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By Lora O’Brien
It used to be that whilst travelling, you’d stumble upon an Aladdin’s Cave of 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 plagiarized 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 plagiarism. 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.
For example, online retailer SLATE + SALT was founded by a woman who travelled far and wide and fell in love with what she saw. Through her experience in developing countries, Lyndsay fell in love copious times with people, their cultures and the craftsmanship applied to the pieces that they work hard to hand craft. Suddenly the fast fashion work that she was used to shopping within became bland; there was so much beauty to be found in the artisanal items she found whilst journeying. And 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 to ensure that all of the artisans that sell via 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 we picked seven that really shone for us. You can see even more in the video by Kristen Leo, below, where she displays her top picks herself.
7 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 striking desert of La Guajira Peninsula, and have steadily refuted the modern culture and instead lived by preserving their own 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 alive the significant culture that is weaving through the generations; each Wayuu mother teaches her daughter 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 the Wayuu bag is aesthetically vibrant, there’s also a story to be told behind each bag, and that is the story of the woman whose hands weaved and handcrafted your bag. Her story is told through the colour, patterns and shapes she chooses, and no bag is ever the same, as is no one story. The financial support The Wayuu Tribe receive from selling their bags allows them to preserve their way of life for generations to come, whilst we can welcome a tiny piece of Wayuu life into your home and wardrobe.
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. Like with many artisans selling their crafts through a bigger platform, 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, which eventually, breaks the cycle of poverty with money coming back into the community.
3. Hmong Tribe Embroidery
The Hmong tribe are an Asian ethnic group that originate from the mountain regions of China, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand yet who 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, something that is heavily influenced in their beautifully embroidered, symbolic patterns and costumes which come alive with their coloured threads, fabric and skill. 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 so that each piece they sell comes with a whole history behind it.
4. Laotian Bomb Jewellery
Between 1964 and 1973, poor Laos had cluster bombs encased in aluminium dropped down on them precisely every 8 minutes for the whole 9 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 their home of evidence of that horrific time. But as a Phoenix rises from the flames, the Laotians took a stand against the destruction of war around them and claimed back a livelihood, with help from the war metals that quite literally surrounded them.
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, which includes smelting and cleaning the aluminium before use, making it safe and non-toxic.
5. Nepalese Cashmere Weaving
Nepal cashmere is renowned for being one of the softest cashmere blends in the world; it’s luxuriously soft, and despite its lightness, is efficient at keeping the body warm. Taken from the softest undercoat of a goat, the Nepalese people are now choosing to use this cashmere 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, southern and southeastern Myanmar. The Karen make up approximately 7 percent of the total Burmese population but a large number of Karen have migrated to Thailand, having settled mostly on the Thailand-Myanmar border.
The Padaung brand of the Karen tribe are well known for their brass neck rings, which they add to women’s necks from an early age to extend them; it’s a look they find desirable. Of course, you needn’t wear a neck extending choker to enjoy the beauty of Karen metal work – 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, Sidai Designs endeavor to tell the stories and preserve the traditions of this unique tribe.
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