Working with artisans is no simple task. It comes with unique challenges and frustrations. But artisan partnership also brings opportunity on multiple levels: the opportunity to bring employment to women in rural communities who are experiencing high levels of poverty, illness, and social unrest; the opportunity to integrate rare craft techniques into your collections; and the opportunity to connect your consumers more deeply with the people and processes behind your collection. These are only a few of the reasons that the struggle is well worthwhile.
In the 10 years since I founded the organization, Nest has seen that short-term investments in training and infrastructure for artisan groups yields high return on investment. This is good news for brands and designers, because it means that if you help give your artisan suppliers a little boost, the rewards will be many and the growth curve for an improved, high-functioning sourcing relationship will be strong. The following are some suggestions for how to work most effectively with artisans.
Get to Know Artisans and Their Crafts
Visit your artisan suppliers and/or dedicate time to understanding their craft techniques. One of the biggest issues that brands and artisans encounter when navigating new sourcing relationships is the lack of understanding around the confines and unique stipulations involving a given craft technique.
For example, the batik textile dyeing process requires a nuanced application of dye colors and certain colors cannot appear next to others in a given motif. If your design team takes the time to visit your artisan suppliers and understand the technique, the better equipped you will be to successfully design into the technique, rather than to work against it.
Set Communications Expectations
Communications with artisan partners can be difficult. Your suppliers may have a very limited command of English and cultural differences could result in spotty email communication. Set expectations with your partners upfront about which communications channels you plan to use and how accessible you need them to be.
Many artisans come from “yes” cultures and your partners may want to tell you that everything is going smoothly when it’s not. Let your suppliers know that proactive updates are appreciated, even when the news is bad. Let them know that you will work together to troubleshoot the issues.
Artisan suppliers are often very geographically isolated, working out of their homes in rural areas. Shipping and logistics can be a big problem. On top of this, the work is entirely handmade, which means that it requires time to be produced.
Artisans may be dealing with health issues and other social stressors that impact their ability to show up for work, meaning that the size of your workforce may be variable from day to day. For all these reasons, it is not uncommon for artisan orders to take longer than expected.
Manage expectations upfront by factoring extra time into your production calendar (i.e., starting early) or by testing the waters with a capsule collection created outside the confines of the seasonal calendar.
Invest in Development
I have to plug Nest’s services here, but if you invest in helping to grow your artisan suppliers, this is where real improvement will take place. It is to everyone’s benefit to see this as a long-term relationship that will need to develop and grow.
The good news is that our experience has shown that these relationships improve incredibly quickly from season to season. This type of investment not only ensures the sustainability of your supply chain, but also dramatically increases the viability of the artisan suppliers, directly contributing to the assurance of their livelihoods and improved wellbeing.
A great example relates to Nest’s partnership with the luxury fashion brand Maiyet. In Kenya, we helped build a new safer workshop for artisans who were operating dangerous machinery close to their children. We sourced new brass polishing equipment that dramatically improved product quality moving forward.
There is a beauty and intricacy that only handmade work can achieve. The more that you value artisan craft for its imperfections, rich heritage, and stunning results, the better you will feel about results that differ from those of factory production.
We have seen how partnerships with brands like West Elm, Maiyet, and the Elder Statesman stand as a testament to this new brand of luxury, which more consumers are appreciating and seeking. “Slight inconsistencies actually prove that these pieces are very special,” said Greg Chait, founder of the Elder Statement. We can all take an approach similar to Greg’s, and uncover these dusky jewels.
Rebecca van Bergen is the founder and executive director of Nest, a nonprofit organization that brings visibility and viability to women who comprise the global community of artisans and homeworkers. Van Bergen earned her master’s degree in social work from Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., in 2006 and founded Nest at age 24. Her accolades include selection as one of twelve of GLG’s 2015 Social Impact fellows and a complimentary Clinton Global Initiative membership in 2015 and 2016. She has also been honored as a PBS Changemaker and CNN’s Young Person Who Rocks. Learn more at www.buildanest.org.