Fashion design with a conscience

Western designers working with traditional artisans in India creating products for a consumer market with an ethical consciousness. How can the designers contribute to the artisan communities in a sustainable way?

Bhukhu the applique embroiderer

Bhukhu is an appliqué embroiderer from the small village of Marharbat, near Barmer in Rajasthan, India. She is sixty-four years old. Bhukhu learnt the appliqué craft of making tiny stitches around cut stencilled fabric, from watching her parents work. She has now taught her daughter in law and niece the craft and together they help to supplement the family’s income though the embroidery work they complete. They are members of a women’s group supported by a NGO, People Youth Development Organisation, based in Barmer who deliver the stencilled fabric pieces for the women to embroider.

On the day that I interview Bhukhu she is working on a piece of appliqué, the finely stitched geometric patterns on lime green cotton revealing the aqua cotton organdie beneath. She does not know what the fabric is going to be used for or who has designed the piece. I am the first foreigner she has ever met.

In a high street shop in Sydney a customer admires a pair of appliqué curtains. She reads the label to learn more about these intricately stitched textiles. ‘100% cotton, hand embroidered in India.’ She wants to know more.

Since the industrial revolution there has been an emphasis on production and consumption, the consumer encouraged to buy more and more manufactured products to the point where often products have a built-in obsolescence. Over the past ten years events such as 9/11, environmental disasters and the GFC have caused a consciousness to develop globally: what happens in one place can affect each of us living in another. The ‘link between consumption and resource depletion, industrial production and environmental degradation’ 1 has led to an increasing shift towards people making more thoughtful purchasing decisions. As a result new markets are developing of urban consumers for the products of traditional artisans because their ‘crafts inherently represent, to the patron of sustainable practice, a connect and concern with material, and the environment.’ 2

Consumers are increasingly finding ways to make more of their purchases purposeful, be it by choosing fair-trade products or merchandise that supports a cause. In Edelman’s, the public relations firm, 2010 GoodPurpose study, 71 percent of consumers surveyed globally believe that projects that protect and sustain the environment can help grow the economy while 66 percent reported that they are more likely to buy and recommend products from companies that support a good cause. 3

Some western designers in response to or perhaps leading this ethically driven consumer movement have moved away from mass-produced generic fashion and instead have developed new products using the skills of traditional artisans in developing countries. The benefits provided by the designers’ interaction with artisan communities has been discussed as well as the downfalls. In the Foreword of Designers meet Artisans Indrasen Vencatachellum, UNESCO Chief, Section for Arts, Crafts and Design, supports the role of designers, ‘Given the communication gap between producers and consumers, the designer is seen as an indispensable intermediate, a ‘bridge’ between the artisan’s know-how and his knowledge of what to make.’4But it is also important that the artisans’ creativity is respected and protected to prevent them from becoming the equivalent of skilled labour executing the design creations of professional designers.

Since most traditional artisans live in rural areas they are disconnected from the tastes and current fashions of a global, mostly urban market. Not only do the designers create that connection but their innovative approaches and use of alternative materials can breathe life into dying crafts as well as provide a sustainable income for the artisans. But ‘the reduction of the artisan’s role to that of a mere producer subservient to the designer’s influence, and the lack of reference to the cultural context in products designed for an alien, volatile market, are among the commonly expressed concerns.’5 A western designer with integrity has the dilemma of developing a supportive relationship within the artisans’ framework and producing quality, marketable products that will give the consumer with a conscience an understanding of the story behind the products’ creation.

By examining some traditional artisan communities in India with case studies of their interaction with western designers this paper will raise some of the complexities that are experienced by both the artisans and designers. In India traditional craftspeople form the second largest employment base after agriculture. Mainly these traditional artisans are trained in skills that are learned as apprentices or passed on by family members outside the mainstream educational system. 6 Up to 70 per cent belong to the more deprived socio economic sections of society, mostly in rural India. This seems ironic since the Indian Government has historically been committed to the craft sector, a result of the ethos of a national identity fostered during Mahatma Gandhi’s freedom movement. Ashoke Chatterjee in The Indian Craft: Sunrise or Sunset in a Global Market states that ‘Unlike most developing countries, in India crafts have been given a place in national planning.’7 Jasleen Dhamija expands in her article From then to now8that formerly traditional craftsmen supplied the needs of local industry and households until the establishment in 1952 of the government organization, All India Handicrafts and Handloom Board. Craft centres were located throughout India and their needs assessed. The Central Cottage Industries Association was established to market the finest products of handicrafts through exhibitions. The Government of India has a program where the title of Master Craftsman is bestowed upon eligible artisans whose products are included in the exhibitions.

Misri Khan is a recognized Master Craftsman and leader of an artisan’s embroidery group in the village of Darasat, 40km from Barmer. Khan obtains the raw materials that he then distributes to the women who specialise in mirrorwork embroidery. While interviewing him Khan discussed the changing situation of the artisan’s work over the past decade.’Initially this embroidery was done in homes and used by the local people for weddings dresses etc. In the last 10 years interest has developed from the west and now we get samples through different organisations and develop them for them.’ Khan frequently travels to Delhi to exhibit in Indian Government sponsored artisan fairs. At the fairs he says ‘foreigners have bought products from us but as I don’t have an export licence I have not had any repeat orders from them nor am I in contact with those people. He continues, ‘we are running on losses doing this work. We have taken loans from the government and others to do this work. We are very poor and don’t have exposure to the western market and so don’t get the money we need. With interest on loans we are running on losses.’

A western designer visiting Delhi goes to such a fair and is attracted to some exquisite embroidery work on exhibit and immediately visualizes how the embroidery could be applied to her own design concepts for a range of clothing. The designer finds that the exhibitor is a member of an NGO selling the work of artisans, from a rural area of India, that he represents. After some discussion the NGO representative arranges for sample pieces of the embroidery to be made with the designer’s input of colours and fabric to be used. The samples are approved and an order for the embroidery is placed, the embroidery pieces will be exported to the designer on completion by means of the NGO’s export licence. At no time has the designer had contact with the artisan.

This is one of many similar business models pertaining to western designers wishing to include traditional crafts within their creative process. ‘The question as to whether design intervention is at all a value-added and productive process is distinctly complicated by the fact that most artisans are not active players, either in spearheading change or in marketing. The actual players represent many different interest areas.’9 However the practicalities of language differences, geographic distances and bureaucratic constraints can stymie even the best intentions by the western designer to be directly in contact with the artisans. Yet the consumer is increasingly more interested in and demanding that the story behind each hand crafted product be transparent and traceable.

Western designers may be unwittingly doing more harm than good by not actively engaging with the artisans and without gaining an understanding of the cultural context within which the artisans work. Designer meets Artisans states that ‘insensitive forms of design intervention often separate elements of the craft and then juxtapose them in new ways. This disempowers artisans because it is done without any explanation of the means of access.’10 Conversely to remain economically viable the artisans ‘must respond to changes in markets, consumer needs, fashion trends and usage preferences.’11 This knowledge can be brought to the artisans by designers.

Indeed by western designers gaining a better understanding of the way artisans work in their communities and by endorsing a collaborative approach in their interaction with the artisans the resulting design process can be more beneficial for both the designer and the artisan. This quote from The Kashmiri Shawl by Rosie Thomas about a kani embroidered shawl explains the design process in a typical artisan community, ‘The weaver shook it out so the colours danced in the air. The other two young men caught the corners and brought the piece closer to show off the design. These were the embroiderers who had sat for the whole year, one end apiece, to work over the woven blossoms with their intricate stitches. The shawl wasn’t just their work, though. It also belonged to the spinners and dyers, and the talim man who had drawn up the intricate patterns for the weavers to follow.’12

Fayaz Ahmad the draftsman or 'naqash'

In my own experience of working with artisan communities in India I have found collaboration with as many specific artisans as possible involved in producing my designs in fact produces the best results. This is not always easy due to restrictions involving the previously mentioned business models. Contact can be limited to a NGO representative, business agents or business owners because of language barriers and the geographic distances involved between the various artisans specializing in particular skills involved in the production of a design. But by insistence each artisan can be met and included in the design process, their knowledge enhancing and evolving the design. At the same time each artisan can be given an insight into the concept and purpose of the design so therefore gains an understanding of the products use by the eventual buyer. For example when making new designs for crewel embroidery curtains the Kashmiri naqash or draftsman studied my proposed designs and suggested subtle changes that would better suit the crewel embroidery stitch. After explaining that the embroidered fabric would be made into three metre length curtains he suggested the concentration of the design be reduced to make the product more affordable for the customer while still enabling the fabric to be hand embroidered. Time spent with the crewel embroiderers meant colour variations can be explained and adjustments made while an appreciation of their skills is ascertained.

Other western designers have also found a collaborative approach when working with traditional artisans can successfully promote their communities and cultural sustainability. Australian Carolyn Wilson founder of Better World Arts has linked Australian Aboriginal paintings with Kashmiri chain stitch embroidery and weaving in a cross-cultural project. After her initial experience of sending her own painting designs to an Indian Kashmiri family, the Sidiqs, to be woven she became involved through a friend with Kaltjiti Arts, located in the traditional Aboriginal Anangu Pitjantjatjara/Yankunytjatjara Lands (APY Lands) of northern South Australia. Together they decided to have Aboriginal painting designs embroidered and woven in Kashmir.

At first ‘there were problems of translation – of design, not language. The myriad of dots that characterises central Australian Aboriginal painting was problematic for weavers, and she learnt to be quite selective in the paintings she sent for production.’ 13 Wilson found that by sending designs from Australia mistakes in translation and colours were often made in the woven home furnishings of rugs, cushion covers and wall hangings that were exported back to her. ‘She now tries to travel at least once a year to Kashmir in order to check quality control and maintain the personal relationships on which her business is based.’14

The Aboriginal artists commission the production of their images onto products owned by themselves, through their art centres. Wilson had to convince the market to accept ‘Aboriginal-derivative products,’ she considers that these products give access to interested consumers who cannot economically have access to the art market. Of equal importance is that around sixty Kashmiri artisans are provided with a steady income applying their traditional craft that has been in sharp decline in the Kashmir region, threatened by mass production. ‘Aboriginal communities provide the designs and stories that appeal to the Australian market. And the Kashmiri artisans find regular work in providing these products with a handmade quality that enlivens the designs.’ 15

The IOU Project encourages their customers to take an active role in the design process making the story of how each item of clothing was created completely traceable through the use of social media. ‘When a customer purchases and then receives the piece through the IOU Project site, they’ll find that each piece has a QR code. Each code takes the final customer back to the artisans involved in making that piece. Using the code, we encourage the customer to upload their picture wearing that piece to complete the story.’16 The traditional Indian handloom weavers can then see the final destination of the product they began. Kavita Parmar, fashion designer and cofounder of the IOU Project, travelled around India and spent time talking to the 246 artisan families of weavers involved to understand their craft and their business model. Parmar explains, ‘we are helping them open up another market. They have been struggling to compete with machine-made goods in their traditional markets. We do not interfere with their traditional weaving or design processes, but take the fabrics they make and then design the pieces and the final garment in Europe.’ She considers that the designer’s role is to develop a product with a modern aesthetic ‘while learning a lot about the craft from the artisan.’17 While the IOU Project’s customer’s awareness about the weavers who make the fabrics and the time involved in the weaving process encourages responsible consumption.

The common consensus according to Artists meets Designers is ‘That the artisans need to be involved in every aspect of market research, design, production, costing and marketing, and also need to understand the adaptations and changes in the form, function, usage and sale of the product that they are making.’18 Sari Fair Fashion is a certified Fair Trade design company based in the Netherlands that sells products made by traditional artisans in India and Bangladesh. The artisans are included in the design process by involvement in workshops organized by Sari’s Karin Kaashoek on her frequent trips to the artisans’ communities. Fashion trends from Europe, including colours and styles, are shown to the artisans in a series of ‘look books.’ Discussions with the artisans establish how their products fit in with European trends or how they can be adapted using existing techniques. Ideas are researched and developed with the artisans applying their traditional crafts to new products. They are part of the design process and their stories are available for the consumer. The Sari Fair Fashion website suggests that ‘Any group that wants to organize an activity around fair trade, sustainable production and critical consumption, may rely on one of the SARI Fair Fashion Shops.’19 They will give an illustrated presentation including images of the producers and background of their work in the clothing and textile trade.

The concept of connectedness has been reinforced through the phenomenal growth of the Internet and in particular the use of social media over the past few years. The consumer, like the woman shopping in a Sydney high street, now considers that they should be a part of a network that includes transparency and traceability about the products they buy. There is an attraction to the handmade product because the consumer with a conscience considers that they are part of an ethical process in supporting the sustainability of traditional craft communities who culturally tend to respect the natural resources in their environment.

But returning to Bhukhu, the appliqué embroiderer near Barmer, like most craftspeople in India she has no formal training and little or no education. Her access to the Internet and connection to the global community is questionable. The artisan, even a master craftsperson, mainly remains outside the design development and marketing process. Jasleen Dhamija concludes that in India, ‘the craftpersons have to learn to stand on their own two feet. …. It requires that the knowledge, the skills of the masters should be a part of the formal education system. … It is only when the craftpersons are equal partners in the production, marketing of crafts, in deciding the government policy towards crafts can we expect crafts to develop the strength to be sustained.’20The western designer would be then interacting with a more informed artisan with an integral role in the network of designer, artisan and consumer.


1 Sharmila Wood, Sustaining crafts and livelihoods: handmade in India (Craft + Design Enquiry 3, 2011), Viewed 3 April 2012,

2 J. Bhatt, Philosophy and Practice of Crafts and Design (Seminar Magazine, [online], 2007), Viewed 3 April 2012, http://www.india–‐

3 ‘Executive Summary 2010 Edelman goodpurpose Study’ 2010, Viewed 6 April 2012,®-Study.

4 Indrasen Vencatachellum, Foreword to Designers Meet Artisans: A Practical Guide, (Published jointly by the Craft Revival Trust, Artesanías de Colombia S A. and U N E S C O, 2005), v.

5 Vencatachellum, Foreword, v. 6 Ritu Sethi, Coming Out of the Shadow: Contextualising and Codifying Traditional Indigenous Knowledge of Craft Practice into Mainstream Education (Craft Revival Trust Voice, September 2010), Viewed 6 April 2012,

7 Ashoke Chatterjee, The Indian Craft: Sunrise or Sunset in a Global Market (Craft Revival Trust Voice, 2006), Viewed 6 April 2012,

8 Jasleen Dhamija, From then till now (India together, June 2003), Viewed 7 April 2012,

9 Ritu Sethi, Cecilia Duque Duque and Indrasen Vencatachellum, ed., Designers Meet Artisans: A Practical Guide (Published jointly by the Craft Revival Trust, Artesanías de Colombia S A. and U N E S C O, 2005), 3.

10 Sethi, Duque Duque and Vencatachellum, ed., Designers Meet Artisans: A Practical Guide, 8.

11 Sethi, Duque Duque and Vencatachellum, ed., Designers Meet Artisans: A Practical Guide, 9.

12 Rosie Thomas, The Kashmir Shawl (HarpersCollinsPublishers, 2011), 359.

13 ‘Better World Arts: Friendship calls, from Kaltjiti to Kashmir’ (Sangam-the Australia India Design Platform posted by coordinator 28 February 2012), Viewed 19 April 2012,

14 ‘Better World Arts: Friendship calls, from Kaltjiti to Kashmir,’ Viewed 19 April 2012,

15 ‘Better World Arts,’ Viewed 19 April 2012,

16 Regina Connell, The Big Picture: IOU Project/Kavita Parmar (Handful of Salt, April 2012), Viewed 23 April 2012,

17 ‘The IOU Project: Weaving Hope’ (Source 4 Style, February 2012), Viewed 23 April 2012,

18 Sethi, Duque Duque and Vencatachellum, ed., Designers Meet Artisans: A Practical Guide, 9.

19 ‘Sari Fair Fashion,’ Viewed 23 April 2012,

20 Jasleen Dhamija, From then till now (India together, June 2003), Viewed 7 April 2012, http/

Deborah Emmett is a fashion and textile designer who lives in Sydney and Delhi. Her label is Tradition Textiles. See also her work in Jugalbandi.