One of my goals for my year-long journey around the world with my husband was to learn about ethical fashion from the maker’s perspective.
Having lived in New York City for eight years covering the beat of sustainable fashion, everything I learned was from the perspective of the designers who invited me to their studios, the big brands who released CSR reports, and the nonprofits who convened panels of experts on the topic.
I was always one, two, or six degrees removed from the women who were weaving and sewing.
So while I knew some of the facts, seen pictures, and was familiar with some artisan techniques (like ikat, for example), I didn’t truly understand what artisan fashion was. That has happily changed in the last four months.
I’ve visited the private home of a weaver in Oaxaca and learned natural dyeing techniques, gotten a foot pedal loom lesson from weavers in Nicaragua, learned the history and technique of mola fabric by the Guna Yala in Panama, toured the largest handmade shoe factory in Lima, held baby alpacas on alpaca farms near Cusco, fingered beads made from seeds (and monkey teeth!) in the Amazon jungle, and learned the difference between a spinning wheel and hand spindle, a foot pedal loom and backstrap loom. Most importantly, I’ve shared laughs and had conversation with all these women, and without exception grew quite fond of them in the short time I had to get to know them, ranging from a half hour to two days.
So what is artisanship when it comes to fashion?
My definition has changed in the past few months, and of course grown more rich and complex. But here are some things that all of the artisan makers I’ve met have in common:
ARTISANSHIP VALUES TRADITION
Every artisan that I met was using traditional techniques going back at least 60 years (in the case of the handmade shoe factory), a couple hundred years (the molas and the foot pedal loom) and sometimes to pre-Columbian times (the Amazon accessories, alpaca capes). These women had learned the techniques from their mothers, grandmothers, and grandfathers. The same indigenous symbols going back to before the Spanish landed are woven into fabrics. One foot pedal loom I saw was 300 years old, passed down through the family. The Lima shoe factory is a brand new facility that only expanded a grandfather’s successful shoe-making business. Of course, modern elements had been incorporated: zippers and rivets for purses, modern silhouettes for sweaters, and metallic gold finishes on the shoes. But the emphasis is always on a community or family’s traditional techniques and aesthetics.
ARTISANSHIP USES NATURAL MATERIALS
I did not come across polyester or plastics in my travels. Instead, all these artisan communities use rich natural materials, like leather, cotton, wool, alpaca wool, tree bark, and seeds. Some use materials with synthetic dyes, because it’s much more affordable. But others use local plants and roots to clean wool, and local flowers, insects, leaves, and seeds to get a rainbow of natural colors.
I am aware that some people in low-income countries construct items from upcycled materials like bottle caps and plastic bags. But these items have never appealed to me the way a block-print fabric or woven mochila bag does. It really is a poor replacement for the real thing, built not on respect for skills and craft, but on a sort of pity. (Wow, the trash pickers are using materials that Western countries have dumped on them!) And frankly, these items just don’t have the quality of artisan items made of natural materials.
ARTISANSHIP INVOLVES THE HANDS AND THE EYES
Sometimes these artisans use tools, such as a foot pedal loom, or a sanding machine for the soles of the shoes. But to make it an art, the hands have to touch the material, feeling its heft and weight. The artisans plot out the patterns using their memory, peer closely at the weave to make sure it is correct, use their muscle memory from 30 years of practice to know when the shoe is just right. This isn’t something that an algorithm can decide, or a machine can punch out — that is what makes it an art.
ARTISANSHIP IS QUALITY
Nothing I encountered in my visits ever felt flimsy. Delicate, maybe. Worth handling with care, such as the feather earrings I bought in the Amazon, made from parrot feathers that had been naturally shed and fallen to the ground. But there is a substance to artisan work. The thick embroidery on a cape from the Andes or a mola from Panama, the warmth of an alpaca sweater that will not pill — these items, because they’re made with traditional techniques passed down from a time when fast fashion didn’t exist, are made to last a lifetime.
ARTISANSHIP IS INDEPENDENT
In the conventional fashion process, a designer tells a factory exactly what she wants made. But if you work with artisans, it’s a collaborative process. What can you make using those weaving techniques, those patterns, those colors? Of course, brands can bring mood boards in, can look through all the patterns and materials and choose what they want to work with this time, can show sketches to the artisans and request tweaks to the traditional design in order to modernize it. But in the end, artisans are the expert in making, and a designer has to respect the parameters that traditional artisanship imposes on a design, plus respect the knowledge of the artisan.
ARTISANSHIP IS A GOOD LIFE
The thing that struck me the most, as I visited these homes and workshops and the factory, was that artisanship affords women in developing countries a wonderful life. The workshops were often close to or right in nature, with more fresh air and sunlight than the average office worker ever gets in the U.S. Moving the shuttle back and forth is a meditative motion, I found, one that I wanted to keep doing all day, instead of attending to the pinging of my smartphone and email inbox. The natural dyes used have little to no smell, as opposed to the caustic dyes and chemicals used in conventional fashion. These workshops were filled with women who talked amongst themselves, in a tight-knit, supportive community filled with laughter. And because they created and sold their creations, they had more economic power than other women in their communities. Best of all, to be a real artisan is to go through the satisfying lifetime process of becoming very, very good at something that is tangible and real.
You should buy artisan-made fashion for many reasons: it’s quality, it’s beautiful, and it tells a story of the place it comes from better than a shot glass or postcard ever could. But most of all, you should buy artisan-made fashion because you’re telling a woman that she, her skills, and her community’s traditions are valuable.
Alden Wicker is the editor in chief of EcoCult. A blogger, and freelance journalist, with bylines in Glamour, Quartz, Newsweek, Fast Company, Rodale’s Organic Life, Refinery29, and Racked. She’s currently traveling for a year around the world with her husband, and she’s deepening her understanding of sustainable travel in developing countries and artisan and ethical fashion. You can find Alden on Instagram and on her website.