“We Created Before and We’ll Create Again”: Preserving Artisan Craftsmanship Through a Pandemic

Image: The Saheli Women make face masks with production off cuts to distribute to the local community Credit: @_saheliwomen / @iphd_india

How are artisan communities adapting to the Covid-19 pandemic? Sharing stories from India to Africa, Beatrice Murray-Nag finds out what we can learn from the world’s independent makers, and why preserving these ways of working means sowing the seeds for better systems going forward.  

Ever since the Covid-19 pandemic began, we have seen big corporations, small businesses and individuals around the world struggle to navigate an unsettling new landscape.

As the current crisis has unravelled, so have the working patterns that make up many global economies. Shops and factories were forced to close their shutters from China to Italy, America and India, triggering a chain of cause and consequence that has affected vulnerable people the most. We saw fast fashion brands in the West cancel orders, resulting in unpaid wages for garment workers in Bangladesh. We saw millions of India’s migrant workers make the journey back to their rural villages on foot, as months without work lay ahead of them.

With larger systems beginning to falter, it seemed only natural to fear for the artisan communities that make up the beating heart of so many local economies. So, when I began collecting stories about craftspeople around the world, I started out with an intrinsic worry as to how these independent makers collectives were to survive. And yes, these artisan cooperatives told a story of struggle, but also of hope; highlighting the way local employment and enterprise could empower even in the face of adversity, and how countries on different sides of the world can work together in a fairer future.

Images: The Saheli Women create magical emboidery from their homes during lockdown / Sharmili learns to use a sewing machine in the collective Credit: @_saheliwomen / @iphd_india

“You can see this challenge either as a threat, or an opportunity,” explained Madhu Vaishnav, founder of the Saheli Women’s Collective. And challenge it is – Madhu, who founded her female makers group in Bhikamkor, India to provide employment and economic independence to the local women, speaks candidly about the difficulties they are facing. Alongside the threat of losing their salaries to cancelled orders, there is the increased risk of domestic issues while having to work from home; “It’s not violence, violence, but a few of their husbands are now struggling with withdrawal from alcohol or opioid addictions during the lockdown,” she tells me.

Yet the narrative that has played out since the crisis began has in fact been a testament to the strength of the initiative that Madhu created. With many migrant workers from rural India living in poor conditions in the country’s cities in order to work, the Saheli Women’s group helps to evade situations such as the mass exodus of workers back to their hometowns at the start of the lockdown by focusing on rural employment instead. 

Choosing to build her enterprise with the womens’ welfare at its heart, Madhu put people over profit from the very beginning and refused work in mass producing garments. Instead, she held out, and waited to collaborate only with partners that followed ethical fashion practices from the bottom of their hearts. “It was hard to see what was happening to the economy in the West, because we knew it was going to affect our work as well. We are all connected, like a circle,” she explains. “But our clients were very supportive; nobody cancelled their orders and a few clients also supported us with advanced payment, so even without work we were able to give our staff survival salaries.”

Madhu also tells me how the partners brainstormed ways to create more work opportunities during the crisis, designing small, easy projects for the artisans such as embroidered cushion covers. The Saheli Women even used their initiative to create masks from fabric scraps and distributed them to the local police for free to supply those who were not wearing them. “By making these easy designs at home with the embroidery, each woman felt like ‘Yes, I am working. The work is happening.’”

Images: The Saheli Women get accustomed to working from their homes and recieving sewing lessons over the phone Credit: @_saheliwomen / @iphd_india

On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, a similar story is taking shape. Akojo Market founders Natasha Buchler and Annie Rudnick created their online marketplace to put the work of independent African designers in front of a global audience, supporting local businesses that provide skills training and employment opportunities for their workers.

First and foremost, Annie and Natasha tell me about the tough realities for artisans in Africa at the moment. “In the most extreme of circumstances – and this unfortunately counts for millions of people – artisans and workers in ‘informal sectors’ are faced with the prospect of risking their health, and their loved ones’ health, by either going to work or not having food on the table for their families,” explains Natasha. “This is not a choice, there is no decision to be made. And for as many others, their workplaces are closed, and governments do not have the means to support with fiscal packages.” 

Yet once again, in between the darkness of these difficult situations, a sense of collaboration and common responsibility begins to shine through. “Artisans have become the ‘key workers,’ Natasha tells me. “Aside from bringing in income for families, almost all our brands that have the technical capability have pivoted to making face masks. They are donating them in the thousands to their local communities and staying in facilities away from their families to comply with social distancing measures.” While masks made by Yala Jewellery have been donated to and distributed by the Kenya Red Cross and Amref Health Africa, Akojo Market will begin selling masks by Eclectic Chique to continue providing earning opportunities.

Images: Masks made by Eclectic Chique in Nigeria, who are producing for local hospitals as well as designs to be sold on Akojo Market Credit: Akojo Market, Masks made by Yala Jewellery are donated to the Kenya Red Cross for distribution Credit: @yalajewellery

To ensure artisans from India to Africa and far beyond benefit from the same kind of support given by the Saheli Women’s Collective and Akojo Market, the Nest Artisan Guild is working to represent over 750 micro and small businesses in over 100 countries worldwide. After hosting a series of open forums with their global network of makers, the nonprofit organisation recognised that while many had quickly shifted production to PPE, some were still working on a volunteer basis and sacrificing their salaries. 

“Finding themselves in the new role of essential workers, these artisan businesses are retrofitting their workshops into safe headquarters from which to produce masks, procuring the necessary raw materials and training their workers in this new craft to meet the needs of a rapidly changing world,” Catherine Tedrow, Nest’s Director of Communications, explains. “Others are struggling to generate revenue with their standard stock and are in need of market access (their own ecommerce or partnership with brands and other platforms).”

With this in mind, Nest launched its PPE Purchasing Initiative – a campaign to ensure artisans can use their ability to make masks in order to sustain themselves through the crisis, overcoming the financial burden and threat of unemployment. “Nest ‘purchases’ masks and other PPE to be donated to frontline workers and vulnerable citizens, so that our small businesses do not bear the investment in volunteer production alone,” Catherine tells me. “This programme will directly help to ‘flatten the curve’ by putting PPE into the hands of those who need it most, while equipping small and micro-businesses with the capital they need for materials, labour and shipping. Just weeks since launch Nest approved funding for 56 businesses. Together we will deliver over 200,000 masks to frontline workers and employ over 4,429 artisans!” 

Images: An artisan from Majoie Maldives stitches a face mask available to purchase as part of Nest’s PPE Purchasing initiative, Credit: Majoie Maldives, Pure botanical silk masks made by Majoie Maldives Credit: Majoie Maldives

All three perspectives that I have heard share stories of hardship, but they also provide examples of what can happen when collaboration crosses borders, and investment is made in initiatives that are designed with people in mind from the outset. From India to Africa, the way in which artisan groups and their Western partners are navigating these times of crisis contain the seeds of better systems. And if we want to begin to build on these business models, we must ensure that they are still around once the storm passes. I have been fortunate to hear about three overwhelmingly positive projects, but there are no doubt many more makers continuing to struggle through the crisis. 

“Some of these artisans will not be able to survive through this unprecedented time, which means their craft dies a little more,” explains Stephanie von Watzdof, Creative Director of Figue – a globally produced clothing label designed to share the talents of artisans around the world. “We have to band together and uphold the smaller businesses.”

So, what can we do as individuals to ensure our artisan communities come out on the other side? “We are now in a virtual world where you can connect to craftsmanship that dates back centuries,” Stephanie continues. “Artisans can be supported on social media; you can start by sharing, highlighting, giving, and loving more. Shop small, thoughtful and independent brands, so that there is a demand for their incredible work.”

You can also get directly involved in Nest’s PPE Purchasing Initiative, choosing to support an artisan worker or maker business by donating a mask to a frontline worker. The income from each mask supports artisan businesses transitioning to PPE, maintaining their workforce and ensuring they are not having to volunteer to produce crucial protective wear. You can even buy a mask for yourself, embracing and appreciating the unique design sensibility that has gone into its creation.

Images: A handworker from Mercado Global stitches a mask in Guatemala as part of Nest’s PPE Purchasing initiative Credit: Nest, A craftswoman making masks for the Vickery Trading Co in Texas, Credit: Nest

By supporting artisan groups to sustain their independent entrepreneurship through Covid-19 and beyond, we can redesign the way we work on a global scale to truly bring value to those on the ground. Such tales of adaption, collaboration, charity and kindness represent a blueprint for rebuilding our industries with people at their heart and creating systems which benefit local economies while protecting their makers too.

While radically different between them, The Saheli Women’s collective, Akojo Market, Nest and Figue all demonstrate how global production – rightly called into question during the pandemic – can benefit both ends of the supply chain through enterprises founded on a basis of respect and care. “I think Covid-19 has given hard times, yes,” Madhu sums up, “but at the same time it has given us the opportunity to rethink cultural and consumer practices.” 

So today, it’s time to support the ways of working that could form the foundations of fairer systems tomorrow. “We created before and we’ll create again,” Madhu smiles, telling of her innate belief and optimism that the artisan way of working will be the one which survives this crisis, and the model for a brighter future. “We developed before, and we’ll develop again.” 


Learn more about the Saheli Women’s Collective as Jeanne de Kroon speaks to Madhu Vaishnav.

Discover why Natasha and Annie chose to start Akojo Market, in their Bringing Business to Life interview

Watch Livia Firth’s journey through Guatemala as she meets the local artisans in her second Fashionscapes film.