These ethnic artisanal traditions from around the world support communities and preserve cultures, too
By Lora O’Brien
It used to be that whilst travelling, you’d stumble upon an Aladdin’s Cave of ethnic artisanal traditions, with locals displaying their crafts in local markets. I always loved finding treasures like that, not only because they were unique and you could bet your life that you wouldn’t bump into anyone back home wearing the same thing, but also because it felt personal; like you were taking a precious part of that country’s culture home with you.
Fast forward several years and you can pop into many high street chains and see traces of plagiarised culture in their goods. Whether it’s an Aztec print top or an embroidered Incan cross decorating a bag, it may feel like you’re embracing something authentic, but often the story behind that high street item is one of unfair labour practices and cultural appropriation.
No wonder a women’s weaving collective in Guatemala is suing some high street chains for copying their traditional weaving patterns! But if you love adding an ethnic look to your style, there are some ethical options.
Ethical Options For Ethnic Artisanal Work
For example, online retailer SLATE + SALT was founded by a woman called Lyndsay. She travelled far and wide and fell in love with what she saw.
Suddenly the fast fashion work that she was used to shopping in became bland. There was so much more beauty to be found in the unique items she found whilst journeying! It was with this newfound passion that she saw an opportunity to bring an online base to artisans in these remote, rural villages and deliver them to a much bigger audience.
Lyndsay worked hard, through frequent trips, to partner with FairTrade companies. She did so to ensure that all the indigenous artisans on SLATE + SALT are given a fair wage for the work they produce. The site is stocked with goods created from ethnic traditions from all around the world. But here, we picked ten of the ethnic artisanal traditions that really shone for us.
You can see even more in the video by Kristen Leo, below, where she displays her top picks herself.
Ethnic Artisanal Traditions From Around The World
1. Wayuu Tribe Crochet & Weaving
The Wayuu (pronounced ‘Wah-You’) people are an indigenous Latin American group who live on the the borders of Venezuela in the desert of La Guajira Peninsula. They have steadily refuted modern culture. Instead, they live in a manner that preserves their traditional way of life. In a world where men can sometimes feel dominating, The Wayuu people are all about empowering women. The children carry their mother’s last name, making the Wayuu women leaders.
One of the most important tasks of being a Wayuu woman is to keep the significant culture that is weaving through the generations alive. Wayuu mothers teach their daughters the skillful art of how to weave and crochet once they come of age. It’s also greatly believed by the Wayuu that weaving is symbolic of wisdom, intelligence and creativity.
Whilst Wayuu bags are aesthetically vibrant, there’s also a story to be told behind each one. Basically, that will be the story of the woman who handcrafted it. Her story is told through the colours, patterns and shapes she chooses. No two bag are ever the same, and each one tells its own tale.
The financial support The Wayuu Tribe receive from selling their bags allows them to preserve their way of life for generations to come.
2. Guatemalan Weaving
The Mayan inhabitants of Guatemala have used a foot powered treadle loom for almost 2,000 years to weave various fabrics into wonderful designs. And still today, in a world where technology dominates us greatly, they still prefer to stick to their roots of using those traditional methods passed down to them due to the Mayan heritage associated with it. But whilst the Mayan women have kept their methods authentic, they have allowed their designs to modernize with time.
Today, the loom weaving techniques of traditional weaving is combines with a more modern aesthetic to appeal to the modern day women, and bringing together two tales: the hands of the woman behind the weaving, and the women themselves who wear them. The colours greatly reflect the Guatemalan landscapes and are wonderfully intricate.
As with many artisans selling their crafts, this has allowed the Mayan women to become their own business owners and given them the ability to invest back into their own communities, feed their families and school their children. Of course, eventually, this breaks the cycle of poverty with money coming back into the community.
3. Hmong Tribe Embroidery
The Hmong tribe are an Asian ethnic group. They originate from the mountain regions of China, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. They migrated during the 18th century to seek out more workable land. Today, whilst many Hmong are living deep within remote forest and mountain, they are integrated well into Thai society.
The Hmong are incredibly rich when it comes to culture, family and art. All of these things have heavily influenced in their beautifully embroidered, symbolic patterns and costumes. These truly come alive with their coloured threads, fabric and ancient skills.
Each piece of their work feels as though it has a story to tell, which is exactly what it does. The Hmong tribal groups insist that a bit of their faith, belief and personal life has been woven into the fabric. Each piece they sell comes with a whole history behind it. One of our favourite ethnic artisanal traditions from around the world, for sure!
4. Laotian Bomb Jewellery
Between 1964 and 1973, poor Laos had cluster bombs dropped down on them precisely every 8 minutes. For 9 whole years! Every day was lived in terror, as Laos became the most heavily bombed country per capita. When that harrowing era finally ended, they were left with mass amounts of scrap war aluminium.
At the current state of removal, it will take around 800 years to finally rid Laos of evidence of that horrific time. But as a Phoenix rises from the flames, the Laotians took a stand against the destruction of war. And they turned it into one of the most interesting ethnic artisanal traditions ever!
Today there are around 13 families in Laos that work hard to produce more than 150,000 recycled spoons per year made from the scrap metal. This has now expanded to include bracelets, earrings and pendants.
The Laotian community has been taught how to handle these metals in a safe fashion. That includes smelting and cleaning the aluminium before use, making it safe and non-toxic.
5. Nepalese Cashmere Weaving
Nepalese cashmere is renowned for being one of the softest fibre blends in the world. It’s luxurious and light, and is super efficient at keeping the body warm. Taken from the softest undercoat of goats, the Nepalese people use this wool to make scarves and throws.
Blind, deaf or disabled weavers are given the opportunity to work alongside a non-profit organization that provides them with the tools and training needed to become an independent weaver. Usually discriminated against in Nepal, disabled people are now being given the opportunity to work, allowing them the luxury of an independent lifestyle whilst also helping their own families.
Not only are disabled Nepalese workers now being given the chance to create gorgeous products, but they’re also being given also canes, hearing aids and wheelchairs, as well as food and medicine thanks to this new crafts initiative. It’s an exchange that truly benefits both parties; we get a piece of Nepal whilst the hands behind these stunning scarves and blankets receive a better quality of life.
6. The Karen Tribe’s Brass Work
The Karen people are comprised of a group of Sino-Tibetan language speaking ethnic peoples, who reside primarily in Karen State, in southern and southeastern Myanmar. These people make up approximately 7 percent of the total Burmese population. But recently, many have migrated to Thailand, settling mostly on the Thailand-Myanmar border.
The Padaung branch of the Karen tribe are well known for one of the most amazing ethnic artisanal traditions from around the world: namely, their brass neck rings. They add these to women’s necks from an early age to extend them. It’s a look they find highly desirable. Of course, you needn’t wear a neck extending choker to enjoy the beauty of Karen metalwork!
The tribe also create wonderful modern rings, pendants, and bracelets from the same brass as their neck rings.
7. Tanzanian Beadwork
The Maasai tribe live in East Africa, and are well known for their courtship dances, cow herding and of course, their beading skills.
This is a craft only practiced by women, and they take their skills in this arena very seriously. Initially, whatever the women could find in the bush was used: think seeds, shells and stones. But over time, glass beads were introduced by traders in the early 1900s, and today, these are still used, as well as plastic (unfortunately). At Slate + Salt, the jewellery is created from upcycled products: traditional glass beads are intricately joined using thread salvaged from old grain bags and enhanced with recycled metal beads, oil canisters and even yoghurt pots!
By selling their products, Tanzanian women aim to tell the stories and preserve their unique traditions.
8. Indonesian Batik
Batik is probably one of the best known of all the ethnic artisanal traditions. It originated from Java, where it is a very important part of the traditional culture. Mostly earth tone colours are used on cotton fabrics. Batik is commonly used to make everything from sarongs to smart shirts to be worn to the office. Today, you can also find batik tees, bags and even tights, as seen below.
When the Javanese people started to spread out in to Bali, they brought their batik styles with them. Over the years, the creative Balinese have adapted this traditional style, and created a more modern version that features more abstract patterns, for example.
9. Indian Khadi Weaving
India has many, many famous ethnic artisanal traditions. Far too many to list here! but one of the best known could well be Khadi.
Khadi is actually a kind of cloth. Though it’s usually made of cotton, it can also include silk or wool. No matter which fibres are chosen, they’re spun into yarn on a spinning wheel called a charkha to create a fine, light material.
It is a versatile fabric that’s cool in summer and warm in winter. In order to improve its look, Khadi is sometimes starched to give it a more substantial feel. Due to its cultural importance, Khadi is being promoted in India by the Khadi and Village Industries Commission and the Ministry of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises.
10. Ikat Dyeing
One of our favourite ethnic artisanal traditions from around the world is Ikat. This is a dyeing technique used to pattern textiles that employs resist dyeing on the yarns prior to dyeing and weaving the fabric.
Ikat is formed by binding individual yarns or bundles of yarns into a desired pattern. The yarns are then dyed, usually with plant based materials. The bindings may then be altered to create a new pattern and the yarns dyed again with another colour. This process may be repeated multiple times to produce elaborate, multicolored patterns. When the dyeing is finished all the bindings are removed and the yarns are woven into cloth.
One brand that excels in this Indonesian technique is Alexandra Viktor. The designer uses Ikat on her size and age inclusive designs, which can be worn in a variety of ways, from open coats to dresses and wraps.