most  handicraft  products from around the world which sadly ends up in Fair Trade stores or gift shops,  much Lao silk end up in Museums and galleries.

But there are serious problems. Samorn sees silk weaving in Laos caught between the intrusion of modernity from outside and conservatism within:

[The challenges include] globalisation, urbanisation, competition with mass production from China, in terms of raw silk as well as retail. There is the local market production for the tourist industry versus international market: selling products abroad and few have the skill to do so.

Knowledge and skills about various crafts such as weaving and natural dyeing which have existed for centuries are no longer being passed through generations because the young people today aren’t interest or have no desire to use silk or learn the methods, they want a mobile phone and to wear denim jeans.

It is caught in conservative politics. Lao women have the sole responsibility of being ‘guardians’ of culture. As an example of this, during the  ASEAN summit, women who were not in traditional sarongs during the meeting were fined and men were not.

In describing the motivation for starting Eastern Weft, Samorn wanted to show her adopted world the quality of Laos silk:

It was more of coincidence than desire to start a business. I wanted to ‘conserve our national heritage in the face of bewildering change.’ I wanted to keep my connection with my birthplace by giving some highly skilled young people a chance to improve their lives through producing beautiful silk. To show the world what we were capable of  producing by combining traditional weaving techniques with contemporary design. Eastern WEFT does not purely exist as a Fair Trade business, we focus on the technical skills and the beautiful art of Lao weavings.

But it’s not always easy to work with traditional peoples:

Working with Lao people in general is difficult,  they are unpredictable they work in their own time. They will not work during holidays even for extra pay!

And she hopes for the future:

Funding to expand our workshop. Educating people about the skills and dedication and labour required for weaving.

A Fair Trade for Creative Labour – forum

The following forum is an opportunity to bring together critical perspectives on cultural partnerships with the real-life demands of those working in the field. It will provide the context for the development of a Code of Practice for Craft-Design Collaborations

Title: A Fair Trade for Creative Labour: How to sustain trust in north-south collaborations
Date: Monday 19 October 1-2pm
Location: Design Research Institute, RMIT University Level 3, 110 Victoria St, Melbourne


  • Dr Linda Chalmers, Product Manager, Oxfam Australia
  • Professor Donald Feaver, Associate Professor of Law, RMIT University
  • Professor Mark Minchinton, Professor of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education, RMIT University
  • Associate Professor Tim Scrase, Director of the Centre for Asia Pacific Social Transformation Studies , University of Wollongong

Globalisation threatens cultural diversity through the loss of local markets and commodification. In response to this, there is increasing interest by consumers to support local producers through their purchases. Fair Trade has emerged as one attempt to guarantee producer benefits.

But there are problems. Fair Trade sometimes appears as a reasonably blunt instrument that does not reflect the complex relations between rich and poor worlds, such as when a designer seeks to develop a product with rural artisans. Are there ways of strengthening such forms of accreditation to reflect the complex negotiations about issues such as cultural authenticity that arise in product development?

Meanwhile, we are seeing the emergence of various ‘soft laws’ to regulate global industries and maintain consumer trust. What instrument might assist in collaborations between designers and artisans? How might this inform the concerns of consumers in their desire to do good by purchasing these products? Is there a place for this in projects that involve Australian Indigenous craft and design?

This panel discussion provides an opportunity to consider the role of a code in cultural industries involving relations between peoples on either side of the global divide. The participants offer alternative and important perspectives on this process.

Organised by Dr Kevin Murray, Adjunct Professor in the School of Art at RMIT University. Please RSVP Monday 12 October to Emma Barrow for catering purposes. emma.barrow@rmit.edu.au

The ethical turn, turn, turn

‘The rich swell up with pride, the poor from hunger.’
Sholom Aleichem



As we saw a ‘linguistic turn’ transform humanities in the late 20th century, on our side of the millennium it seems that we are witnessing a wave of cultural accountability – an ‘ethical turn’.

Culture is no longer ‘innocent’ of politics. An artist cannot draw inspiration from the third world without accounting for his or her economic privileges. Similarly in disciplines such as anthropology and archaeology it is an expectation that the researcher works in partnership with the community – the knowledge which they glean must be paid for, usually in services.

This ethical turn may seem rather negative. Guilt can lead towards greater distance between cultures, as those from rich countries are hesitant to be seen as cultural predators. But there are positive developments too.

The existence of a just partnership between rich and poor is a valuable ideal, and increasingly we seem willing to pay for it. Fair Trade sales in commodities such as chocolate and coffee have risen greatly, up to 50% a year. Given the modest nature of these purchases, it is unlikely that they will be affected by the economic downturn.

Previously, it was the ‘customer is always right’. But now the interests of the producer have become relevant. There is a multitude of products that advertise their benefits to the community of origin, including bottled water, textiles, furniture, cosmetics and medicines.

As this trend continues the build, it naturally becomes commodified. We cringe to learn that McDonalds is now a member of the Rainbow Alliance. What guarantee do we have that such associations are more than marketing gimmicks, there to enhance the primary brand? As Nestlé, Coca-Cola and other global brands jump on the ethical bandwagon, we are tempted to become cynical about the whole ethical turn. How can we tell the difference between substance and advertising?

At this point, it seems important that those designing these products find a way of sustaining the trust of the consumer. The challenge is to provide the consumer with convincing information about the arrangement with the producing community. It’s hard to convey this information just as dry facts, there needs to be a compelling narrative about the challenges faced by the community and their current aspirations.

This is partly a design challenge. How do you develop products that ‘feel good’? How might the consumer feel that his or her purchase not only promises themselves goodness, but in a small way makes the world a better place? This product might be the exception. This product may not be not drawing on an unsustainable resource, subjecting displaced peoples to sweatshop conditions, exporting industrial pollution from first to third worlds, etc.

So we need to find a way of designing ethical value that will last. It’s not good enough to make ethics fashionable. Today’s trend is tomorrow’s dumpster. And it’s not enough to be dewy-eyed. Today’s romantic myth is tomorrows hardened realism.

The project of a Code of Practice for Craft-Design Collaborations is designed to strengthen this ethical turn in product development. The initial phase is to open this question up for discussion in a way where no view is excluded, from the most idealistic to the most cynical. It is this openness that will serve to help develop an enduring understanding of the nature of an object’s ethical value.

This year, there are already two workshops planned to start this discussion. The first will be at Selling Yarns next month. The second will be in Santiago, Chile, in September.