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.
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
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.