In recent years, there has been a growing appreciation among consumers for handmade products. Although machinery has done wonders for human well-being, enabling goods that were previously only available to the rich to become affordable to almost everyone, it has also created an environment in which almost everything around us is uniform. Many of our things are bright and shiny, but look closely and they are actually quite dull - no texture, no subtlety, no variety. Perhaps it is this lack of visual complexity that is the reason why we throw so many of our goods away. Handmade goods offer us a way out of this world of uniformity and enable us to feel reconnected to the imperfect but beautiful world around us.
As well as creating items of beauty, artisanal production provides an important source of livelihoods, particularly in rural areas where there are usually few options outside of agriculture, which is seasonal and therefore not a reliable year-round source of income. In developing countries, in particular, artisanal production can provide an important livelihood option due to the fact that it requires no electricity, little if anything in the way of infrastructure, and makes use of skills, such as weaving, which are widespread in, for example, rural Asia.
In the Indian state of Bihar, where our silk products are made, only one in ten thousand homes has electricity. The lack of industry in the area means that huge numbers of people have to migrate to cities to find work. For some, this opens up better opportunities. But for many, it means working from hand to mouth, often as day labourers such as rickshaw pullers. Bihar used to be a hub for textile production, particularly silk. Weavers in the area built up exceptional skills over time, but with the advent of machine production, textiles began to be made in factories and hand weavers found themselves out of work. A revaluing of their skills could bring much-needed work back to this area.
In Bangladesh, a similar situation exists in the rural north of the country, where unemployment is causing mass migration to Dhaka, the capital city. Living conditions in Dhaka are poor and working environments can be dangerous due to the fact that many buildings have been built hastily and with little adherence to safety standards. The Rana Plaza factory collapse in 2013 that killed over a thousand garment workers, many of whom were rural migrants, is an illustration of this. The NGO we are working with in Bangladesh is trying to address this issue by creating jobs in the rural north. It is doing so through harnessing the local kantha stiching tradition and combining it with natural indigo production and intricate hand-dyeing techniques. The result is a stunning collection of textiles, with a quality that far surpasses the machine-made goods that dominate the market.
As consumers rediscover the value of craftsmanship, artisanal skills are beginning to receive the appreciation they deserve. Such a revaluation offers a win-win situation - creating vital livelihood opportunities where they are most needed, and revitalising our material world in the process.