When Irani Sen, Director and Founder of Craft Resource Centre in India, paid us a visit in July, we were awestruck when she told us about the complex geopolitical factors that led to the creation of the artisan group that designs and manufactures one of our favourite new products.
The story began in colonial India, after the ruling British had made huge changes to the way Indian society was organized, and the way the economy functioned – with consequences that last until today. Some regions grew food or mined resources for export. Others began manufacturing things for the British ruling classes living in India.
Custom tailors, who under pre-British royal patronage had had a thriving cottage industry of handmade clothing, made dresses and gowns to fill the closets of British women. Later, as British fashion began to influence Indian fashion, upper class Indian women were having their clothes custom-made too. Demand grew, and the area became renowned for craftsmanship.
When industrialization arrived in India, the market for custom tailors evaporated. However, some masters persisted with the craft, and worked hard to find sporadic, irregular contracts to make ends meet.
In the last 20 years, globalization has swept the world. International treaties have made it easier for large brands to operate all over the world. As a result, today you’ll see the same clothing brands that dominate in North America dominating the Indian high fashion world, too. The market for custom clothing collapsed, and most of the remaining Indian tailors became jobless.
Unemployed tailors reached out for help. Under the guidance of master tailors and the CRC, groups were formed with artisans from industrial slums and the rural cottage sector. CRC began working with these tailor groups to develop new products for export – products that take advantage of their expertise, but remained affordable and attractive for the international market. These new designs and new products, the results of professional guidance, have begun to bring in new orders. One such product – the pleated cushion cover – stands out. The design requires fine stitching and fabric manipulation, but is simple enough for these expert craftspeople that it remains affordable for North Americans. The pleated cushion covers have become their specialty – and we carry the design in 5 colours!
Irani told us that the tailors, organized into three groups, called Darzee, Srijan and Shilpo Kutir, were happy to receive the order from Ten Thousand Villages Canada. In fact, because of orders from Ten Thousand Villages and other fair trade retailers in the US and Australia, they are getting back on their feet and becoming financially stable once again. At the same time, CRC is fielding requests for fair trade clothing from the tailors (including fair trade wedding dresses!) that take full advantage of their exceptional skill. Without fair trade, the master tailors would be squandering their skills or out of work entirely. Now, they are able to continue to develop their craft while supporting their families.
We asked Irani what the artisans’ favourite products were to make. With a smile, she replied, “They like to make the products that sell.” With success stories like those of these three tailor groups illustrating fair trade’s impact, it’s clear why.
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