Made and Told: Empowering Artisans, Capturing Beauty and Skill
Made and Told: Empowering Artisans, Capturing Beauty and Skill
I recently came across a beautiful business which represents the values of this collection superbly. In doing so, it opened a host of questions about the value of craft and its relationship with community. Made & Told was founded in September 2012. They sell handcrafted homeware made by artisans and craft cooperatives in Central Asia, alongside stories from the cultures and contexts in which they were made. They donate 50% of their yearly profits to two charities working in Central Asia to support income generation activities and to develop the skills of artisans to enable them to sell their products more widely.
It made me think, that the role of the artisan as the repository of skill, knowledge and tradition is no place better expressed than a carpet, a piece of woven fabric or hand turned ceramic. The hours of concentration, crystallised in an artefact representative of a group of people is a powerful vehicle of identity. Fathers, mothers, grandparents and older generations handing down skills and tips, subtle gestures and secrets are what keeps families and communities together. The stories a carpet can tell and the histories woven into it should not ignore the toil of very stitch and the labour of the weaver. Skill by its very nature is the product of many days and evenings repeating and practicing, maybe in the company of others sharing stories and local news. How long has this been going on, whereby people in their place of work communicate and share. How this might be replaced by the mass production and the stamp of machine looms. Watching the artisan craftsperson work, though one cannot help be struck by nostalgia and the romanticism of it, it still represents a fundamental economic necessity and the most literal example of ‘making’ for a living. In some people’s eyes, the artisan of the developed world represents a creative class often seen as frivolous boho-artist, attempting the recapture days gone by. In comparison the artisan craftsman in the developing world is it the edge of economic survival, whilst striving to maintain identity and community amidst the increasingly encroaching forces of globalisation.
Capturing the essence of the beautiful business theme, I asked Made & Told Founder and Director Mary Mitchell to outline her own take on this idea;
‘A beautiful business is one that gives back to the community around it, and places equal value on all stakeholders. Made & Told was founded with these principles in mind. We exist to serve artisans in Central Asia who can’t get their products to market in the West by working with them to develop their crafts and empower them to sell their work more widely. We also recognise that each product is designed and crafted following traditional techniques passed down for generations, and that this skill and culture deserves to be fully appreciated by those who buy the products in the West’
A particularly exciting characteristic of the Made & Told vehicle is the use of film to illustrate people, places and techniques which capture some of the flavour of Central Asia. There is a fascination about seeing how something familiar is made, or how a job is done, and short films fulfilling this curiosity are increasingly popular. We can watch weavers and stitchers engage in their painstaking and patient crafts. Think about the hand and eye coordination and carefully watch the eyes of the weavers, see the work of nimble fingers and hear the sounds and energy of hand looms. This is amazing skill and craft caught as a moving image. As Mary says;
‘Through short films we show the ways the artisans make their products and tell the story behind it. This provides our customers with a fuller experience from each item they buy, and enables them to connect their purchase with a different culture and the artisans behind it’
Shyrdak: History, Heritage, Craft and Warmth
One of the items sold by Made & Told is shyrdak cushion covers. The nomadic women of Kyrgyzstan have been crafting felt carpets and wall hangings for generations. These cushion covers are handmade from wool from the Karakul sheep, which originated in Central Asia and have been raised there continuously as early as 1400BC. The wool produced by Karakul sheep is coarse, and therefore perfect for making shyrdaks which were originally used as carpeting for yurts. Their density kept in the warmth and prevented moisture from reaching the family dwelling. If you get the chance, treading barefoot on a shyrdak is highly recommended- they really do keep your feet warm, even in the cold Kyrgyz mountains!
All the designs featured in shyrdaks have meaning, borne from the Kyrgyz connection to nature and animal life. The ram’s horn symbol refers to great wealth and fortune, while the soldiers pattern depicts soldiers standing at attention and in vigilance, providing protection to the homeland. The mother and child symbol represents the keeper of the hearth and a safe home.
The Story and Weavers – Our story starts in Kochkor, where shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a group of women in northern Kyrgyzstan gathered together and decided to use their traditional crafts and skills to generate income. They called themselves Altyn Kol (golden hands), and began making a range of products to sell to aid and development workers, tourists, and government representatives from overseas who visited and lived in Central Asia. Since then, and through the support of international organisations and donors, Altyn Kol has gone on to be a major employer of women in Kochkor and nearby villages in the Naryn region of Kyrgyzstan. An achievement that the current Director, Burul, is particularly proud of is that 5% of their members are widows, who are managing to earn an income to support their families who would otherwise be destitute. In a country with extremely high levels of unemployment, the fact that women can bring in income while continuing with their daily tasks is of huge value. The cooperative now has over a hundred members, and four full-time employees. Orders are taken and organized by the team in Kochkor, who then divide tasks up between different groups of women throughout neighbouring villages. The artisans receive 70% of the sale price for each item sold. Each cushion cover is made by a woman in the cooperative, providing valuable income to her family and allowing her to continue the traditional techniques her ancestors have been preserving for generations.
As Altyn Kol belongs to the women themselves, they gather together every year to elect leaders and discuss their progress, resulting in a level of transparency which is rare in Kyrgyzstan. As well as selling their products, the women of Altyn Kol aim to train young Kyrgyz people about traditional handicraft techniques, to ensure that their skills are passed down to the next generation.
For more information on this truly beautiful business contact firstname.lastname@example.org or visit their website http://madeandtold.com/