On the surface the people you’re about to meet may seem like textiles junkies who travel the world searching for their next obsession; but in reality they’re committed individuals whose life’s work consists of working with artisan communities around the world through design, development, culture and commerce. They pioneer a type of transformative travel that impacts the world positively; they define what sustainable travel really means.
Elbé Coetsee is a well known author and the founder of Mogalakwena Craft Art Development Foundation, a sister project of Mogalakwena River Lodge in the Limpopo Valley, near the Mapungubwe World Heritage site in South Africa. She has established a sustainable development programme that provides training and employment in craft art for previously disadvantaged or unemployed people – including embroidery, sewing, beadwork, candle-making, basketry, pottery and basic computer literacy.
Elbé published Craft Art in South Africa in 2002 and Craft Art in South Africa: Creative Intersections in 2015. “I find so much inspiration during my travels and bring back textures, patterns and colours to my project, then apply them in a new and/or African way. In Limpopo (Makhado, Giyani, Polokwane), for example, I buy striped Venda and Tsonga textiles and garments, as well as fabrics that traditional healers wear.”
For Elbé, sustainable travel has a big role to play in the development of artisanal communities. Tailor-made trips to Mogalakwena, for example, provide a cultural, rural experience in the African bush. They also offer the opportunity to take part in day (and longer) workshops where visitors learn to embroider, do stencil work, screen printing, knitting, crochet, basket weaving, beadwork, and even sing and dance with the women. Elbé emphasises the two-way impact and inspiration between guests and the artisans: when guests visit the Mogalakwena Craft Art Centre the embroiderers, weavers and bead workers observe the designs and fabrics of visitors’ clothes – these often serve as inspiration for product development.
Keith Recker, founder of HAND/EYE Magazine and trend and colour consultant, says it’s rare that he would plan a trip to a place where there are no interesting textiles. He recently attended the International Folk Art Market in Santa Fe, where master folk artists from over 60 countries – all of them juried in by two panels of experts – come to show their handmade art. Before that, he travelled to Lake Atitlán in Guatemala for two weeks to lead an exploratory colour workshop with over a dozen women rug-makers from indigenous communities all over the country.
And before that it was Haiti to work with craftspeople in many media, including beaded vodou textiles. He has found the most inspiring textiles in many different places; “I’ve never seen more inventive or varied embellishment techniques as I saw in Macedonia. In Indonesia, earthy tan and indigo Javanese batik made me swoon. In Cambodia, complex ikats filled the extra suitcase I had to buy. In Uzbekistan, particularly 20 years ago on the first of several trips there, the region-specific styles of suzani nearly bankrupted me. I could go on like this for a while…”
Keith’s travels are almost always artisan-driven, and it is his daily prayer that the work they do together be useful, whether by way of product development, teaching, or introducing amazing handmade textiles to new markets. As far as the challenges he has come across while working in the field, he often finds himself longing for things done in the “old ways” — tiny, detailed stitches; natural colours; poetic messages delivered in icons understood by the maker and used with purpose.
When speaking about the role of sustainable travel for the development of artisanal communities, Keith admits he loves the idea of armies of respectful, culturally sensitive travellers seeking out textile communities and investing in them with both hospitality spending and purchases of textiles. Is there sustainability hidden in that vision somewhere? Possibly, he ponders. However, there’s also the usual risk of social disruption and environmental impact, both of which in quantity could change a community. But surely the answer does not lie in isolating traditional artisan communities? Instead, Keith believes the solution lies in navigating the risks of increased tourism.
In his view, this is how travel could impact the development and preservation of artisanal communities around the world. “Taking a moment or two on the road to learn about a textile tradition can be so enriching. Watching the Uzbek silk ikat process from cocoon to dye room to loom comes to mind. Afterward, being able to purchase something made by the people who’ve shared their knowledge is wonderful — but not just for us travellers. It’s economically meaningful for artisans, too. Sometimes even life-changing. In many countries, traditional textiles are being crowded out of the marketplace by cheap industrial imports. The travel market, in its search for authenticity and narrative, can be a bit of a bulwark against the total disappearance of traditional textile forms.”
Maggie Galton and Maria Eladia Hagerman are the founders of Onora Casa, Mexico’s most sophisticated artisanal design shop. They travel obsessively searching for textiles — recently they have been to Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, India and, of course, they’ve extensively explored Mexico, where they live. Chiapas in Mexico, it turns out, is a favourite for the richness and complexity of its brocade work. They describe the impact of their work: “Our company and shop tries to feature an annual line of non-Mexican products that compliments Onora’s Mexican-crafted textiles and objects. One year we featured Guatemalan pillows and throws and another year Peruvian wool products. These lines were inspired by community visits to weavers outside of Chichicastenango, Guatemala and Chinchero, Peru. The direct impact is economic, but also in terms of design sensibility there is an active exchange of ideas from which everyone involved learns, grows and benefits.”
When speaking about the challenges they face, they cite authenticity and finding good, high-quality natural materials. Due to the replacement of natural fibres (cotton, wool and silk) with synthetics, many traditional textiles are being made with inferior quality and low-cost alternatives that compromise the overall quality and value of traditional textiles. They also talk about the impact that travel has on the development and preservation of artisanal communities around the globe; “Everyday travellers are more and more interested and inspired to discover authentic, high-quality crafts that are representative of the places they have visited. This increasing demand has a direct impact on artisanal production and helps keep craft traditions alive. As long as these type of travellers are mindful and willing to pay fair prices, the economic impact should be immediate and sustainable, thereby improving the standard of living.
“Conversely, mass travel can incentivise these communities to find cheaper and more rapid means of producing lower quality alternatives to their crafts, thus endangering artisanal traditions.” And speaking of solutions, they point out the importance of Fair Trade principles as a key to maintaining the role of sustainable travel for the development of artisanal communities. It is imperative that travellers not only focus on purchasing crafts from local artisans, but also on using local suppliers, local food and family owned accommodation or homestays – thus improving local people’s living standards, income redistribution, job creation and environmental preservation.
Taller Maya, a brand and sister project of Haciendas del Mundo Maya in Yucatan, México, stands at the crossroads of tourism and artisanal work. Carolina Medellín, their sustainability manager, explains: “Tourism is at the heart of a virtuous circle that benefits all members of artisan communities. This circle is the core of sustainable travel, which is clearly one of the leading trends in experiential tourism. The Haciendas were originally conceived to be a link between sophisticated travellers and the Mayan heritage of the Yucatan Peninsula. The strategic plan behind them is a sustainable tourism programme specifically focused on improving the wellbeing of local communities through their interaction with tourists.
“The programme began with the reconstruction of the haciendas through the direct involvement of the local workers. They eventually became today’s welcoming staff and associates. The rescue of the artisanal techniques became a core part of the project, as these handcrafts became a key component of the interior design of each guest room and public area. Their demand resulted in the creation of boutiques within each hacienda to share the products with guests and allow them to have a curated selection of high-quality products available to take home. As a result, this became a detonator of today’s incredible artisanal communities around The Haciendas. Today, they are important components of increased economic activity and family welfare.”
Carolina says they’ve been surprised by the re-organisation of gender roles in the community. “Our biggest surprise is how women have reacted to the whole project. They clearly identified the benefits of having their own artisan workshops and have fully adopted the benefits. When the group first entered these communities, we found a completely deteriorated family structure. The towns were exclusively made up of women, children and the elderly. The men had left to find work opportunities elsewhere and rarely interacted with their families. Poverty levels were amongst the worst in the country.
“Through our programmes, the women identified very clear and powerful methods to improve the wellbeing of their families. They threw themselves fully into non-traditional roles that led to their becoming important leaders in their community. They not only complemented household income through their work; they also became intimately involved in the improvement of the health of their families, the education of their children, learning new skills to transmit to their children and giving them better opportunities in life than they had. The level of empowerment that they adopted for themselves grew to such a degree that in one the communities Itzincab, one of the artisan women, was recently elected the town commissary. She is the first woman in the history of the state to hold this position.”
Thus, sustainable travel seems to be the answer to the preservation of cultures and the sustainability of artisan communities. Why? Because, unlike traditional tourism, it incorporates the needs and desires of all parties involved. With this view, local communities become partners with a voice, a healthy, authentic lifestyle and a promising sustainable future for all parts involved. As the founder of Santa Fe’s Museum of International Folk Art, Florence Dibell Bartlett, once said; “The art of the craftsman is a bond between the peoples of the world.” Now isn’t that a good mantra.
Marcella Echavarria is a Colombian-born, New York-based entrepreneur contributing regularly about cultural and adventure travel, design and food to magazines in South America and the US. Alongside her work as a travel and lifestyle photojournalist and travel designer, Echavarria covers artisans around the world and works with them to preserve their craft by developing links between these vanishing communities and developed markets.