In Good Hands: The Rise of Artisan Entrepreneurship

In Good Hands: The Rise of Artisan Entrepreneurship

The global artisan economy is the second largest employer in developing countries. But consumer habits, technical challenges and an array of other hurdles mean many artisans are fighting to keep their heritage alive in an ever-competitive marketplace. Now, there’s a wave of international programmes working to find innovative ways to help.

When Elaine Ng first visited Jiao Xi Liang, a remote village in China’s Guizhou Province, it wasn’t the pastoral dreamland shown in tourist brochures. Sure, there were rolling green hills, terraced rice fields and wooden houses with pointed tile roofs, but traditional village life had long been ruptured by the realities of the modern industrial economy. “A lot of people have this very idealised vision of the village as a beautiful and tranquil place where people sit and sew,” says Ng, who runs a design studio in Hong Kong. In reality, she says, most of the villagers have left to work in factories.

Guizhou is well known for its rich folk art traditions. More than a third of its 35 million residents are from ethnic groups including the Shui, Miao, Dong and other tribes known for their skills with batik, embroidery, woodwork and paper cutting. But as residents leave the village for better paying jobs in cities, traditional skills are no longer being passed on to the next generation. A dwindling population also means the market for artisanal goods is small and local. “Most villagers just sell to their neighbours,” says Ng. “The ecosystem is not complete.”

Following her visit, Ng was inspired to help the local artisan economy become more sustainable. Over the past three years she has developed Un/Fold, a project run by her design studio The Fabrick Lab, which seeks to create a sustainable economic model of fabric production in Guizhou – one that supports traditional hand weaving and batik work but also connects the village artisans with a larger market.

Since her first visit, Ng has returned to Jiao Xi Liang and helped the villagers make some of their heritage processes more efficient – setting the loom now takes a matter of hours, for example, instead of a full day. She also co-designed new products, adjusting existing proportions to suit standards of contemporary fashion and giving traditional patterns a modern twist. The prints on the new batik scarves are inspired by traditional Guizhou heritage motifs, but they are dyed three times in the indigo dye vats so that the colour slowly develops with different oxidation processes. “I wanted to give them a competitive edge,” says Ng.

Initially working with one villager, Ng has now expanded to a group of six. Last autumn the studio launched a limited collection of lifestyle products that includes scarves, squat wooden stools and hexagonal wooden wall tiles, all of which are decorated with batik patterns normally used only for fabrics. Un/Fold is also collaborating with the upscale Shanghai furniture company Stellar Works to create custom pieces that uses artisanal fabrics and woodwork.

Prior to founding The Fabrick Lab, Ng studied for a master’s in textile futures at Central Saint Martins in London and worked as a materialologist with Nissan Design in Europe and Nikon Beijing. Her studio, which she describes as an ‘idealogical lab’, brings together textiles, electronics and biomimicry for interiors and installations and often collaborates with luxury brands like Swarovski and Studioart. With Un/Fold Ng has used her industry experience to help the villagers bridge technical and communication gaps, while at the same time honouring their heritage traditions. “It’s important to understand the core value of making,” she says.

Elaine Ng's Un/Fold project has launched a limited edition of lifestyle products that includes scarves, squat wooden stools and hexagonal wooden wall tiles.

Elaine Ng's Un/Fold project has launched a limited edition of lifestyle products that includes scarves, squat wooden stools and hexagonal wooden wall tiles.

The project has helped to restore a sense of pride among the villagers, and as production increases, the project has the potential to grow the village population and prevent the heritage skills from vanishing. Ultimately, Ng hopes the programme helps the artisans to become self-sustaining. “I gained a lot of knowledge from the villagers,” Ng says. “I want them to live sustainably after I leave.”

While Un/Fold developed organically and largely through Ng’s own resources (she spearheaded the project on her own before receiving funding from Hong Kong’s non-profit Design Trust), the project joins a wave of international programmes that are helping to foster growth in the artisan sector.


Increasingly, artisan entrepreneurship is seen as a way to create lasting positive economic and social impact in developing communities. “If you’re looking for innovative ways to help developing countries flourish, artisans are a terrific place to begin,” former US Secretary of State John Kerry said at a 2015 State Department forum about the impact that artisans have on communities and on the global economy.

Already the global artisan economy is larger than most people realise. The artisan sector is the second largest employer among developing countries (second to agriculture) and international trade in artisan goods more than doubled between 2002 and 2012 to total over US$32 billion (HK$248 billion) annually, according to the Alliance for Artisan Enterprise, an initiative of Aspen Global Health and Development at the Aspen Institute in Washington, DC.

But the potential of artisans worldwide has not yet been channelled to maximise economic impact. Partly, it’s a problem of perception. “Most people still do not understand the full economic value of the sector,” says Peggy Clark, vice president of policy programmes at the Aspen Institute and director of the Alliance for Artisan Enterprise. “They do not think of artisan businesses as real industries – or as drivers of economic development and job creation.” 

Artisans themselves also face an array of challenges. Many makers, like the Guizhou villagers, live in isolated environments and lack access to broader markets and supply chains – they can’t simply sign up for an Etsy account online or walk to a local FedEx store. Many also lack the financial tools needed to boost production and sales.

This is where organisations like the International Folk Art Alliance (IFAA), an active member of the Clinton Global Initiative, and the Alliance for Artisan Enterprise provide support for artisan communities. Support comes in the form of strategic programmes aimed at business growth and events at which artisans can showcase their work, share best practices, and uncover solutions to common barriers in the artisan value chain.

The aim is to give artists the opportunity to compete in the marketplace, a model that differs from traditional charity organisations. “Social entrepreneurship blurs the sectors between business and charity,” says Jeff Snell, CEO of the IFAA. “The value [social innovators] create is in the community they seek to benefit. And their entire goal is to solve the problem and work themselves out of a job.”

Snell previously worked in private philanthropy and managed billions of dollars of private wealth, but began to question the effectiveness of traditional charity programmes. “A big portion of conventional American charity is focused on managing social problems and not solving them,” he says.

The IFAA, which hosts an annual International Folk Art Market in Santa Fe, New Mexico and provides mentorship programmes to global artisans throughout the year, aims to create for artisans a pathway to self sufficiency in the world economy. “It’s a shared pathway,” Snell says. “They have to step into it.”

At the annual market, exhibitors from Sudan to East Timor to Bolivia sell artisanal products including embroidered textiles, basketry, ceramics, beaded jewellery, painted wood objects, tie-dye scarves, hand-woven silks and clothing. Many goods are handcrafted through processes passed down from generation to generation. Through exhibiting over the five day period artists learn about wholesale marketing, order fulfilment, and how to strengthen their income and earning opportunities through export.

They also earn revenue through market purchases – 90 per cent of which goes home with individual artists, family enterprises or community cooperatives. Since 2004, more than 800 market artists representing 90 countries have earned a combined US$25 million and their earnings have served as a catalyst for both economic opportunity and social change.

Many have returned home to build schools, bridges, wells and community centres. Others have returned to fight political dislocation, gender inequity, and other forms of social and economic oppression. Their success has collectively impacted an estimated 1.1 million lives. 

Not all exhibitors achieve immediate success at the Santa Fe market, however. One year, Snell recalls, a participant came with a series of sweaters that were much too small for the American market. She didn’t sell a large number of products, but Snell says she was satisfied having learned a lot.

Throughout the year the IFAA also offers artisans ‘mentor-to-market’ education and teaches artists basic business skills including supply chain, cost of goods and the value of their time. “We help them find a price point that honours their work,” says Snell. Once an artist reaches a strong and consistent level of sales, the IFAA will not invite them back to the market to avoid creating dependency.

Most of the artisans are already behaving as entrepreneurs, Snell says. What is crucial as they grow their business is that their artisan enterprises are designed to create social value for their communities in a way that is authentic to them. This also motivates consumer engagement.Since artisan products reflect the cultural and social traditions of the communities within which they were created, choosing artisan means supporting a form of economic development that has deep meaning, one that originates from and is rooted in the uniqueness of people and place.

At the Santa Fe market Snell says consumers are willing to pay top dollar for quality products and he believes this willingness is part of a wider trend in consumer awareness, particularly among millennials who recognise the human and environmental costs of so-called ‘fast fashion’. “There’s a big movement driving the artisan sector globally. If I were a fashion retailer I would be unnerved,” says Snell. “That US$400-US$500 purse that looks like everything else on the shelf is a dying model.”


Data supports a growing demand for artisanal products. When the 2008 global financial crisis drove markets down, for example, demand for artisan products kept growing– doubling in value from just six years before. People are tired of giant brands, agrees Ng. She says consumers in mainland China in particular are increasingly choosing luxury products that are customised or personalised. A focus on artisans also falls in line with Beijing’s push to shift away from low-end, cheap mass manufacturing toward higher skilled, more environmentally friendly industries.

But it may still take time before demand for mass-produced luxury wanes. When Ng sold Un/Fold products at a Sheung Wan Christmas market last year, many consumers were receptive and appreciative of the products, but the price point – a large silk batik scarf is priced at HK$3,600 – proved a major obstacle. “People will say: ‘but it’s made in China so it has to be cheap,’” Ng says. What they may not realise is that the large size scarf, which measures two metres by one metre, takes a villager 60 hours and generations of traditional know-how to make.

“Their weaving and batik craft work is incredibly sophisticated,” says Ng, but limited commercial demand for the handmade aesthetic makes it difficult to persuade local retailers. You have about 30 seconds to convince them,” she says. Currently Un/ Fold products are sold through the Fabrick Lab website and at select stores in Hong Kong and Shanghai, but Ng is eager to expand her reach.

Some vendors have been convinced by the luxurious touch and feel of the products, others by the story of the villagers. “Everything looks the same these days,” Ng says. “I think storytelling is really important.” Jeff Snell agrees. “Today’s consumers want to point to things with pride and say: ‘Isn’t that amazing? Let me tell you how this helps get women out of trafficking in Cambodia. Let me tell you how this is helping a man to buy up land so miners can’t strip the land of minerals and pollute the local environment.”’

The main challenge for Snell is expanding the IFAA’s reach. “We are just scratching the surface. There are so many communities around the world where artisans haven’t had access to opportunity.” To his mind, more artists and more opportunities can’t come fast enough. And he stands firm in his belief that giving artists the chance to compete in the global economy is the most effective path to sustainable growth and a hedge against the eradication of their heritage skills. Plus, it’s what the artisans want. Snell recalls a conversation he had with a textile worker from East Timor at last year’s International Folk Art Market. “She said to me: ‘Jeff, we don’t want your charity. We want opportunities.’”

This story appeared in the March 2017 Issue of The Peak

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