Why Artisanal Is Not Just A Fancy Word, But Craftsmanship That Predates Us All

by: Rosie Dalton | 5 years ago | Features

Image: Handcrafted is one of our 8 Well Made Clothes Values.

Clothing today is not what it used to be. In many ways, it is better — for example, technological developments like AirDye’s water-free printers have the power to advance sustainability by saving up to 95% of water. But in many other ways, it is also much worse. As EcoWatch points out, fast fashion is now the second most polluting industry in the world,next to big oil. And, unfortunately, it is amid the mad frenzy for the bottom dollar that plenty of people forget the remarkable history behind the modern garment industry. Most of that history pre-dates us all and stems from the unique traditions of various different cultures around the world.

UNESCO describes artisanal products as “those produced by artisans, either completely by hand, or with the help of hand tools or even mechanical means, as long as the direct manual contribution of the artisan remains the most substantial component of the finished product.” In the context of clothing, this denotes some of our most beautiful textile techniques, including Indonesian batik and Japanese Fujifu weaving. But the vast heritage of these traditions is something easily forgotten in today's era of fast, fast fashion. Historically, clothing resembled something far less of an industry and much more of a craft spurred on by need. Prior to the mid-19th century, virtually all clothing was handmade for individuals — either as part of home production, or ordered through tailors. So it is only really with the rise of capitalism that we have witnessed fashion’s explosion into a global industry. And sadly, with that shift, we also tend to forget about the craftsmanship behind the clothing. Despite the fact that loom weaving, for example, is the second most important occupation in Indian villages, after agriculture, and employs 4.3 million people.

Ultimately, artisanal products provide valuable employment for the handloom industry. And, in this way, the continuation of artisanal production is imperative for the livelihood of people all over the world. According to The Hindu newspaper, there are an estimated 20 million handloom workers in the world today (including pre-loom and post-loom processes), compared to three million in the IT industry. So by supporting this form of production, we can actually contribute to the livelihood of various communities. “Behind agriculture, artisan activity is the second largest employer and in the developing world, often the primary means of income,” explains The Aspen Institute. “However, the value chain for artisan enterprises is fragmented and fraught with barriers that inhibit greater economic value and returns from occurring.” It is for that reason that this particular organisation supports broader recognition of the importance of the artisan sector to development, economic growth and preservation of cultural heritage. And why we, as consumers, also need to be more aware of the value behind the artisanal sector of fashion.

Not only does artisanal production support the livelihood of craftspeople, but it can also contribute to their sense of empowerment. As technology continues to increase at breakneck speed, it has never been more important for us to slow down and take a look at the reality. By doing so, we can see that there is a significant population of people in the world that have traditional craftsmanship skills, but may be illiterate or living in remote areas without electricity. It is their artisanal work, then, that allows these people to continue living in their home towns and gives women the opportunity to work as primary income earners within their community. This can be incredibly empowering for these workers, as it not only boosts their monetary gain, but can also improve self-esteem. According to a case study of self-employed women in handicraft sector of India’s Kullu valley, for example, local handicrafts like the Kullu shawl have allowed those women making them to become self reliant and earn enough to sustain their families with. “Women have experienced increased self‐esteem and status within their community because of handicraft business and tourism,” the study asserts. “Women are more actively involved in decision‐making in their community and have taken on new leadership roles. Handicrafts have provided them an opportunity to develop multidimensional empowerment at both the individual and collective levels.”

It is not just for the artisans themselves that we need to support the continuation of artisanal production practices, either, but also for the environment as a whole. Artisanal production remains vital to contemporary fashion, because it represents one of the most sustainable approaches to fabric making. As The Tribune asserts, handloom production is “eco-friendly, has a small carbon footprint and is easy to install and operate.” Basically, requiring minimal infrastructure, technology and power to operate, it represents a much more environmentally friendly alternative to the mass-produced clothing of the fast fashion sector. Based on an annual global textile production of 60 billion kilograms, for instance, the estimated energy and water needed to produce all that fabric is astronomical. 1,074 billion KWh of electricity, to be specific, or 132 million metric tons of coal.In other words, whatever we can do to reduce the environmental footprint of our current fashion industry processes, we desperately need to do.

The Environment Protection Authority (EPA), under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, considers many textile manufacturing facilities to be hazardous waste generators. And increased demand for man-made fibres poses a particular issue here. Polyester, for example, is the most widely used manufactured fibre and it is made from petroleum. The National Center for Biotechnology Information points out that, “with the rise in production in the fashion industry, demand for man-made fibers, especially polyester, has nearly doubled in the last 15 years, according to figures from the Technical Textile Markets.” But the manufacture of polyester and other synthetic fabrics is not only an energy-intensive process — one which requires large amounts of crude oil — but it also releases dangerous emissions into the atmosphere, including volatile organic compounds, particulate matter, and acid gases such as hydrogen chloride; all of which can cause or aggravate respiratory disease.

In other words, the global fashion industry has a major impact on our health and that of the environment. But it is also an industry that vastly undervalues the human beings who make garment production possible — a fact so tragically demonstrated by 2013’s Rana Plaza collapse, which claimed 1,134 lives. With all of this in mind, then, it has never felt more imperative that we take a step back and re-evaluate things. And part of this process needs to involve respecting where clothing really began and honouring those artisans who still work to keep its ancient traditions alive. According to UNESCO, artisanal work is an integral oral and intangible heritage of humanity. So, as consumers that choose to shop artisanal goods, not only can we make a difference to individual lives and the environment, but also to the overall tapestry of society.

By definition, artisanal products are those handcrafted utilising the skills of artisans. But it is really about so much more than this — because these products support the prosperity and livelihood of ancient traditions and communities. At Well Made Clothes, we are passionate about the history and tradition of fashion as an art form, but we are equally as passionate about the environment. The core of our Artisanal Value is supporting both of these things and allowing them to exist in harmony. Each of the brands within this value are committed to honouring traditional design practices and contributing to the continuation of these techniques wherever possible. Because it is a feeling like no other, wearing a garment skilfully crafted using ancient traditions. One that has utilised techniques passed down through centuries and capable of surviving the industrial revolution, all while empowering workers in the process. Often, these handmade garments have taken days, or even weeks to create, which means a whole lot of love has gone into them. So, with all the social and environmental benefits of artisanal shopping aside, there really is no comparison when it comes to quality craftsmanship.

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