My mom has always influenced the lens through which I view the world – that’s largely what mothers do. My mom is a costumier, working tirelessly behind her various sewing machines for 16 hours a day (everyday, not exaggerating!) creating tiny dance outfits for bedazzled children. Her one-of-kind creations are meticulously crafted using unconventional, eye-catching materials such as faux fur, feathers, sequins, rhinestones, tassels, fringe, you name it – the more intricate and outlandish the better! This doesn’t mean that I see the world through disco-themed, Lady Gaga-inspired eyeglasses (although sometimes I do!) – but it means that I carefully consider and appreciate the way that things are made. With love, careful deliberation, fastidious attention to detail and skills that have been perfected over the course of many hours, many years, many generations.
There isn’t really anything more special than something that has been handcrafted by an expert artisan – someone whose skills have been built up and passed down over generations. Like my own mother (who learned how to sew from her mother and has spent years fine-tuning her own approach and style), there are communities across the globe that are creating the most beautiful, detailed, high-quality textiles and garments the slow way – with their own hands, traditional expertise and a lot of love. Here’s a few of my favourite artisanal techniques and chosen brands striving to keep tradition alive and to improve livelihoods for artisans that live in many of the world’s most impoverished locations – you’ll be inspired too!
Maiyet marries old world traditions with new world design to create womenswear that is uniquely inspired. Maiyet partners with companies and artisans in Colombia, India, Italy, and Kenya, and marks a return to the roots of luxury while elevating an emerging generation of master craftsmen.
Maiyet works with Nest, an independent nonprofit dedicated to training and developing artisan businesses to promote entrepreneurship, prosperity and dignity in places that need it most.
The brainchild of Kristy Caylor, formerly of Gap Group, Levi’s, Nordstrom and ex-COO of Band of Outsiders, together with two human rights- committed social entrepreneurs, Maiyet spent 6 months traveling the world finding the most remarkable craftspeople and sophisticated levels of skill. Their travels lead them to hand-loom silk jacquard weaving in West Java, Indonesia; lost-wax cast jewellery from Medellin, Colombia; poured brass & carved horn & bone jewelry in Nairobi, Kenya; and carved-block printers in Jaipur, India (see video below to their amazing work in action).
After Machu Picchu, the first image that comes to mind when visualising Peru is the amazing, colourful and ornate traditional clothing of the Quechua people. Traditional handicrafts are an important aspect of material culture. This includes a tradition of weaving handed down from Inca times or earlier, using cotton, wool (from llamas, alpacas, guanacos, vicunas) and a multitude of natural dyes, and incorporating numerous woven patterns (pallay).
Awamaki is a Peruvian non-profit working with indigenous Quechua women weavers to improve their skills and increase their access to markets, thereby revitalizing an endangered weaving tradition while affording Quechua women a reliable source of income.
Awamaki Lab is a four-month fashion design residency that gives young designers the opportunity to develop a capsule collection in partnership with Awamaki and its weavers’ association. Fashion designers taking part in the residency have included: Nieli Vallin under the mentorship of Study NY‘s Tara St. James for SS 2012; and Andria Crescioni with Courtney Cedarholm for AW 2012.
Sold through the Awamaki online store and an inaugural pop-shop in New York City, the profits of the collection produced are reinvested in the Awamaki Sewing Collective. The collective uses the money to teach local women how to sew, use patterns and to encourage designing in order to diversify the labor market – all in hopes of empowering a new generation of Peruvian artisans.
Natural D.I.Y – ing
Seems like everyone I know is hopping into the garden and giving a go at concocting their own natural fabric dyes. The majority of natural dyes are derived from plant sources –roots, berries, bark, leaves, and wood — and other organic sources too such as fungi and lichens.
Throughout history, people have dyed their own fabrics using common, locally available materials – those derived from invertebrates, Tyrian purple (extracted from sea snails) and Crimson kermes (created with dried bodies of the female insect), became especially highly prized luxury items in the ancient and medieval world. Plant-based dyes such as woad, indigo, saffron and turmeric were raised commercially and were important trade goods in the economies of Asia and Europe. Cochineal and Logwood were brought to Europe by the Spanish treasure fleets, and the dyestuffs of Europe were carried by colonists to America. Batik, a wax resistant dyeing technique is an ancient art form and has been common across Africa and Asia for centuries, which is now being mass-produced on the whole but with several communities trying to keep the form true to its traditional roots.
There are several workshops that teach you all about creating natural dyes at home with what is locally available. NYC’s Textile Arts Center is currently preparing its new project called ‘Sewing Seeds‘- a community supported agriculture initiative fully dedicated to natural dyes. Starting this summer in Brooklyn on an abandoned lot on the corner of Bergen and 4th Street, Sewing Seeds will transform 596 acres into a place for community members to grow their own seeds – providing members with plants to be used as natural dyes, as well as recipes and workshops how to create their own dyes.
Here Today Here Tomorrow, a boutique meets workshop in London’s Dalston neighborhood, hosts an innovative evening called ‘Dinner to Dye For’. Dinner guests learn how to dye with seasonal plants and create a silk scarf as well as experience a colourful and delicious menu crafted from the same ingredients.
When supermodel Liya Kebede discovered that traditional weavers in her native country of Ethiopia were losing their jobs due to a decline in local demand for their goods, she decided to do something about it. Recognizing the beauty, quality and historic significance of their work, Liya started Lemlem in 2007 as a way to inspire economic independence in her native country and to preserve the art of weaving. All Lemlem products are handmade in Ethiopia using natural cotton.
For AW 2012, Lemlem is stepping into new territory - the Ethiopian team are weaving Italian wool to make winter-ready pieces. Lemlem is also making shoes for the first time by sending Ethiopian fabrics to Guatemala where each pair will be handmade. Expanding the scarf range, the Lemlem weavers will also begin working colorful block printing into scarves and skirts.
“It’s sad that we allow cultures to die,” Maki Oh designer Amaka Osakwe says tells The Fader. The Lagos-based designer uses traditional, local techniques in modern ways to create a collection that could appeal to women across the globe. “It’s my only way of keeping my heritage alive, by making it relevant,” she says. The luxurious textures of the collection are created using age-old methods, such as hand-stitched calabash pieces and hand-painted fabrics using local cultural motifs.
Plus, her aesthetic is truly international and as a result the garments are completely wearable for a variety of locales, events and personal styles. It’s no surprise she won ARISE magazine‘s “Designer of the Year” award this season in Lagos.