Part of the 2017 “Anor” (Pomegranate) Home Decor Collection from Armughon Handicrafts, Tajikistan.Handcrafted Suzani & Ikat Pillow Covers

Hand-Embroidered Suzani & Ikat Pillow Covers

Designing Fair Trade products for Western markets is like dancing on a high wire--one misstep and you can crash and burn. If you are interested in preserving authenticity, it's a constant balancing act between the cultural authenticity of the local art form and what Western buyers want to buy. In Tajikistan (located just north of Afghanistan), the traditional suzani embroidery and ikat weaving forms are on the edge of extinction. The term "suzani" comes from the Persian word "suzan" which means needle, and refers to both the large traditional wall size tapestries as well as the hand embroidery technique. Today, the term suzani is often associated with Uzbekistan but it is also popular in other Central Asian countries, including Tajikistan.

Map of Tajikistan

Tajikistan has a proud cultural history going back at least 3000 years. It hosted several major stops on the Silk Road between China and Western Europe.

Traditional Zerafshan Suzanis

Each region of Tajikistan has its own traditional suzani patterns and color palettes. HoonArts Fair Trade works with a small group of artisans in northern Tajikistan that is struggling to collect and preserve the traditional Zerafshan Valley patterns, and provide a desperately needed cash income to rural women in the area. The designer for the group, Munira Akilova, went out into the local villages to collect, photograph and preserve these traditional patterns found in the dowries of grandmothers and great grandmothers. She is now working to save these patterns, and the associated cultural heritage and meaning, from extinction. The younger generation isn't learning the old techniques or patterns. Like their American counterparts, they are more interested in social media and landing high tech jobs (assuming they don't get married first).

Mini-Suzani Wall Hanging from Armughon Handicrafts

To create a sustainable cash flow, the artisans need to create products that appeal to Western buyers. The challenge is to do that without completely losing the cultural authenticity. Traditional cultural products and color palettes often don't appeal to US buyers. American buyers, for example, typically don't buy wall-sized tapestries. And Americans prefer a quieter color palette with fewer colors, but not quite as subdued as European buyers. And it's important to make sure that the products meet Western standards in terms of size, style, quality and finishing details. Then there is the problem of access to raw materials, like base fabrics in the "right" colors. It's often difficult to be sure that they can get the same fabric and color next month. Many global artisan organizations solve the problem of marketability by hiring a Western designer. Unfortunately, this often means that the final product, while “inspired” by the local cultural traditions, loses the true cultural authenticity in the process. The local artisans end up becoming simply an overseas producer for the Western designer. This happens even in the Fair Trade movement, though the artisans are paid better than those in the “fast fashion” industry.

The Accidental Halloween Pillow

At HoonArts Fair Trade, we're trying to walk on that high wire to help our artisans at Armughon Handicrafts develop products that appeal to US buyers, but still preserve true cultural authenticity. It's a challenging balancing act, with products evolving over time. Our first pillow covers were typically 18" X 18", which is a popular size in the US, but included color palettes that didn't really work for our market. And the price made it hard to compete with products from India and Latin America, where raw materials, labor costs, and shipping costs are much lower. Some of the results were pillows like this one, which led to a discussion about how the orange and black combination is only used for Halloween in the US.

More Experiments

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After research, we realized that in the higher end market, the 20" square pillow works better than the 18" square pillow. So we did some more experiments like these two pillow covers. But we learned again that the color palette and pattern combination were still "too much" for the typical American buyer. Plus, the amount of hand embroidery and the heavy use of hand-woven silk/cotton blend ikat fabrics pushed the price up beyond the level that had a real potential for wholesale in the US.

The 2017 "Anor" (Pomegranate) Collection

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With input from the experts at the Aid to Artisans "Market Readiness Program" last August, as well as color and style research at the NY Now and Las Vegas trade shows, we've been working on a "less is more" collection. The final result is our 2017 Anor (Pomegranate) Collection. The embroidery patterns are authentic, not a stylized "inspired by" creation. The pomegranate is a very traditional motif in Tajikistan, symbolizing abundance, prosperity and fertility. But the color palettes, product sizes and finishing details are designed to meet Western tastes. Now we're holding our breath and waiting to see if we're still delicately balanced on the high wire. But the journey isn't over. We've just learned that the order of red ikat from Uzbekistan for the red portion of the collection is not quite the same color as the original small sample. Now we're waiting for the artists in Uzbekistan to dye and weave a whole new batch, by hand. It's kind of scary up here on the high wire, and there's no net. To shop the entire Anor Collection, you can visit the HoonArts Fair Trade website at hoonarts.com.

6 thoughts on “Design on a High Wire: Authenticity vs. Marketability”

  1. Profile photo of Rachel Biel Rachel Biel says:

    The embroidery is so beautiful! Plus, the colors look so great together….

  2. Margaret Hicks says:

    I understand what you are doing, but I regret that you are having to modify tribal designs. They are absolutely amazing in their richness and historical value.

    1. Profile photo of Rachel Biel Rachel Biel says:

      Hopefully, they can offer both. I had friends who worked with the Hmong communities when they first arrived in Minneapolis and they had to go through some of the same process. Although there is much more appreciation for the tribal/boho aesthetic, some combinations are just too hard to sell. Plus, Rikki has to take price points into account and having less handwork does make it more affordable. Designs are always evolving at the point of creation, too. Their own tastes change, tribal groups copy from or are inspired by each other, industrial products creep in an influence what they do and this has been going on for centuries as they get feedback from their own markets.

      1. Rikki Quintana says:

        So very true, Rachel. The evolution is constant. Our challenge is to preserve the key cultural elements and meaning, and avoid being totally swamped by “modern” influences that often come with no real meaning other than “it’s trendy.” What I find sad is seeking mass-produced plastic or cheap Chinese factoryproducts labeled “ikat” or “Suzani” with no understanding or appreciation at all about the origin or meaning of the authentic arts. I often wonder if this situation would be different if textile arts were not traditionally “women’s work” and therefor not “true art” almost by definition. Interestingly, in Central Asian ikat weaving, the pattern creation and tying for weaving is traditionally reserved for men, while women do the weaving.

        1. Profile photo of Rachel Biel Rachel Biel says:

          These problems have been going on around the world since the 1970’s. There are two main forces that have devastated the craft industry: war and industrialization. I visited lacemakers on the coast of NorthEastern Brazil in the mid 90’s and almost all of the women were in their 60’s and 70’s. Their daughters were working at factories. They just didn’t make enough income from such laborious work and it was too risky as sales might be good one month and bad another. But, there are many excellent initiatives happening all around the world which have been successful at re-energizing and preserving craft skills and techniques. The interest textile artists have had in dyeing, weaving, embroidery, etc. has led to workshops, partnerships, and all kinds of exciting projects that have created new markets and demand for all of this knowledge that is disappearing so quickly. So, whatever we can do to help that along also encourages young people to learn from the experts in their communities. Getting the young involved is so important because they bring in tech and language skills that can eventually help these communities to be independent and market themselves.

          I used to sell ethnic and tribal goods on eBay, back when it was still pretty small. There were just a handful of us and we did very well. Now, I can’t compete anymore as people are selling their own goods from all over the world and that is as it should be. Bad for me, but good for them. 🙂 These are exciting times and you, Rikki, will continue to learn, adapt, experiment and find what works. Meanwhile, I hope that we can support you and help you get out to the markets you need to support this effort. You are not alone!

    2. Rikki Quintana says:

      Sadly, since the younger generation is not learning the traditional arts at home, the handicraft sector is the main agent for preservation. One of the real tragedies in Tajikistan is that the vintage textile items (the cultural heritage itself) are being cut up and turned into products for tourists, just because of the need for cash. This breaks the heart of people like Munira. That’s one of the reasons I love working with a group that is committed to preserving the authentic but creating something new (and marketable) at the same time. They also produce other products designed for the local market and aesthetic, and are re-educating Tajikistanis about their own heritage in the process. It’s very fulfilling to know that I get to play even a small role in this process.

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