Handmade Artisanal Product Development

Craft, Handloom, Art, Entrepreneurship, Business Devt., Innovation, Contemporization, Sustainability, Sustainable Devt.

Handmade Artisanal Product Development: A Report

Jongeward, Carolyn


Product development is an important element in current efforts to find ways to improve livelihoods and preserve cultural identity among rural low-income artisans in less developed countries. A number of designers are applying their skills in the alternative and ethical trade sectors to increase the capacity of artisan groups to enter new markets. In their work as product development consultants, these designers provide advice or training or facilitate learning that is critical for rural artisans to adapt their traditional skills and knowledge to make marketable products.

This report is based on research into the experiences, views and insights of product designers who work with artisans. Their work takes place in many different countries and situations, yet there are common concerns, including the difficulties artisans confront and the complex issues involved. This report is intended to prompt further discussion about the issues and practical approaches needed to promote the well-being of artisans and their communities.

The report is focused on the contributions of North American consultants to handmade artisanal product development and marketing. Most of the consultants, based in the United States, were contacted through the cultural organizations, The Crafts Center in Washington D.C. and Aid to Artisans, Hartford, Connecticut. Several of the designer consultants are Canadian. Twelve recorded interviews, additional conversations and consultants’ written materials form the basis of the research material, which was collected between September 2001 and February 2002. Also interviewed were a number of ethical business importers of artisanal products and directors of organizations committed to improving artisan livelihoods. For the purpose of this report the research material was primarily drawn from the design consultants; their feedback on a draft report was integrated into this document.


1. The Work and Worlds of Artisans

Hardship is common in the lives of artisans and craftwork is seen as a way of earning a living. But craftwork is also a source of cultural identity, threatened by increasing globalization. Product development interventions can be an important means to improve livelihoods and support cultural continuity. Participants in this research describe the situation of artisans as follows:

  • The transition from making traditional craft to producing items marketable in the West is a challenge for artisans. It is also something they are keen to do, especially when they are treated fairly and with respect for their traditions.
  • Thousands of poor artisans make products designed by large companies or smaller import businesses for sale in the West. Many designers and the companies they work for are not interested in the local culture or economic situation of the artisans. Frequently artisans are paid very low wages, they are asked to produce items that have little or no cultural relevance and craft production is discontinued when a market trend changes or the company leaves or goes out of business.
  • Many large companies are only interested in the bottom line. They ignore what artisans traditionally do and ask them to make different kinds of products. Unfortunately, artisans often don’t question this practice or realize it is not good for them to abandon their traditions just to please the big companies. As a consequence artisans don’t recognize the skills and abilities they have and they think that people in the West would not appreciate the quality of what they do or value their tradition.
  • Artisans in rural areas of less developed countries are often poor agriculturalists, who make craft to supplement their incomes. Women especially do craft to raise money to support their families. Many depend on craft for their survival.
  • Those artisans are just hanging by the thread they weave. They would be in serious trouble if they couldn’t make something to sell.
  • Artisans are proud to make products that have a basis in their cultural tradition, but they cannot always find people to buy what they make. If craftwork doesn’t put food on the table they are not going to continue. Having a market would mean that artisans will continue to make products and young people will continue to learn the skills because they can make a living by doing this. If people don’t abandon their craft skills then the art in the community won’t die away.
  • It is very difficult for artisans to make the transition from doing a local craft in a traditional technique to making a product that is marketable in today’s economy. Artisans, especially in rural areas have little exposure to Western lifestyles, contemporary fashions or trends. It is hard for them to know how to apply their artistic skills, techniques or specific materials to make something that is desirable by consumers and at the same time is something they want to do.
  • The craft bridge between generations is not that strong; it is very hard for young people to look forward to making a living through craft. The economic incentive is not very good. But the cultural incentive may be stronger.

Given an opportunity for advice on creating new products for sale in new markets, artisans have different perspectives about what they want:

  • Some just want a job. Others want work that respects what they do. Some want to do what they’ve done for years and not change. Others love to change. They love new ideas and learning about what’s in fashion in the U.S., Europe or Canada. This spurs them on to become creative themselves. Others become indignant; they want to make what people in their culture have made for centuries. These artisans want their work respected for its heritage and exhibited in Western galleries; anything less than this they see as cultural imperialism.
  • Artisans want to know what is selling. By learning to make something that will sell better artisans know they can earn money. They are also aware of market realities because they hear what people say as they come and go through their region. They take it all in. They know marketing catchwords, such as “no child labour”. These people from less developed countries are savvy and intelligent and eager to learn and become a part of the European, Australian and North American marketplace.
  • When artisans are able to make and sell their handmade products, when they receive consistent orders for their work, there is a beneficial impact on their livelihoods.
  • Particularly when the money earned goes into the women’s hands the lives of the whole community are often improved. For example, drinking water is available, homes get floors and roofs, children can stay healthy, go to school, and have school uniforms and textbooks.

2. Consultants’ Motivations to Work with Artisans
Product development consultants bring expertise and sensibilities to their work with artisans around the world. The consultants interviewed for this research are fundamentally concerned with the well-being of artisans and the continuity of cultural heritage. They have differences in their perspectives and approaches to their work but they share certain motivations.

Some designers make a shift to work with artisans because they are tired of the commercial sector rat race; they want to apply their skills in a more meaningful way or they become concerned with how and where things are made. Product designers like to work with and learn from artisans around the world because they appreciate artisans’ skills, abilities and commitment to making beautiful products. Significantly, they like to feel they are making a difference, having a positive impact on people’s lives and their ability to feed their families.. Fundamentally, they have a sense of commitment to the artisans.

One describes her role in terms of introducing new people to the global playing field, which allows them to raise their incomes, level the playing field a bit and give other people a chance to play. Another describes her work as grassroots hands-on diplomacy, a type of interaction that is a significant way to change economic status as well as open hearts.

3. Diversity of Product Development Situations
Product designers work around the world in places with distinctive peoples, cultures, histories, physical and social environments, and economic and political situations. Several factors that impinge on what product designers do include the following: In some places traditional artisan skills continue to be handed down from one generation to another; in other places many skills have disappeared and need to be recovered through different forms of teaching and learning. In some places artisans are part of groups or organizations that have developed long term working relationships; in other places artisan groups are in early stages of organizing or the artisans remain dispersed in rural areas. Some artisan groups, over a period of time, have had access to useful product development and marketing assistance, others have rarely, if ever, benefited from such interventions and support. In some places artisans show flexibility and interest in innovation with respect to changing their products or design elements. Some areas have local or tourist markets that buy handmade artisan products. Some artisan groups are connected with international trade partners; others are not ready for exporting or have not yet established links with international markets.

A diversity of contexts in which product development takes place means that generalizations are difficult to make. While looking at some of the overarching concerns, this report also gives examples from distinctive regions. The majority of examples are drawn from South East and Central Asia, South America and Africa. Specific geographical, historical, political and economic conditions have formed unique circumstances in which artisans aspire to earn a livelihood and affirm their cultural identity.

Following are two cases.

Case: South America – Peru
A consultant travelled in Peru twenty years ago and was very impressed with the culture, the people, their philosophy and folk art. She was impressed by the quality and sophistication of hand made things and the fact that craft skills were centuries old. She also realized the skills were being lost, which is an issue similar to the extinction of animals. Traditionally skills were passed down orally father to son and mother to daughter, but there was widespread poverty and the combination of poverty and terrorism and the lack of government support for education and decent health care. People in rural areas, subsistence farmers who traditionally made handmade products, stopped doing crafts when the children were starving or dying. People moved to the cities and took jobs to support their families, and the younger generation rarely learned to make these crafts. In some places no one knew how to weave a particular way, or do a specific ceramic glaze or kind of jewellery because one or two generations ago the people stopped being artisans in order to go and get a job and put food on the table. In villages where the most sophisticated weavers and metal filigree artisans had once lived, artisans produced only crude pieces by comparison to what they did 60 or 70 years ago. No one was left to teach how it used to be done.

Another designer working in Peru found that craft is an important thing that people in the villages have and know. Some people are incredibly talented, others are not talented but they do craft because that’s the only thing for them to do. Some are shrewd business people. Some have shops in town, filled with ticky-tacky tourist things. While all these people are working in craft, the question is: how do you bring them together to benefit together? The consultant told them to look at their tradition, what people were doing 100 years ago, rather than going to Cusco and buying a little knick-knack to sell in their stores.

In the area of Puno, in Peru, many export companies hire women to do hand or machine knitting. For piecework they are paid very little for the amount of work involved. The women want a way to sell directly. Their grandmothers used to do hand weaving with natural dyed yarns, making mantas in beautiful colours to carry babies on their backs, but that practice died out. Now they work with whatever yarns are available, which are mostly machine spun and chemical dyed, not the best of colours. A consultant encouraged the women to remember what had been done two generations ago; if they went back to doing those stripes of beautiful colours they would start to have a market. Recently some people began to do their own dyes, using plants from around their villages. There is a question, however, about whether there would be a local market for hand woven mantas because women now wear less expensive machine-made mantas.

Case: South East Asia – Laos
For 200 years, until the U.S. left the region in the 1970s after the Vietnam war, Laos, a land locked country, was ruled by many people, including the Thais, French and British. Many men died during the war and the women kept themselves and the families going by weaving. Weaving didn’t die in all the hardships; it was all they knew how to do and people still needed cloth. There was not much money but food was exchanged for cloth. And because there was looting during the war, people rolled up their cherished hand woven goods, put them in glass jars and buried them in the earth. In the last 10 years, as things have settled down, people have been unearthing these beautiful textiles.

Laos is the poorest of all the East Asian countries – the average income is $350 U.S. per year.  But with the people’s sense of style and cleanliness it doesn’t look like a poor country. These are amazing dichotomies. Why are these things so different from one country to another? What is so different about a culture that keeps them moving forward?

Weaving is still part of the daily lifestyle within Laos. Two strong and intelligent Lao women have decided on their product line and have weaving training centres. Nicone went to university in France and now owns her own successful business. Kongthong was trained in Soviet Union and her family started the Phaeng Mai Gallery and weaving center. These women are working hard to keep traditions of Lao weaving alive. They bring women from all over Laos for training to develop quality control. They teach how they want things dyed and the quality of things woven. They tell weavers how things need to look in order to sell in Laos or to export; this let’s them attach the name of the business to each product and they can have a sense of pride. After the women have done training for six weeks or two months they go back to their villages. When orders come into the training centers, these are sent out to the villages and the women work on them as they can along with all their other chores. Then they send the weaving back and get paid for all the work they have done.

Nicone has a fabulous sense of style and colour, which is a marriage of Laotian and European. She doesn’t need a foreign designer to work with her; she should actually be working with people in the West. Kongthong’s sense of design is very different and she benefits from the consultant’s suggestions for marketing in the Western world. She has received, but is not dependent on international grants through Lao government and the Phaeng Mai Gallery helps to host a textile conference every two years.

4. What Product Development Consultants Do
In each context where they work, consultants figure out what is most appropriate to do. Following are the perspectives of five consultants, describing what to do in product development.

  • Start by looking for the unique raw materials that can be given added value. Examine the culture and specific handmade abilities of the artisan groups. Study market trends for product colours, shapes and sizes. Try to determine how to “tweak” what the artisans already do in order to produce something more mainstream, something that fits with the trends and achieves a quality standard for international markets, but is still a beautiful unique handmade piece. Look for market niches that may buy the craft produced by these artisans. Think about how to get artisans what they need so they can make things in a respectful manner that incorporates their traditions of working with their hands but also allows them to make products that will be successful and bring orders.
  • Take what artisans are currently doing, whatever skill or product they are capable of and then broaden their scope and try to come up with something interesting. The idea is not to teach new skills and change what they already do, but to maintain a strong connection to the artisan tradition. Bring catalogues and show pictures to spark inspiration and ideas. Without this visual information, artisans do not know how people in the West live, and how, for example, they use textiles as decoration. A designer can help the artisan make a traditional fabric into a throw, woven in new dimensions and given a new name but using familiar skills.
  • Product development is part science, part art. Look at the products artisans currently make, the techniques they use, and the materials and tools they have readily available. Pull from that what they might be able to make that would be highly marketable, given your understanding of the U.S., European and global markets. Look at the market: What’s popular? What might be going out of style? What might be a new interesting product? Where the trends are going? And try to marry those two aspects.
  • Village craftspeople produce beautiful things for everyday use. Look at what they already make for themselves and the children. Do not change the traditional work but use their difference and sense of style as an asset. See if their work needs some small adjustments to make it appropriate for a North American market. Market demand and consumer choice is huge. So it is very important to look at all the magazines and catalogues and see what is hot and which direction the market is headed. Then communicate with the artisans by showing pictures from magazines and catalogues. Artisans are aware of what is marketable and very willing and enthusiastic about making small changes to sell more products.
  • Product development is an intuitive process. It is a combination of what you think you can do, what you know the artisans can do and what you know is going to sell. Work with the visual sensibility they already have or you help them nurture. Pull from their own culture because they are the best at doing that. The trick is to make these things also very attractive to Western eyes – if that’s the market they are going for. If you don’t do that you are producing something that can be copied by Vietnam or China or whichever country is being exploited by the bigger system in order to get cheaper prices

5. Creative Tension
In the crafts sector, product development consultants bridge diverse worlds and provide an extremely valuable function in doing so. Product designers take a significant role in trying to strike a balance between respect for artisans’ culture and the market realities that influence how artisan products can sell. As one designer says, we walk a fine line trying to respect artisan skills and culture, while also being aware of the market that artisans have to be brought into for the future.

As will become evident in this report, this is a difficult task and complex issues are involved. There is soul searching among consultants who question the impact of what they do.

Are we distorting the culture, or are we giving them work that at least has some dignity for them as opposed to working in the Pepsi Cola bottling Company, or pasting Mickey Mouse decals on plastic key chains? Where is right and wrong, where’s morality?  It is very hard to draw the line.

What is Culturally Appropriate?
Design and development of handmade artisan products for new markets is not straightforward or formulaic. Contradictions arise because of questions about what is right, the moral considerations of product development. Consultants make different decisions about what they will and won’t do based on previous experiences and the contexts in which they work. But questions arise in their work about what is culturally appropriate. Their different perspectives include:

An artisan’s creation is like a message that goes out into the market saying this is who I am; this is where I’m from, take me and love me for who I am and where I’m from. Most artisans want their own vision of the world accepted through their craft. The market says: that’s special, but we don’t need it so we aren’t buying it. Artisans can take it personally if you don’t like what they make. They think they don’t matter in this multi-cultural world and so there is an element of neo-colonialism.

Lots of things are produced by skilled artisans according to some North American’s sense of what the public wants, for example: pink and turquoise painted wooden tropical fish. Using their traditional work is important to the preservation and pride of their culture and identity. Money is necessary, but a sense of pride in ones work is worth a lot. Those of us with larger incomes have to be educated about this.

The most important thing: design from their culture and do not make applications that are alien to their culture. Don’t ask Armenians to embroider Mickey Mouse on things or have Guatemalans embroider holly on Christmas ornaments. I wouldn’t do that because I think it is not appropriate.

I don’t take an artist who does one-of-a-kind pieces and put them on an assembly line to make something for JC Penney. That would be a travesty.

Trends are related to lifestyle issues and right now there is a need for nurturing, and pets are a big thing. But artisans should not be asked to make things like doggy blankets. Is that the only response? Or do consultants who present such ideas have insufficient knowledge of the options? This is a matter of social conscience and respect for artisans.

Get to know what the culture is and then tweak it. I can respect designers who make sweaters with handmade daisies or fish or little people that sell really well and give work to hundreds of thousands of people.

People in Peru, India and elsewhere say don’t worry about corrupting us. Provide us with work and we’ll make it work. Tell us what you can buy and we’ll make it. Our business needs to provide food for our families. Let us decide. If we can earn money making certain kinds of things we don’t ordinarily do, then maybe the master craftspeople will be able to keep doing special items. Their work will continue to be alive. If not then nothing will survive.

Many artisans are less worried about tradition and culture; they want work. It’s good to pay them to make a dog sweater. They laugh about it. The problem is more a reflection of a disintegrated American culture and values in the West.

Use materials that are indigenous and readily available.  People are comfortable working with what they are familiar with in their area. To reproduce something in a plastic substance means gloves, masks and other health issues.

In Puno, Peru, the women love acrylic yarn; they like the bright colours, the softness and durability. We are imposing our cultural expectations when we say stop using acrylic. But acrylic products will not sell in the market.

Try to rescue some crafts in their original state. You can do museum reproductions and find a market as well.

Try not to impose something more modern on the culture just because you know it will sell. If you do try to design something that is not quite traditional involve someone from the particular culture who can use ancient symbols in a way that looks modern.

Be realistic about how much of the cultural heritage you want to salvage. Sometimes it is misleading to let people think they have potential to make a business out of crafts that are ugly and should just die off. They keep making them or copying their neighbor, but it doesn’t sell and they don’t understand why they can’t have a business. You are better off being truthful and saying you probably don’t have a future in this. The challenge is to figure out how to redirect the skills.

What is Authentic Traditional Craft Anyway?
The question of what is authentic traditional craft does not always have an easy answer. As one designer said, tradition is a moving target. You have to look back in time to find out when a certain technique or design was introduced, or why particular products were designated, or became known as, authentic.

In Peru, women customarily knit alpaca designs on sweaters. When a designer asked if there was a cultural tradition or meaning for this, they said no, the gringos like it. The consultant was trying to be sensitive to the culture but the alpaca sweater design was not a cultural tradition, it was market driven.

In Hungary, the Craft Council had authority for the authenticity of Hungarian crafts. Artisans could sell only through government shops where each craft item was judged by a standard derived from the Communist era, which elevated peasant art, and this determined authentic Hungarian craft. All craft was measured by this dated standard and any new craft ideas were not valued. A consultant working for Aid to Artisans was sensitive to the situation but also helped to turn it upside down. They started to design products that utilized traditional skills, they told the story of those skills, and they applied the skills to making new products that would sell to new markets. Eventually the government was satisfied, they dissolved the jury and new stores began to sell craft.

6. Distinctions Between Types of Handmade Artisanal Products
Questions of cultural relevance in product design involve a complex mix of factors. There is a spectrum in product development between leaving things pretty much as they have been traditionally made, changing them very little, or beginning with market research to produce designs that are primarily concerned with marketability of products and thereby increasing employment and incomes. This spectrum includes ethnographic objects, products that involve minor adaptation of skills and items that are entirely market-led designs.

A product developer outlined the following six types of handmade artisan products. Each of these reflects a degree to which traditional/ethnic designs and skills are used or changed in making new products:

  1. High quality museum, art gallery or one-of-a-kind pieces
  2. Museum gift shop or art gallery pieces that are ethnographic but not fine art quality
  3. Handmade traditional objects that are replicas of museum pieces, made in quantity by a variety of artisans. These objects are not unique to an artisan but something a whole village might make in a similar quality or style based on old traditions.
  4. Items made for tourists
  5. Icons, made by traditional techniques, but innovative, different from traditional ones
  6. Things made by hand, respecting techniques and abilities of artisans but having little to do with the particular culture. Example: hand spinning and knitting a wool sweater, which has daisies or a Scandinavian design. Although the design has nothing to do with them, spinning, dying and knitting is in the tradition of the people, and the sweater sells.


  1. 7. What Changes and Doesn’t Change

 Case: Laos

Laotian weavers make a shawl for themselves that is patterned all over. It has many different designs in many different colours that are subdued and aesthetically beautiful. Someone who really appreciates it might buy a shawl made like this but certain changes would be needed to make it more sellable.

Working with these weavers, a consultant never asks the women to change the individual patterns on the piece. Instead she suggests changes that would suit the North American market. For example: Several sections could be isolated and put on the ends of the shawl; one pattern section could be woven 5 inches from one end and another pattern section woven 20 inches from the other end. While this changes the traditional shawls for the purpose of selling them, it lets the weavers use their own patterns and colours, simply reoriented on the background cloth.

When the weavers asked how much to charge for this new shawl, the consultant said charge the same price. When they asked if this was fair, she replied, yes, because you are doing the same design work only a little less. So the price was changed by a couple of dollars. It was a good price and they were happy. The increase in price wasn’t too much so that it changed their economic situation in the village.

In another village, weavers made silk blankets with a beautiful overall design, but the colours didn’t work. To design a new blanket to fit with Western interiors, the consultant suggested they choose colours from five of their scarves and put these together in an original way. So part of the new blanket design was woven with the colour from scarf number 1, another part of the blanket was woven with the colour from scarf number 2, etc. In this way the woven design remained the same and the colours were their own.

Case: Kyrgistan

In Kyrgistan designs on rugs and other craftwork often have a positive/negative contrast. The women do felt work ornamentation by putting two pieces of contrasting felt together and cutting through both pieces. Then they separate the two pieces, take the positive image or motif out of both pieces and switch them around. Because the felt pieces have been cut together they fit perfectly. Then they sew the pieces together and braid around them.

A designer began a workshop thinking about what distinctive cultural technique she could apply in a different way to develop new products. The cut felt technique offered many opportunities to play with colour and the consultant tried to achieve more variety than the basic positive and negative shapes. It took her a long time to figure out how to work with three layers of felt in three different colours and then she tried to explain the process to people in the workshop. They said they could not do that because it would reduce the quality. She told them she was sure it would work: cut through three layers and then flip the images, #1 to #2;  # 2 to #3, #3 to #1. Eventually they agreed and cut through the three layers of felt. But they waited for her to separate the pieces. They were amazed that everything fit perfectly when they watched her flip the pieces. The whole process involved tweaking but maintaining their traditional technique. One participant, an art school teacher, became excited to work on all the possible colour combinations. And the artisans have taken the idea further since.


A common theme in product development is the challenge of designing marketable products and gaining access to an appropriate market niche. The product designer’s advice is often critical to the success of artisan production and sales. Consultants try to understand the marketplace and bring information, suggestions and perspectives about marketing to the artisans. In addition some product developers take an active role in the marketing and sales of handmade products.

  1. 1. Business Perspective

Through experience consultants realize the importance of the business side of artisan production.

In all product development you have to keep thinking about the market–the customer and the market. If you don’t get the business right there is no artist employed. I am pretty pragmatic about working with the artisans. It is very important to tell them the truth at all times and to be very realistic. Keep their expectations in check and yet really encourage them and support and mentor.

A really good businessperson understands market-led product design. You don’t design in a vacuum. You understand your target audience, your customers, your competition and how you are going to use this information as you design. I respect all the different perspectives artisans have about what they want to do and I also recognize the truth of the market place: the buyer is really the engine of economic success.

  1. 2. Constraints for Artisans

While the aim is to create products that will sell in local and international markets, artisans encounter considerable obstacles. In many cases, the social, economic and political situations where they live and work limit their opportunities to produce and sell their craft.  Some of the constraints observed by product designers include:

People in Third World countries work under huge limitations: lack of consistent raw materials, lack of sanitation, crowded conditions, little contact with the outside world, negative attitudes about the work of women, intermittent electricity, poor sewing equipment, dull scissors. It would be helpful if governments recognized their own contribution to the poor living conditions of their people.

In many cases artisans in rural areas don’t and will not have access to information on market trends. Many cannot afford to be online or they don’t know how to get information online or evaluate what they see. They do not have access to fashion and interior decorating magazines or mail order catalogues on a regular basis. They get piecemeal information from tourists or ex-patriates who want to buy something. They may have an old catalogue, which is better than nothing but this doesn’t prepare them to make things for next year’s market. What they think is a trend may have gone out of fashion in the last 10 years.

Often artisans produce one item and then take it to a bazaar to sell. They may think they have produced something of good quality that will sell but often there is no market. In the former Soviet Republic the state supported the production of a mass of poor quality things just to meet quotas and keep people working. So artisans have not thought about why something does or does not sell. They just kept doing it. They don’t think in terms of a larger sales capacity or building a business.

The market niche for handmade products is tiny not just because the market doesn’t want to buy them. Artisan products aren’t competitive for reasons that are not entirely the fault of the producers. Their own government can make them non-competitive. In Peru artisans have to pay an 18% tax to export their products. They can get it back later if they apply but they don’t have the capital to finance the process for a period of months until they are paid back.

A combination of factors at country and business levels make it almost impossible for an artisan business to succeed: in some places there is no capital to finance production or grow a business or to buy needed equipment or raw materials in bulk at a competitive price. In some places there are illegal customs officials or everything is done under the table; nothing is done officially and so people can’t get a credit history for a formal business.

  1. 3. What Marketplace?

Product development consultants can help artisans understand markets in general, and also how local and global markets work. For artisan groups in different countries and regions, there are different opportunities to be tapped and constraints to be taken into account. The presence or absence of certain conditions makes a difference to what is possible and practical. These include, for example: good materials at reasonable prices, local market channels, tourism, entrepreneurship, investment capital and export promotion.

Consultants can help artisans understand their competitive advantage and identify which markets they will do best in over the short and long term and develop products that sell well. They can also impress upon artisans that there are many steps to the process of entering and competing in the international marketplace, as well as challenges along the way.

In some countries there are both local and international markets for well-made hand crafted products. In Thailand artisans know what their local markets want and need; they know what local people like when it comes to festival time or special weddings. Also, where a growing middle class is being educated about maintaining their identity and being proud of their traditions, the middle class are buying beautiful handmade things to wear and for their homes.

The viability of a local market for handmade artisan products is tied up with whether or not local people have the money to buy them, and if so, whether they appreciate and value what local artisans do.

One consultants says, if you can sell to your neighbour do that. The closer and simpler the business transaction, the better. We are not proponents of packing and shipping and gaining customers 10,000 miles from where you live. But your neighbours may not have the level of income to buy what you make, they may be making the same things as you, or nobody in your region appreciates your culture. In Peru many middle and upper class people do not want to buy things made by the indigenous people. But North Americans think these products are beautiful. When they get an order from the USA, many artisans say, you have no idea how much your people are honouring us by appreciating the work we do.

Markets, including local markets, change over time.

Ten years ago in Armenia when most people could barely afford to buy food, the local market for artisan products included Westerners and ex-patriates working in non-profit organizations. In recent years appreciation of handmade products has increased among an intellectual and artistic middle class and so the local market has expanded.

In countries where artisans have limited resources and no ability to export the emphasis is on trying to develop regional markets.

In Uzbekistan artisans had little or no raw materials to work with. There were no entrepreneurs, no capital to invest and no banking system that promoted trade. The only possibility was to try to develop a local tourist business based on an increasing interest in the Silk Road.

For artisans in some countries, setting up procedures for exporting is very difficult.

In Mali there is little security and so there are problems of theft and graft in getting products by train or truck to a coastal port. Sending things by train is risky because a whole car can be stolen. Transporting by truck means adding “tariffs” to the cost of goods, because there are people who set up along the road and extort money.

Sometimes artisans think that sales would be better if only they could get into the international market. But there are so many steps required to enter and compete in the international market. They need unique products that are well priced. However, products can become prohibitively expensive, for example, when artisans can’t get materials at a reasonable price. Consultants can try to help them design unique products but it is still hard to compete in the world market. The alternative is to try to make things for the local market and tourist market.

It is advisable that artisan groups work on developing more than one market option.

Rather than depending on one outlet, they need a wide array of customers. They can supply customers in a local market, a more distant regional market and also be ready to export to other countries. This gives greater flexibility in case sales in one of their markets suddenly stop. In Peru, Machu Pichu was a major tourist attraction until ten years ago when terrorism kept tourists away. Thousands of families who had relied on tourism looked for work elsewhere and some opened export businesses. As the government has recently been encouraging tourism large numbers of tourists are returning. As a result, many artisans who were involved in exporting are going back to making things for the tourist business.

  1. 4. Product Development in the Context of Alternative Trade and Ethical Business

In addition to mainstream commercial importers of handmade products, Alternative Trade Organizations (ATOs) and ethical businesses are bringing the work of artisans in less developed countries into the global marketplace. It is beyond the scope of this report to profile specific organizations and businesses that use fair trade practices and consumer education to promote cultural preservation and sustainable livelihoods for rural artisans. However, there are complex issues involved in expanding the market and supporting work with dignity. It is not only a matter of how to get products right for what the market wants, but also how to encourage importers and consumers to be interested in artisan products and concerns.

Business Done Ethically

There is an increasing demand for the commercial sector to have a sense of ethic and conscience.  Consumers are becoming more aware of fair trade and labour issues, such as child workers and poor conditions in factories, and people in less developed countries know what is fair for them and demand something better.

Along with the promotion of Fair Trade in the Europe, USA and Canada, a misconception has developed among consumers. Because they have learned that some organizations and businesses that sell artisan products abuse the artisans, consumers assume that every craft importer takes advantage of the artisans by making a huge mark up.

An importer–an intermediary–may only be concerned with making a business profit and may not be concerned with cultural preservation and keeping traditions and values alive. In the craft sector, this is what gives intermediary a bad name. But this is not always the case and many importers try hard to have fair and ethical relations with the artisans.

A product designer/ importer concerned with ethical business practices makes sure she knows who is making the products she buys and that the people are well-treated. She visits cooperatives or the homes of people whose work she imports so that she knows the working conditions. She finds out if they are earning a livable wage, or a wage comparable to what people can barely live on, and she ensures that people are paid an acceptable amount.

When business is done ethically it can be a positive force for generating income and improving people’s lives. Artisans fulfill orders, earn money and there is no corruption, where there is a spirit of ethical work. A consultant who is also an importer doesn’t charge the artisans for her time or development work. When she places an order with them she pays 50% of the money up front so they can buy materials and eat while they are filling the order. When they deliver the order, she pays the remainder; she doesn’t wait 30 days to pay. Sometimes she pays more than the artisans ask for their products because they don’t understand inflation rates, or because she knows what the products are worth when they do not.

The fair trade market is small compared to the regular commercial market. And there are business people who run successful businesses, who have big hearts and share with their suppliers, the artisans they work with. There are also multi-million dollar commercial sector export companies that operate on fair trade principles. For example, a designer who works with artisans in the Philippines has handed over control of her company to her managers, and given employee stock options to everybody. Often these ethically minded business people are too busy to communicate about what they do as ethical businesses.

Many of the small importers are the heroes of the industry. They establish relationships with the artisans over time; they are devoted to the artisans. They pay more to the craft producer than Fair Trade organizations can, but they don’t have the protection – subsidies – that the ATOs have.

  1. 5. Consumer Awareness

Handmade artisanal products can be presented in the global marketplace and be appreciated. To expand the market for artisanal products, the number of people who buy handmade products needs to increase. Many consultants are keen to raise awareness of artisan products, lifestyles and issues.

Relative to the number of artisans in the world the Western industrialized marketplace is large enough to include every handmade product, if the incentive of buyers is strong enough. However, most North Americans know about cheap poorly made products for sale in local tourist markets; few are aware of the sophisticated artisanal products made in different regions of the world.

Money needs to be invested in a long term sophisticated market awareness campaign that explains why consumers should buy handmade products. A consumer awareness campaign would raise questions about where things come from and how they are made; it would aim to increase understanding and conscience about the exploitation that typically occurs in the market and things that need to be changed, such as, low wages and lack of social security and environmental protection.

In addition, organizations and businesses that work in good conscience need to increase public awareness of the realities of bringing artisan products to market through their advertising and P.R. campaigns. Buyers and consumers need to understand all the costs that add up associated with shippingand processing: containers, insurance, transportation from port of entry to the warehouse, warehousing, and export documentation. Everyone involved deserves to earn a fair–not exorbitant–profit.

Western consumer choice plays a major role in product development because the aim is to bring artisans’ work into the international marketplace and have an audience. A market for artisan products relies on consumers knowing about them and wanting them.

Consultants want consumers to understand:

  • Diversity of culture is a phenomenon for people in the West to appreciate.
  • These products come from rich traditions, which make our lives richer by knowing about them.
  • Handmade products are better in terms of craftsmanship or a spiritual or cultural message.
  • Something an artisan makes by hand is much more than the product itself; each textile contains vision and heartache and hope.
  • Buying a product helps someone feed their family.
  • Artisanal handmade products are soulful, not mad mindless consumption, or exploitative, made at the cheapest price just to get a product in the marketplace.
  • When they buy these products, they contribute to the overall health of the globe because they are helping artisans keep their cottage industry lifestyle

Approaches to Consumer Education

Strategies for increasing consumer awareness are important and need to be developed. Some countries have adopted particular models; Japan honours exceptional artisans as “living national treasures” and India has the award of “Shilpa Guru” for outstanding mastercraftspersons. However, the question remains as to how to reach a wider audience to tell the stories of artisans and sell their work. Some options include:

  • Consultants contribute to increasing consumer awareness by sharing their experiences through writing and images. They can write articles, get interviews in trade magazines and give public talks.
  • It is too complex to develop a good housekeeping seal of approval for artisan products, like the European label for fair trade coffee or products. But product labeling is important to inform consumers about what they are supporting through their purchases.
  • Information hang tags to accompany every product can tell the story behind the product, which may appeal to consumers’ social conscience and touch something in their lives. When they read the story, they may want to support an initiative, such as, a particular woman’s group.
  • Information to be supplied with every order sent out can include: where the handmade product is from, who made it, what traditional culture it is based on, what are the materials, and where the buyer can get more information.
  • Consumers want a little but not too much information. There was an idea to use a point of purchase bar code label so the customer could go to an in-store computer and find information on the village where the product comes from. But most customers did not have time to do that.
  • Bring the stories into the media, including radio and TV, such as the History and Discovery channels.

Increase the connection with ecotourism.

Case: Consumer education

Artisan groups need a market. A consultant who works with cottage industry artisans in Laos, Thailand and elsewhere in Asia says their work is fabulous; very little needs to be tweaked to make it desirable in a North American market. A major part of her job is to help North American consumers understand how they contribute to the overall health of the globe when they buy these products.

For almost 30 years she has travelled throughout U.S. and Canada, and to Australia and New Zealand to give workshops on using silk in spinning, weaving and felting. She gives as many as 15 slide lectures each year to the public as well as to workshop participants. She takes them on a journey through pictures and words to meet some artisans and learn about their lifestyle. She shows images of the villages, children, festivals, raising silk worms, gathering mulberry leaves, weaving, gathering reeds for basket making, and hand pounding spoons and knives and forks.

Her goal is education in North America about the importance of promoting cottage industry around the world because this will help to sustain artisan lives and communities financially. She explains that the artisan lifestyle is agrarian; food production is the main income and cottage industry is a supplemental income. She tells her audience that artisans know their work and can make whatever anyone wants them to make. But North Americans must understand the importance of preserving cottage industry as a lifestyle. Not every part of the world can become a technologically advanced society like the West. The cottage industry lifestyle is needed to preserve the health of the globe. Helping artisans keep their lifestyle is part of our responsibility, which means thinking and making wise choices about how we spend our money.

Whenever possible, she tells people about places involved in fair marketing that have good products and she also suggests catalogues and magazines. Her idea is to inform people about the artisans so that as consumers they will see things differently and pay attention to where things come from and who they are supporting through their purchases.

  1. 6. Responsible Development and Cultural Property Rights

 As more and more artisans from different regions of the world try to sell their work in international markets, there is increasing competition for buyers.

Some countries, such as India and China, have a competitive advantage because of very low production costs, often due to cheap labour and exploitative child labour. Poor conditions also include a lack of enforcement of environmental regulations or standards for personal safety. Because of unfair price competition, artisans in Peru and Guatemala, for example, who do earn more in wages and have a higher standard of living, cannot compete with Indian artisans. A responsible form of development could lead to greater advocacy for improving conditions among the poorest workers, which in turn could lead to a more equalitarian competition among artisan groups around the world, competition that is about style, quality and taste as opposed to price.

On the other hand, artisans, especially those in China, need employment. A consultant said that those in the West who may not agree with the country’s politics, need to get over their resentment that cheap products made in China and India are sold through large companies such as Pier 1 and Pottery Barn. The artisans need the work and these companies place big orders.

Associated with increased competition from countries with cheap labour is the problem of designs and products being copied and reproduced at a lower cost. This problem is exacerbated when importers seek out the lowest cost of production, without regard to the cultural identity of the items.

A buyer, who saw something she liked in Guatemala, didn’t buy it there because it was too expensive. But a year later her shop was selling Guatemalan type place mats that had been made in China.

Distinctive cultural elements, such as those embodied in craft have mixed between regions for millennia by means of travellers, traders and invaders. However, in an increasing globalized world, there are enormous threats to cultural diversity.

Cultural languages and forms are being diluted at an increasing rate. Embroidery as a design language is currently strong but the skills can be lost in one generation. Handweaving has many pressures.

Increasingly, the international marketing of handmade products raises the issue of cultural property rights. Exploitation of cultural property rights is occurring in many places.

In Indonesia, the weavers on the Island of Sumba produce exquisite textiles but all their designs are being replicated in Jakarta and sold to tourists. The people are at their lowest point in history due to environmental and economic problems and they cannot now compete with the production of their own textile design images being done in Jakarta. The cultural property rights of the Sumba weavers need to be protected.

The question is how to discourage the breach of cultural property rights. What are UNESCO and other organizations doing about this problem?  MAIWA’s owner says that there needs to be a team of people who are sensitive to this issue and working on this. Networking is very important in order to identify when an indigenous design is inappropriately being used. She advocates putting pressure through letter writing to oppose appropriation of designs from one place by another. For example, write a letter of complaint about the Chinese production in Yunnan province of Kutch India embroidery designs. The Chinese copies are being sold at a price that is lower than what the poor Kutch women can make them for. It is necessary to impress upon people that copying cannot be allowed, especially in trade shows. Although it is common for knock-offs to be sold by street vendors, exporters and importers should have restrictions on breaching cultural property rights.

In the past some cultures have not valued their artisanal products, but these will be more valued by them in the future. However, the establishing of cultural property rights for artisanal products will not be easy or in many cases possible. Basically the process could involve: identifying something clearly as an icon of a culture; defining a way to trademark or copyright the item; articulate a clear statement to the effect that a particular culture owns this item and if other people want to use this, they can buy the rights and pay royalties. For example, an American designer who uses an African Kuba cloth design in making a rug, ideally, would pay a fee to the village that dreamed up that design.


 Product designers are brought into a wide range of situations to assist artisans in creating products to sell in new markets. The consultants who participated in this research are often hired by an organization for a specific time period according to a project guideline and budget. It is beyond the scope of this report to profile the organizations that consultants work for, but Aid to Artisans is a major player in sending designers abroad to work with artisans.

III. 1. Consultants’ Research

 Consultants prepare for their work abroad by doing research to learn about the people and history of the area. Some read as much as possible about the country and culture where they are going to work and they become informed about cultural symbols and traditional designs artisans have used in the past. Some visit museums and read books to learn in depth about the uses and meanings of ritual and everyday objects. Consultants who build on this material in their work with the artisans, often invest considerable personal time and resources travelling to different countries, looking at handicrafts, visiting artisan groups and learning what’s going on in each place.

It is also part of their business to research the marketplace because it is important to give this information to artisans. They spend time learning about the international market by going to international gift shows, looking in stores, looking at fashion and interior design magazines from around the world, talking with colleagues who are consultants, designers, or buyers. One consultant writes a trend report and provides this information to artisan groups. Another learns about import and export quotas and duties, especially for countries that do little exporting.

Market analysis is complicated but it is a source of valuable information for product development. A consultant who does market analysis acquires a wide range of information about such things as: competitive advantages in different regions, artisan tools and techniques, availability and costs of raw materials, and import tariffs. Knowledge about competitive advantages of artisanal products and price points in different countries helps a consultant be able to advise a group of artisans. For example: the Philippines have a very strong production capacity for certain products; East Indians produce large quantities at prices that almost no one in the world can compete with; certain countries face huge U.S. import duties for certain products but other countries do not have these duties for the same products.

III. 2. Approaches to Product Development

Consultants can have a range of assignments in their work with artisan groups. Sometimes they have the task of coming up with a product line within a designated time period. Sometimes they give workshops or seminars on topics ranging from natural dyeing, colour, and market trends to business skills, organizational development and exporting. Some designers become involved in getting artisan products into the marketplace.

What they do depends in part on the assignment and in part on their particular approach. One route to product development is to look at the artisan products first, then adapt these to some extent and try to determine what market they fit into. Another approach is to look at the market first in order to design products for an identified market segment or niche. These are not mutually exclusive; usually there is a mixture of both, but a difference in emphasis influences how product development occurs in different situations.

Interventions also differ according to an artisan group’s stage of market readiness. For example, a workshop in skills development would need follow up on developing products, which may then require follow up on making market links. Developing products with another group may be a matter of continuing to generate new designs in response to changing market demands over time, and the group is already familiar with the process.

Differences in approach also reflect the degree to which an intervention is either pre-planned or facilitated, which makes a difference in how much ownership the artisans have in the process. Questions include: to what extent is product development dictated to artisans; how much is achieved through facilitation, drawing from the people’s traditions and experiences? What kind of opportunities do artisans have for gaining information and making decisions about the things they make? What kind of encouragement and guidance is available for innovation?

In addition, consultants’ have distinctive personal styles and ways of relating to artisans, which demonstrate their level of experience, cultural knowledge and sensitivity as well as their understanding of the marketplace and ways to bring information, suggestions and perspectives to the artisans.

A Range of Approaches

The approach to product development in any instance depends on many considerations, including: how many people can be employed; what is the skill level, what profit margin is achievable, what are people’s views and values regarding cultural appropriateness of new products, and what opportunities are there for artisan learning and innovation. Following are examples of approaches to product development; they represent different ways of responding to culture, relating to artisans, and creating products for a market.

A consultant who is primarily a market researcher tries to figure out who should be the market for a group of artisans and then decides what kind of products to make. The reason for this approach is to not waste effort in producing things that are not sellable. The method entails working with the buyers initially and having the end buyer in mind. The process involves determining the market niche, contacting buyers, asking what kind of things they would be interested in, showing them the materials and capabilities of a particular artisan group, developing a product they would be interested in at the right price point and then bringing the product to them and making the sale.

About 30% of SERRV’s products are designed in-house. This labour intensive process includes a merchandise analysis based on their previous product sales. Then SERRV sets purchasing goals with particular groups: the product team defines how long they will maintain a purchasing goal and a time frame for getting groups to be able to work on their own. SERRV does not want the groups to be competing with each other by making the same kinds of things, like nativity scenes.

A consultant whose work is usually U.S. market driven brings a huge suitcase filled with books, current fashion and interior design magazines, and piles of catalogs. She requires clients to keep the suitcase for the entire time she is working with them so that they can study what is happening in the marketplace. A picture communicates beyond words. This suitcase is her jumping-off point for creating products with each client. She also brings samples of products, which relate to the types of techniques that producers could use as well as show the quality considerations demanded by the market.

Another consultant, whose perspective is to not change the culture too much, says generate ideas based on what they have, rather than preparing a package ahead of time and saying we need to do this because the trends are this. Most important in working with artisans is not to impose your own ideas because after you leave the process is not theirs and it doesn’t continue. Instead you influence the design but the ideas

come from them. She even asks to borrow things people wear to use in the workshop and asks people, can you design from that?

A consultant who views her work as creative collaboration says, I don’t go and say, let’s do this; this will do well in the market here. I am much more interested in: What do you do? How can that be put into a collection? How can that be modified, first of all to work well in your local economy and also how will it go over in the international market? During a workshop she had a wall of photographs of clay techniques and ideas of embellishment and she asked artisans, what would you add?

A consultant who sees herself a facilitator, not a trainer or educator, says product development isn’t about bringing a design idea and telling artisans, this sells, will you make it? The facilitator says “in my experience” this kind of colour, or too much patterning, or these particular colours, are not likely to sell very well, or, if you have too many colours in the palette that is not going to last in the market.

Quality of Relationships

Most important is relationship with the artisans. Groups need face-to-face experience in developing products and connecting with the marketplace. Establishing good relationships is the basis of successful work as a consultant. Consultants’ perspectives and ways of working are reflected in how they are able to connect with the artisans.

One consultant says the interaction must be one of  “totally respecting them.” She recognizes that how you show things to artisans makes a difference in how open they will be to learning. This approach helps instill a sense of craftsmanship, especially if they plan to enter the competitive international marketplace and they need to understand the importance of quality in their work, instead of taking short cuts.

III. 3. Types of Product Development Work

The following section contains examples of consultant’s work, including some of the things that happen when consultants give workshops or develop a product line.

III. 3i. Giving Workshops 


One designer says a facilitator has more scope to be responsive to artisans as compared to a trainer who has a pre-planned program to be delivered. She outlined key points of product development facilitation:

  1. Show artisans the value of their traditional knowledge and skills, even if they have forgotten what used to be made, or what kinds of designs were done in the past. In each context, there are many reasons why cultural knowledge and skills have been lost, neglected or distorted.
  2. Be responsive to what skills and traditions people have, draw from their knowledge, experience and cultural traditions, derive from how people work and then build on that. Ask people questions and help to further their thinking and experiences.
  3. Give a framework for helping people think about what to create in order for things to be marketable. Set limits in terms of marketplace constraints. The intention is not to dictate but to see what will or will not likely be successful.

Relate to artisans’ experience and environment 

A consultant gave a colour workshop to weavers from different countries of Asia with the aim to expand peoples’ sense of colour by looking at the world around them. As part of the workshop artisans were

given two hours to look around outside and collect pieces of things to study the colours from their environment. They brought everything back to the workshop and the facilitator asked them to sort things into colour groups or relationships. She then asked everyone to select colours in order to make a limited palette. A similar exercise was used to encourage the revival of textiles that have not been woven for a long time. The facilitator asked the artisans to bring textiles from their homes and communities, textiles that represented who they are. She then referred to these textiles and asked the weavers how they might use certain parts of the design to limit the complexity of the original design in making a new product.

Stimulate new design ideas

Case: Laos. At a conference workshop on colour and design for Laotian weavers, a consultant demonstrated ways to design cushion covers and scarves and other things. She had lots of coloured paper and images cut out of magazines. She also took pieces of Laotian cloth, colour xeroxed them, cut up the copies and reorganized the pieces on sheets of coloured paper. In contrast to the traditional symmetrical designs she showed how one side of the cushion cover could have three stripes and the other side could have an intricate woven pattern. The weavers loved the look but it is not something they would have thought of because they learn in a traditional manner.

It is easy for a North American designer to draw from different cultures and see what people do and how they do things and then mix it all up. This doesn’t necessarily go against the grain of Laotian weavers; they love thinking in terms of using their traditional things in different ways. But they have been taught the same way year in and out from grandmother to mother to granddaughter. This is the way it has been.

Case: Peru. A consultant who gave a workshop on design, colour and creativity wanted to help artisans look at things around them and to incorporate motifs and colours into a product in a different way. She believed this approach would lead to something more sustainable rather than specifically designing a product for them. She introduced colour theory to teach about color combinations, such as the concept of analogous and complementary colours and how to avoid bright and dull colours fighting each other. Realizing that colour theory wasn’t very useful to them, she gave an exercise on colour combinations. All the balls of coloured yarn were put on the table; each person was given one ball of yarn and asked to take four or five other balls of yarn to put together with the first ball to make different colour combinations. The experience helped them learn; they became involved in doing it and seeing and helping each other. They made beautiful colour combinations. One woman worked with a pattern of the fields, using a different stitch and different colour for each field to make a beautiful patchwork. The consultant saw that the process was empowering for the participants because for the first time someone from abroad wasn’t saying, this is right and this is what you should do. They were developing it themselves.

Develop distinctive products and product lines 

Case: Bolivia. The aim of a series of workhops in Bolivia was regional economic development through helping the organization COMART make distinctive products to sell in their shop. Women from the different COMART groups organized a workshop and the leaders of about thirty groups participated in the seminar and they took all the information back to their groups in the towns they came from. The participants were mostly women who were producing craft at night after the family was fed and the children were in bed. They do this to earn extra money. But their attendance at the workshop varied each day, because of their obligations to their families.

The consultant worked for COMART with handloom weavers and hand knitters to develop and give the artisans new ideas for products. The idea was to find new ways to use the products they were currently making and update them to try to increase their sales. She gave a four-day seminar each week for three weeks in three different towns, teaching about colour and colour relationships, finishing, quality control

and merchandising. Recognizing that South American artisans had a different sense of colour, the consultant gave them exposure to a Western sense of colour and how colour components work together. She also talked about differences between Bolivian and Western perceptions of natural fibres as compared to synthetics fibres. The artisans were working with alpaca and llama wool, which are considered luxury fibres in the West. These could become high-end products if made very well. On the other hand if the finishing is poor quality, they might as well use sheep’s wool.

The designer also explained merchandising, how to make a group of products that are similar in use and similar in pattern and colour. Instead of making one product that stands alone, a merchandising approach gives the artisan more products to sell and encourages buyers to purchase more products because they go together. For example: it is best for an artisan who is making a hat to also make a scarf and gloves that match. The Bolivian artisans appreciated the training; they understood what they were being told and shown and they saw what impact the experience would have on their lives.

Developing a Product Line

 Overcome resistance

 Case: Turkmenistan. A designer was sent to Central Asia by Aid to Artisans with the purpose of giving a product development workshop. She had a limited time frame, three weeks, to come up with a product line that was priced. She poured her energy into generating designs and passing them out to the women, saying, can I see that in two days? She talked with them about how to interpret the designs. Some responded by saying they couldn’t do this and others by offering suggestions on how to do it.

When she first worked in Turkmenistan the artisans discussed for several hours all the problems and why things were not possible to do. The designer wanted to work respectfully, but she felt compelled to say, “I have to leave here with a product line in three weeks. We need to discuss how we can do it, not if we can do it.” The frustration ended when one woman announced, give me something, I’ll do it, and then others agreed as well. The woman who was most resistant never made anything, but the rest became focused and worked hard to finish things. Later when they looked at the line of products they had made, they were pleased with what they had been able to accomplish. The women then documented how the things were made, and as time permitted, they made duplicates so they knew how to do them again after the workshop was over and the consultant had left.

Assess people’s abilities and try to develop their skills

 A product designer needs a variety of skills in order to be able to assess artisans’ skills. This includes, for example, not only technical skills but also abilities in quality control and pricing.

A consultant can recommend not only what products to develop but also about what capacities people have that can be utilized and strengthened. She identifies and makes note of what different people do well, such as, someone does good embroidery, another has good management skills, or someone is a potential group leader. For example, in Kyrgistan the leader of a district group was well organized and also focused on quality and so she could take responsibility for quality control. A woman who attended to details could take charge of production; another person had abilities in marketing.

Assess the capabilities of the groups to become self-sustaining

 A consultants tries to identify which organization or group is the most cohesive, the best organized, and most likely to have the capability to go the whole distance in terms of production and marketing. She also looks for a smaller group that is on the verge of having production capability, perhaps with assistance of the larger group, which may have enough work to employ and train more people. For production, she works with both levels – the one that is already capable of large production and one that has smaller capacity but able to grow.

Case: Mali. A designer was sent to Mali by Aid to Artisans to develop home furnishings based on traditional cotton textiles and leatherwork. She designed a group of products based on Bizan, a beautiful jacquard weave fabric that is further patterned with tie-dye or batik and embroidery. Wealthy people wear this cloth daily and poor people save money to buy it for high holy days or to wear during Ramadan.

The designer went to Mali for one month to meet the artisans and review the sector. Six months later she returned for three weeks to make products that were later displayed and sold in the ATA booth at the New York Gift Fair. The new products were pillows, tablecloths, runners, place mats, napkins, slippers and robes made out of this fabric. The number of different things that they could make astounded the artisans. The only thing that changed was the end product, not the skills. The colours were ones that people used ordinarily but they were also ones she thought would be acceptable in the Western marketplace. Her job was to put them together in a different way.

When she visited different places where artisans were working, she identified two groups that make Bizan. One woman, a well-known dyer in Bamaka has a large organization, works in a building and employs about 40-50 people in the dyeing process. Local people come to her to have fabrics made and she is capable of making large quantities. Another woman runs a small organization and teaches the process to eight to ten girls about 16 years of age. This woman sits under a thatched shelter in a fishing village and uses water from the Niger River. She knows all the combinations of dyes that give different colours. A big fabric sampler is stitched together with small pieces of all the colours she has ever dyed. When asked for a particular colour, she figures it out in her head and tells the girls what to do to get that colour. The consultant involved both organizations in the production; she asked the smaller one to produce one group of fabrics because she wanted to help the small organization grow.

Produce quality designs on time

One designer consultant works with a small staff to produce 200 excellent new products for SERRV in two months. Many designs are generated and only a few are selected for production. For example, to get 200 quality designs they go through five versions of each one. They work on 1000 designs to produce 200 in the hope that 12 will become top sellers. All the groups that SERRV works with have computers because SERRV buys in quantity from them; the groups are profitable and can afford to buy the computers. The artisans can take pictures of the products with a digital camera and send the images to the designer. This process saves time and money and facilitates communication about revisions. Earlier, when a product was sent which was not right, there could be no revisions until the designer made another visit to the group.

III. 4. Difficulties in Product Development Assignments

 Some of the difficulties product designers experience are related to project demands, time limitations and production uncertainties.

III. 4i. Project Demands

 Lack of in-country preparation

A designer, sent to Indonesia to work with a group of wood carvers, anticipated helping artisans to come up with new design motifs and create small furniture items. However, the artisans expected to be given completed designs and they did not have the necessary cabinetry skills to produce the kind of required finished product.

Limited number of resource people

A consultant had to learn many things beyond her area of expertise because of many different requirements to be fulfilled and few people to share the responsibilities. When a consultant works with a large company, different people become experts in different layers of the operation. In the artisan sector, designers try to contribute as much as they can. For example, ordinarily a production manager would figure out the best yield on four metres of fabric; this is something she had to learn to do.

Time Limitations

 Inappropriate expectations

A designer sent to work with rural woman’s groups in the Andes found an organization had given the women looms and some basic training and then had left them. While she was introduced to the artisans as someone who could help them enter the international marketplace, she was given one hour to work with them. And the women needed to learn how to sew to be able to make products from their woven fabric. In the limited time, the designer showed them pictures from catalogues and magazines to give them an idea of the marketplace, but the experience was frustrating; she wanted to do something more useful.

Limited time for cultural awareness

When the project time is too short and there is not enough time for research in advance, the designer is not able learn enough about cultural customs or traditions before starting the product development. Given two days to work with felt makers in Georgia, a consultant had little time to develop products and the yarns were acrylic or poor quality wool. She had no time to change the materials. As she worked quickly she changed the colour of some items, but one woman said she could not knit these colours, because they were for men’s socks. The consultant felt badly that she had not checked ahead of time and known about this tradition.

Insufficient time to work one on one

A training project that is three weeks is not long enough for a consultant to be able to give individual attention, even though she wants to help each person. There is so much work to do to get a group together, and support them, that it is often a challenge to be able to help individuals.

Increased use of technology in product design and communication

Local NGOs that help numerous small village groups of artisans market their products, and that are successful in getting enough international assistance, have been able to afford computers. It is rare that individual artisan groups have this capacity, even if they sell a lot of products. Only large organizations, with a field staff that speaks English, can do design work via fed-ex, fax, email and digital imaging.

Electronic technology is helpful but takes too much time. One designer now takes more time to prepare and scan a design sheet and send it digitally to artisan groups than three or four years ago when she did drawings by hand, and prepared and mailed a design sheet. Also, the color on the artisan group’s computer monitor may not be calibrated the same as the designer’s, and so a colour reference sheet has to be mailed. In addition, email is time consuming. A consultant gets complicated emails everyday from all over the world, rather than as before, getting one fax in a season about what the artisan group is sending.

Production Uncertainties

Consultants describe problems in communicating with artisans and getting the products right:

What the consultant designed is not necessarily produced. For example, when the dyes are not right and the colours are muddy instead of bright, all the colours have to be adjusted. There is a litany of things that drive you crazy.

A designer doesn’t know how a product is going to work out even though the artisan is skilled and can do a complicated weaving, for example. They could figure out difficulties together at the loom, but the designer is not right there with her.

A designer puts every detail in the working drawing, because she knows she can’t make assumptions. Often she has to explain what the product is going to be used for because the artisans may not have a clue.

III. 5. Collaboration with Others in the Country of Work

 In their work with artisans in different countries consultants benefit in a number of ways from collaboration with others

 Project Field Directors

The project field director is often a local person who can provide references to books and other information to help the consultant prepare in advance for her work with a particular group of artisans. The field director is often knowledgeable about the region and the people and generally identifies skills in different communities before the consultant arrives. The field director looks for groups of artisans that have talent and may start to organize and bring these people together informally.  Sometimes there are a wide variety of skills and levels of quality and the artisans are spread out geographically.  Often arrangements are made to bring artisans together in a central location or city for a workshop.

A field director who helps the consultant during a project may also continue to work with the artisans after the project is over. For example: a three week training period is too short to work out costs and local means of transport to take finished products from the local region to the capital city for exporting.  The field director can get this information or direct others to figure this out. After the project ends, a field director may also help artisans set up a business and take care of an office to handle exports.

In-Country Facilitators

An in-country facilitator can help with problem solving. For example: in Peru, this person helped artisans take a product development workshop seriously. As a foreigner, the consultant felt she could not tell the women to try harder but the in-country facilitator spoke forcefully to make them understand why the workshop was important for them. The poor rural artisans did not understand how product development could benefit them and that learning the process could provide them with some income and hope. The Peruvian facilitator said, is this what you want for your life? Is this what you want for your children? She was tough with them, but it helped and the consultant felt it was the right thing to do.

In another instance, a consultant needed help from the in-country director to solve the problem of lack of commitment and poor attendance during a three week product development workshop. To encourage participation they decided to offer certification to those who finished the course. This succeeded as an incentive; from then on attendance was recorded and the women received certification at the end.

In-Country Designers

 Explaining design concepts to groups in rural areas of less developed countries is often difficult. The consultant finds that often the artisans have no idea what she is talking about when she gives a design idea. So it is valuable to have a counterpart in-country who can act as a design interpreter, or translate the ideas sensitively. Especially when working with ATOs or larger businesses, it is helpful for a consultant to be able to work with an in-country designer. Some organizations, for example in Chile, have professional part time designers who are not on staff, but are brought in as needed. In this case, the consultant can give an idea and they are able to generate many more ideas from this.

Product development consultants who work with good product designers abroad can rely on them to work out details based on an initial design concept or a picture that shows the type of product, its size and colours.  For example, a designer created a colour palette and sample swatch for a table cloth and sent it to a good designer in India who knew, based on previous orders, how to make place mats and napkins in the right dimensions.

A few consultants have had positive experiences working with product development people in other countries. Some of these people are well trained and others can draw enough to communicate their ideas. The problem is they don’t understand market-led design and they don’t have enough exposure to the market to know what will sell. They need to rely on Western consultants to tell them what would sell.


Working in remote places where artisans have never or only once dealt with other markets takes time. A consultant who worked with basketry people in the Philippines says it is important to have someone from within the country with you who the artisans have either heard of through reputation or they know. This opens all kinds of doors and establishes trust. Then they know that when you order 5, 10 or 30 of different things you will follow through. Because artisans need their materials, she pays half the price at the beginning. And she leaves the other half with the person in-country to pay the artisans when products are delivered to Manila for export. Often a large company needs a person in-country (schooled abroad or an expatriate) who understands the requirements of product consistency and quality in the North American market. This person can then check on production and receive the goods before shipping abroad to assure that what is produced corresponds to what was ordered.

Consultants may also learn from other foreign consultants working abroad. For example, a designer has met other product developers from Australia, Holland and Great Britain who have worked in Bangladesh. Learning from them about how they work and what products they create for different markets has broadened her own scope of working in Bangladesh.

III. 6. An Idea to Build on Collective Wisdom

One designer said it does not make sense for each consultant to be “reinventing the wheel” in their work with artisans. Many organizations are trying to help out but they do not talk to each other and they each start from the beginning. Of particular use would be a manual or an interactive website or database that contained ideas for working with artisans. This could include experiential methods for teaching design, colour, quality and how to be entrepreneurial. Ideally this would contain experiential learning exercises of a product development curriculum, examples of design projects that helped artisans learn through their experience of the design process. Also useful would be examples of methods used in different places to translate design concepts in ways that relate to artisans’ cultural experience and stimulate their learning about design and colour. The designer would benefit from a “how to do” book that contained information on how other consultants work with artisans, what processes are used, how the artisan group responds and what they learn. Each designer has their own way of doing things and each project has its own challenges but there are common elements that could be shared and benefit all.

Another designer sees there is a direct conflict for independent consultants who compete for contracts to share their professional knowledge freely with other consultants. She feels her professional skills are part of what makes her distinctive as a consultant and she must convince would-be contractors that she is the most qualified and competent for a particular assignment. If she shares her professional skills with other consultants she will no longer have a competitive edge.

Another designer would like to works with others who are willing to collaborate on developing a manual. She likes the idea of gathering and telling the stories of specific places and situations. She sees this as a process for learning rather than a problem of competition and stealing ideas. More and better ideas are needed. She feels there could be more work for people to do than there are consultants prepared to do this work.


This section includes topics that consultants try to explain to artisans in order to help increase their capacity to make excellent products, know how to do business, identify the right market for their work and make sales. Increasingly the successful groups have both design capacity and business capabilities.

  1. 1. Basic Requirements

There is a  wide range among artisan groups in terms of their knowledge of traditional techniques and designs as well as their stage of business development. At the very beginning there are basic requirements that need to be met before the introduction of other elements of product development. These include:

  1. Foundational knowledge and skill. A technical level has to be reached, such as, knowledge of fibres and dyes, before talking about designing a product. For example: a weaver might have taken ten hours to produce a wonderful ikat dyed and woven scarf, but after one washing the intricacy of the pattern is completely gone, because the dyes were not colourfast.
  2. Materials bank. The lack of high quality and consistent supply of raw materials is often a problem. Artisans need good quality raw materials. For example: before beginning to design products, replace cheap yarns with good quality cotton, silk or wool and obtain good quality natural dyes and low impact chemical/synthetic dyes that are already measured out, since most people cannot achieve the exactitude of measuring that is required.
  3. Resource library or design bank. Artisans need to be able to see images of their own cultural heritage and cultural property, such as, many examples of traditional textiles that people can refer to in creating new work. Access is important to a good library with magazines and books, or an on-line image library, which AEN wants to develop. Visual stimulation for product development could be provided through design centers around the world. As an example, under their Ministry of Trade, the Design Center of the Philippines has produced excellent catalogues of their tribal images and a record of product development work that has been done.
  1. 2. Quality Control

How to increase artisans’ understanding of the importance of quality and consistency in production is an important element of product development.

The quality acceptable to artisans in many countries is most often not acceptable to buyers in U.S., Europe, Japan, Australia and Canada. Artisans do not realize that foreign buyers and consumers are very demanding, particularly in the U.S. When commercial buyers make large orders of a product they want each item to be exactly like what they ordered. They don’t want surprises. Although one of the beauties of handcrafted products is that everything is not identical, North American consumers expect to receive what they ask for and they don’t want to be disappointed. Because this requirement of standardization is so difficult for artisans to understand and to execute, consultants need to assist them in using good quality materials and improving techniques.

Example. A consultant working in Turkmenistan had difficulty ensuring that artisans made pillows that were square and not some other shape.  She showed them how to make a square by folding the fabric on the diagonal and seeing that any extra fabric meant one side would be longer than the other and the pillow would not be square.

Quality control and consistency is a major issue because artisans are not used to making large quantities of the same thing. A training program for quality control involves identifying all the ways a product can be made poorly so that mistakes can be anticipated and problem-solved in advance. A list of quality control criteria can be established for making a particular product. Criteria can include such things as the acceptable properties, quality and cleanliness of raw materials and the standard to be met at each step in the process of making the product. In addition, arrangements can be made for skilled artisans who have been trained in quality control to work with other artisans to ensure a good standard is met.

Example. The aim of a training session with dyers was to improve consistency of colour. The question was: how will the artisans consistently make three print fabrics that coordinate with a solid colour fabric of the same orange, whether the dye formula is written down or not?

  1. 3. Business Skills

As well as quality control, the development of business skills needs to be emphasized, including reliable on-time delivery.

Although artisans first of all want to make sales, they need education in all aspects of running a business. They don’t understand the demands of doing business in the U.S., for example, and that communications have to be answered immediately and truthfully.

At least 80% of what artisans worldwide need to learn to be successful is the same as what small business people in the U.S. need to learn. Not only artisans but also anyone in small business needs help in understanding how to make a business survive, work and be profitable. These things can be taught, but in most countries artisans are on their own; there are no free resources on small business administration nor college or university extension courses to help people out.

Example. In the Surin region of east Thailand, a consultant helped a group of women with business development. The women were skilled weavers and well organized as a group but they needed business and organizational skills to keep track of what they had done. They had no way to respond to a customer who wanted to reorder a product. The consultant provided assistance in organizational details, such as, giving a code number to each style of an item, which was entered into a ledger, and then recording how many of each had been ordered by a particular customer. In this way the women could keep track of which were the more desirable colours as they started selling. They were excited by the idea of being able to reproduce things for people. Itemizing products and keeping a ledger was a revelation to these women.

Typically, in Peru an artisan business starts with the nuclear family, including cousins, uncles and aunts, who may make up a whole town. In order to benefit more people, rather than competing with each other, a group of artisans can learn to run their own enterprise. In the process several families can be encouraged to work together and possibly share the work with each other, especially if they have a large order.

Resources: Artisan Enterprise Network business development curriculum and information for artisans.

Making Cents, an experiential learning model to teach entrepreneurship. 

  1. 4. Costing and Pricing

An objective of product development is to create a product at a certain price and have it sell. However, setting the right market price is a major consideration for artisan groups. Some of the concerns include:

The price the market will pay is often not commensurate with the time that has gone into production. Institutions that represent artisans and export their products have done time and motion studies, accurate costing of raw materials and overhead. After doing the number crunching they found the price is higher than what the market will bare. Market forces influence the selling price and this is very hard on artisan production. One consequence of this is a reduction in quality and distinctiveness in order to reduce costs. Intricately designed products are not in the market because the market can’t afford them. Particularly high quality work is not available in the commercial market because department stores won’t pay the price.

It is common for an artisan to take a product to the local market and a customer will bargain the price down to less than half the price the artisan initially asked for. They do not know whether they are losing money or making money. In order to help a group of felt makers in Turkmenistan establish an initial cost for an item, the designer asked questions, such as: How long did this take to make? How much did the fibre cost? How long does it take to prepare the fibre before making felt? How long does it take to sew? What is a fair wage?

Determining an initial cost is complicated and there can be misunderstanding. When asked how many hours it takes them to make something the women say they have to cook for their children and families. But the purpose of the question is not to make them work eight hours a day. One hour a day would be all right. The question is how many hours does it actually take to make something.

The advantages of teaching about costing and pricing is that artisans learn where they lose money and they can maintain a good profit margin. They may find the cost of a product needs to be $60 or it can be $10. As they think about what a product is worth, they can determine whether they could sell more and make more profit. Or they know exactly what they can do, for example, when a customer tries to bargain. They can say, no I’d be losing money if I lowered the price that much but I’d be prepared to go down a small amount. They also realize where they can be more efficient, such as by making a bulk order of fibre or making only one trip to the market.

Without information about costing and pricing, artisans do not understand the differences between the cost of what they make and the product’s wholesale and retail cost. They don’t know about the chains a product goes through to reach the retail marketplace. Consultants can help artisans understand what is involved. For example, when artisans see something in a catalogue with a U.S. retail price of $100 and the product is almost identical to what they make, they want to sell their product for the same price in their own country to a tourist or ex-patriate. But a tourist doesn’t want to pay that much and it is not appropriate for them to do so. It is hard for artisans to understand they should not ask $100 for that product and there is a legitimate difference between what they get for a product and the price a buyer pays. Although in some cases a very large percentage goes into the buyer’s pocket, not all the difference goes into the buyer’s pocket.

It is important to help artisans understand the legitimate steps and costs involved. Explain what goes into the final retail price. For example, what steps have to happen to get a product from a rural village in Albania to the end consumer market in Los Angeles? How many people are involved and what are the costs associated with carrying out each step? Examine which steps in the process may be circumvented or combined or altered in some way to minimize the overall costs involved.

  1. 5. Local Market Options

Opportunities for selling in local and tourist markets are not always fully recognized.

Often artisans don’t know there is a local tourist market for well-made items that could sell at a good price. In Peru, where there are both low-budget backpackers and tourists who stay in expensive hotels, a consultant advised the women hand knitters to make a sweater that was better designed and more expensive than the $5 ones they were selling on the street to the backpackers. She suggested they make something that would appeal to tourists who were looking for the quality level of a $100 sweater, commonly sold in stores that have export businesses. If the artisans could make a better quality sweater they could sell it for less than in the stores because they had a lower overhead. The women could tap into a new market and make a bigger profit for the same amount of work.

A consultant can help artisans generate ideas for products to sell in local markets. To develop products for a tourist market involves knowledge of the artisans’ raw material situation, market possibilities, available funds and also tourists’ preferences. The process requires a blend of elements from the artisans’ culture and skills, and ideas about practical and functional products that a tourist will likely want to buy. The designer takes the artisans through a brainstorming process to try to open doors for them and inspire them to come up with their own ideas. Focusing on a particular product that they make, she tried to draw out what they thought they would change in order to sell the product within their region. Then she helped them with the design and the colours.

  1. 6. Market Layers

Whatever marketplaces are viable options for particular artisan groups, artisans are advised to layer their product designs in order to sell in different segments of the market.

The marketing triangle is a useful tool to explain to artisans about differentiating between high and low-end levels of the market and targeting the appropriate level. At the top of the triangle are the high-end one-of-a-kind pieces, the traditional and ethnic objects of very high quality. A small market for these exists among private collectors, fine art galleries and museums gift shops. Artisans may be able to sell a few of these if they have some available. The market widens progressively towards the bottom of the marketing triangle. Handmade objects that involve simple adaptations of artisan skills reach a broader audience through small stores or catalogues or companies that sell exclusively handmade or ethnographic pieces. At the bottom of the triangle are cheap products, commodity items, such as fanny packs from Guatemala or poorly-made fabric wallets from Kyrgistan.

Aside from expensive one-of-a-kind pieces or cheap items at the lower end of the marketplace, products based on minor adaptations of traditional designs or ones that are primarily market-led designs can fit a range of market levels. The target audience can be local or international, a tourist or a specialty market.

SERRV regularly uses market-led design to employ artisans making Christmas items, such as Santa Claus and nativity scenes. By contrast, consultants who design artisan products as home furnishings recommend the middle to high-end market where the quality and therefore the profit margin is greater than at the low-end but the market is still broader than in the highest market level. The development of well-made products for sale in high-end markets is important for building artisans’ confidence in their skills and consumer awareness of excellent craftsmanship and designs.

  1. 7. Merchandising

A key concept of product development is building a product line or collection. The idea is to develop a group of different but related products, for example, a variety of sizes, shapes, colours, and prices.

In terms of merchandising, a balance of related products helps a good item to sell better. A collection of pillows, for example, of different sizes – small, medium and large, and different shapes – square, oblong or a bolster cushion, make a rich product line when they are put together. A collection makes an impact on the potential customer who may then consider buying one or more of these.

Similarly it doesn’t work to display everything the artisans can make. It is best to choose pieces that are most sellable, develop collections based on these products and remove other things. It is not effective marketing to overwhelm a potential buyer with so many products that they can’t focus on the best items.

A product line with a variety of prices includes a number of high, medium and low price items. For example, a complicated beautiful hand-embroidered pillow cover, with embroidery like on a wedding dress in Turkmenistan is high price. Only a few artisans can do this quality work and only a few pillows would sell in a season, perhaps five in one month.  A medium price item can have a combination of hand embroidery and machine embroidery. Lower price pieces can be lightly machine embroidered or have stripes of fabric and a little handwork, but the fabric can still look Turkmen and work with the product line.

Example. A consultant wanted to explain the concept of building a collection–a felt rug, several pillows and ottomans–to make a strong presentation in a store. However, in cities of the former Soviet Union there was little reference point for teaching this concept. In some stores there would be a pair of white high heels, next to a bra, next to a bottle of vodka and several antiques. In a rural area, the designer saw how people put things together inside a yurt and then she was able to refer to the artisans’ culture to explain concepts of quality, merchandising and building a collection. This helped the artisans understand her explanation of how things can work together in a way that isn’t all “matchy-matchy”.

  1. 8. International Market Trends

Market trends indicate directions for product development. And certain parts of the market are more suitable than others for handmade artisanal products.

Two expanding markets relevant to artisans are home furnishings and children’s clothing. The home furnishing market is growing because Westerners are more focused on their homes and many work from home. And, although producing clothes for adults is too difficult because a certain fit is required, childrens’ clothes are more forgiving; it doesn’t matter as much if something doesn’t quite fit properly.

The difficulty for artisans to know and keep up with changing trends can be offset to some extent if they can design things that are timeless. A consultant can tell artisans about the trends and recommend what products to make, but it is a good idea for them to work on making things that can sell season after season. Sometimes artisans are trained to produce things which a year later are no longer in fashion and the import company goes elsewhere for new products. A consultant’s advice is to be aware of certain directions but also develop unique culturally distinctive products that are timeless.

Example. Because embroidery and knitwear is done in many places a special kind of product needs to be developed. In Kyrgistan, a local modern designer applied stitch work to make quality items that had a special attention to detail.

  1. 9. International Market Exposure

Several consultants said it is an eye-opening experience for artisans or representatives of artisan groups to attend trade shows, such as, the New York International Gift Fair (NYIGF).

For people who do not know about the U.S. market, this trade show gives them a sense of the scope of the endeavour. They learn how to present and market their products and what level of quality is needed. They get lots of ideas because they learn about the competition and see new materials. After experiencing a trade show, artisans more readily understand what a product designer tries to explain about the international marketplace.

The Aid to Artisans Market Readiness Training Programme at the NYIGF is particularly relevant for artisan groups that are preparing to enter the international marketplace. ATA offers informative presentations on colour and market trends, how to package and display products, how to deal with catalogues, and more. A consultant said ATA doesn’t miss a thing. Every aspect of the business is taught. Artisans learn throughout the program and the trade show about what is being made and who is buying it and then they can go directly to see where things sell in New York stores. There is nothing else like it.

  1. 10. Trade Links

Enabling artisan groups to have the capacity to sell in an international marketplace and to sustain their marketing is a complex process that requires new kinds of links between development and commerce. Increasingly the development sector needs to meet up with market realities and understand how to get artisan products purchased. At the same time, good import businesses need to be encouraged because they can have a significant impact on improving livelihoods.

Product development consultants can be good designers but they also need to be able to connect artisans to the marketplace. An experienced designer can give specific contact information to artisan groups and encourage them to contact the buyers. Sometimes artisan groups expect the designer to make the contacts for them and sometimes the groups do not follow-up on the leads they have been given. However, if an import company can be introduced to, and attracted by, a particular artisan group and their products then a trading relationship can be initiated.

As artisan groups improve their capacity to consistently produce quality marketable goods and to effectively run a business they have greater need for increasing their market access. Aid to Artisans

(ATA) based in USA and TraidCraft in UK are the only non-profit organizations that provide trade facilitation services to artisan groups. As well as providing product design advice and marketing training, ATA, for example, promotes artisan products through their booth at trade shows and assists producers to make permanent links with importers, wholesalers and retail buyers who will place orders and import directly from the artisan groups.

The most appropriate marketing route for a particular artisan group depends on many factors, such as, their readiness to export and the price point of the craft products. In addition, the development of a trade partnership depends on the capacity of an Alternative Trade Organization to sell their products or the fit between their craft and a commercial importer’s product range.

SERRV and Ten Thousand Villages are major ATOs that work with artisans worldwide and promote craft products to a clientele that is largely middle class and charity or church groups. SERRV, which sells through a catalogue, and Ten Thousand Villages, which has a string of retail shops in North America, have a similar scope of products in terms of price and look. Recently they shifted their staff and services in order to make their products more in line with standard commercial demands for good product design: functionality, value, and quality.

A commercial company or catalogue is often willing to buy more products at a higher price than a North American ATO. As a result, an artisan development project coordinator may choose not to go the ATO route for sales. Artisan groups that have the capacity can be advised by consultants to enter the commercial market directly. Earlier, 10 years ago, most groups were not ready; they did not maintain quality control or know about documentation. But now a generation of export ATOs has matured and some have greater capability than the American ATOs that are buying from them.

SERRV and Ten Thousand Villages are trying to devise a method for helping artisans reach their markets directly, rather than doing the selling for them. In response to an increased capacity among artisan groups to enter the commercial market, SERRV wants to structure its programs to assist artisans in design and marketing. Rather than buying the products, SERVV would have the capacity to be an importer.

ATO markets do not provide enough work and hope for artisan groups; they have not been sufficient to alleviate poverty. In the U.S. and even in Europe ATOs are in trouble. The largest in Europe, Oxfam, recently closed its stores to craft projects, ended all its crafts projects abroad, and began reorganizing to be more in line with accepted commercial procedures in terms of quality, design, price and competition in a global marketplace.

It turns out that e-commerce is not the best way. At first EZIBA was an e-commerce business for selling craft. Later they printed a hard copy catalogue. Buyers wanted to see the printed page and not spend time looking through an on-line catalogue. Peoplink, who developed the CATGEN software in order for producers to get their information and products on-line, had to close their on-line catalogue because few customers were using it and few artisans were benefiting.

The best hope for artisans to make a decent living comes from regular clients in the marketplace who run successful growing businesses, and who have the ability to continue to place re-orders month after month from producer groups. Over the long run what raises people out of poverty is steady employment, and reward for quality and punctuality, combined with a responsible business partner who ships products on time.

A win-win-win commercial relationship for everyone would come about if sound businesses spent more of their budgets on handmade products (from places other than China), worked with wholesalers under

different circumstances (for example, a lower agent’s fee instead of a typical wholesaler’s markup), and sold lots artisans’ work. A different kind of business relationship would mean helping the wholesaler link directly with responsible artisan groups to share market information and product design suggestions. 

  1. 10i. Communication in the Chain of Distribution

Establishing trade links relies on developing good relationships with different companies. Some companies can and want to buy well-made handmade products from all over the world. Others will do this because it is a fad, but the advantage is they have huge markets.

Ideally artisan groups can link up with importers who understand their needs and the impact that sales of their products will have. In any case, it is important to communicate with the buyer, the retailer or catalogue producer, about the nuances of working with the artisan sector, because the process is very different from mass-production in a big factory in China, for example.

The importer/buyer needs to be informed about how a certain product is classified in the gift business or what import category it will be; how many items the artisan group can realistically make in a month; whether the artisans have electricity and water and why their products might arrive late; what are the import and export quotas and duties, especially for countries that do not export in significant quantities.

Larger companies, especially bigger chains who sell artisan products need to be encouraged to keep the information hang tags on the products so that consumers can be informed about the source of the product.


Relationships between consultants and artisans include an intersection of different cultural values and ways of living and working, which prompts questions about what is right, what is the respectful and responsible way to work, and what are the moral and ethical implications of any product development intervention.

Contradictions emerge in product development because of different perspectives people bring to the situation. The interaction between consultants and artisans has a mutual influence in shifting how people think. For the consultant, cultural sensitivity is demanded not only in regard to the kinds of products that are made but also to the different ways and conditions of living and working

  1. 1. Quality and Consistency Standards

It is a major challenge for product designers who work to create a perfect prototype and then artisans produce something different, either in quality, colour or design. Although artisans do not see inconsistencies as a problem, this is not good for the customer, the designer or the artisans. Market demand for good quality and colour consistency is often in stark contrast to the conditions in which artisans work and the availability of their materials and supplies.

A consultant recognizes the gap between her expectations for product quality and what is possible for artisans given the physical, social and environmental conditions that influence what quality they ordinarily achieve. For example: woman embroiderers in villages of Bangladesh were asked to produce clean white silk cloth, but what they produced was not acceptable. It was difficult for them to keep the cloth clean because they worked on it in their homes, which have dirt floors, no tables or chairs. They have never been in an environment with a wood floor, table, chair, decent lighting, or hot and cold running water so they can wash their hands to keep the fabric clean. Although the designer tried to teach

quality standards, they had no experiential base to understand or apply the training because that’s as clean as it gets with dirt floors and they think it is pretty clean already.

Weavers in a Laotian village where they do natural dyeing and manage to keep up with orders for a small mail order catalogue find it almost impossible to meet market demand for consistent colours. The consultant wanted to know why 15 very different colours were produced with the same dye plant. When asked what type of dye pot was used, the women said any pot they had. They do not have a stainless steel non-reactive dye pot needed to obtain the same colour every time. Asked what mordant (a dye fixative) was used, they said wood ash, whatever kind of wood the boy brings them. While the consultant suggested that they could have more colour consistency if the same kind of ash were used for each dyebath, she also realized that in such a poor place, where wood is not readily available, it is difficult to get the same wood time after time. She feels product development must not make major changes in the materials artisans use.

  1. 2. Safety and Environmental Hazards of Dyeing

 Case: Central Asia

Felt makers in Central Asia buy dyes from the market in little rolled up pieces of paper. There are no directions, no description of content, no safety data sheet and no indication of where the dyes come from.  The women often mix the dyes without gloves, dye the felt using a wooden implement to move the wool around in the dye pot and then dispose of the wastewater in the garden where they grow vegetables. Their hands turn the same colour as whatever they are dyeing. Sometimes they used Soviet made gloves, which were poor quality and fell apart. The ATA project provided the women with thicker better quality gloves that lasted longer. But the consultant realized that by increasing the amount of orders of dyed felted products there would be an increased risk to safety and the environment. She recommended the women switch to plant dyes and a workshop was provided to teach artisans the use of natural dyes. They learned to measure quantities accurately and get more consistent colours. However, introducing natural dyes brought additional problems, such as: finding local sources of dye materials, getting information on the season and method of extraction of the dye materials, setting up a business to import dye extracts if necessary, absorbing the additional expenses of producing natural dye products and dealing with concerns of colour consistency and fading through a complex process of dye testing.

  1. 3. Impact on Artisan Lifestyle

High quality skills and designs are emphasized in designing products for sale in the higher-end market. But production capacity of small producers needs to be taken into account, especially as this relates to a cultural difference in work ethic.

  • A consultant who sees her role in encouraging a healthy cottage industry lifestyle, says that product development must not significantly change people’s work in terms of the demand on their time. Many artisan groups cannot fill a large order even if they get one from a big company. And the pressure to fill large orders can go against the way people view their work. Trying to be helpful, a consultant suggested to Laotian weavers that they could lower their price when they get a large order. The answers she received made her realize how far removed Western society is from a cottage industry lifestyle. After much loud discussion, the weavers responded that larger orders would mean more work for them and less time with their families and less time for other chores and relaxation. The larger orders would bring added stress and they should be paid more not less.
  • A consultant worked with artisans in Central Asia to develop a product line in a limited amount of time. In the process she confronted questions about whether she was imposing her own work ethic on the

artisans. She had a plan to produce things to take back to North America, she kept designing in the evenings because there was not much to do, and she arrived the next day with expectations that the women would also work at her pace. But their pace was slower and they missed workshop time for a variety of reasons, such as, father’s day or a festival day and they didn’t let her know in advance. Sometimes if they agreed to do something in two or three days, when that time came round they would say it will be done tomorrow. This was frustrating and sometimes she felt like a slave driver and she had to check herself for pushing them. She had to consider whether she was pushing them because the training demanded they understand business timelines or whether she was going against the grain of their culture. She questions how much can designers expect, how much to push and whether to push at all.

  1. 4. Values and What is Appropriate

Consultants struggle with questions about what’s right to make and sell and about poor or unsafe conditions of artisans’ work. Some question their own values and realize they need to let go of their own points of view at times in order to be open to what is happening in a given situation.

  • A consultant with a critical view of Western consumer culture has been surprised to learn that the artisans see things a different way. For example: a teddy bear manufacturer was interested in dolls clothes produced by an Armenian coop at the NYIGF. The designer was shocked by the contradiction that in Armenia people can’t afford to put sweaters on their children while in America they are dressing up teddy bears. The Armenian coop director said, God Bless America because if they didn’t buy this we wouldn’t be able to feed our children. She realized that she criticizes her own culture for its frivolousness and consumerism but then experiences with artisans turn her head around 360 degrees. In a relatively well-off and free society people have their coffee shop conversations and philosophize quite intelligently about all kinds of things but in the end it comes down to the human level of crisis management and needs of people. So she tempers her beliefs and values and thinks about how much of her views she can apply situation-by-situation, country-by-country and even year-by-year. When governments are unstable and shifting everything can change. Interacting with artisans brings a very valuable perspective. On this level this work does a lot of good.

 1. Sustainability of Craft Development

 Consultants see the need for continuity in working with artisan groups. They question how it is possible to bring sustainability to craft development.

How can product development, including input on market trends, be brought to artisans on an ongoing basis, particularly after project funding ends. Issues of sustainability in craft development are not the same as those in agricultural development projects. Because trends change, teaching artisans a skill one time is not enough for them to able to take off from there and continue.

Globally, market trends change quickly, especially as society speeds up and makes greater demand for things to be done faster and change more readily. Artisans who receive a two year limited exposure to the kinds of products desired in the marketplace and changes in trends find it exceedingly difficult to understand how to make use of the information and continue to follow the trends when they are left alone to make products for a Western market.

Consultants want to know how artisan groups will be assisted to move from one step to the next through training. Many steps are needed to prepare artisan groups to be able to continue on their own to make

marketable products. It is frustrating for consultants to work on a short term project and then be out of the picture, without any sense that there will be follow up. A design consultant is hired to instill knowledge about how to make a collection of products, and at the end she writes a report that recommends training in certain skills and that this will take a number of steps. But she can only hope that this will be realized. Although the stated goals of a project are to give artisans the tools and methods they need to become self-sustaining, this doesn’t always happen. It would be valuable to check on the level of sustainability a couple of years after a project ends, for example in barrios of Peru, to see how many workshops have sprung up.

Example. After a successful but short-term workshop in natural dye techniques artisans were motivated to work in natural dyes. But they needed a more extensive program in product development using natural dye materials in order to figure out how to apply what they learned. This would require funding for another project.

Interventions can’t be directed from the outside without the agreement of the artisans. Effort can go into setting up a means of production, but this won’t work if the artisans do not want to use the particular method. The approach has to come from the artisans. Example: a gas-fired kiln was introduced to replace the wood fired kiln that artisans used to make glass beads. The idea was to use a locally available gas supply instead of continuing to cut down the forests to fire the kiln. But the people never used the new kiln.

NGOs often have unrealistic expectations and time frames for results. Many resources go into planning projects, but these are often short term and one time only, which doesn’t accomplish much. It takes a great deal of time to train artisans to function independently in the U.S. marketplace, which is the stated goal of many projects. Sometimes a designer is hired directly by a U.S. company or overseas exporter and can develop an ongoing relationship, but often lack of funding, political instability, and corruption all conspire against return visits.

Often NGOs are driven by their donors’ or funders’ budgetary constraints or aggressive programming. When Aid to Artisans gets money from USAID they have to promise a dollar-for-dollar return for funds invested. But it is not possible for artisans to be able to sell enough products by the end of the project time. It is also unrealistic to expect that their work will be sustained after the project is over. Self-sufficiency cannot be achieved so quickly. Artisans need to develop an understanding of business, but in order for skills and market access to be developed, a project needs to be subsidized well enough and long enough. 

  1. 2. Continuity of Market Relations

Sustaining market relations is a major concern and often difficult to achieve.

When I went back to villages that I had not been to for a while, the people asked where have you been? We really broke our necks when you gave us a production order six months ago. Did it sell? Where’s the next order? That broke my heart.

Often organizations that initiate craft-related projects do not ensure their continuity because they do not have enough money for marketing or they go on to the next funded project. Once a group is up and running, there needs to be more marketing efforts to help artisans become self-sustainable. Follow through is important because the worst thing is to get artisans fired up and making things but then there is no market for them; you burst their hopes and sometimes this is the only thing they have.

Artisans need consistency and sustainability in market relations. Getting their products into a commercial catalogue can mean a big infusion of money in the short term. But it can be detrimental in the long term if the next catalogue no longer carries their products.

  1. 2i. Examples

SERRV is committed to long-term relations with producer groups. This used to involve a visit every two or three years. Since many designs are now generated in the designer’s studio and sent out digitally to artisan groups, SERRV no longer visits the groups every year. SERRV is also trying to create a development division; they want to send SERRV representatives to visit the groups and see what is needed in order for them to be able to work on their own.

A Canadian-based ethical business, MAIWA, stays with the artisan groups until they aren’t needed anymore. They establish marketing contacts for artisan products around the world, including helping artisans get their work into museums and shops.

VI 3. Bringing Along the Next Generation of Artisans

The test of continuity ultimately lies with the next generation.

Case: Laos

A consultant tells artisans it will be important for them not to lose their young people. If they can break out of their mold, still work with their traditional designs but in a more modern way, they will attract the young people. She says if they have some different ideas, listen and help guide them so you don’t lose your traditions, culture and identity. Work with them so it is meaningful to them.

It is difficult for young people all over the world to find a balance between their tradition, heritage and culture and also be part of a modern world with blue jeans and coca cola. They are now talking in the school system about how important it is to be Lao or Thai or Indian; what the differences are and what they mean, not necessarily better or worse. They can see the mistakes that have happened and they also talk about pride in their traditions. The jeans and coke are there. But the Lao people will find a balance, which will have to do with the differences between special occasions and everyday activities.


MAIWA aims to develop confidence in craftspeople and re-establish apprenticeships in the artisan’s communities. They encourage young people to see their parents as international traders and exhibitors. The designer leaves a laptop computer with the artisans to show them not only their products on-line but also that they can have that kind of connection with the world. This helps young people see that making craft is better than a job at the bank; they see there is so much potential.

  1. 4. Preparing a New Generation of Product Designers

A lack of product design consultants in less developed countries means that most artisan projects hire foreign consultants. There is rarely a person in-country connected with an artisan project who has had artistic training or has an innate artistic flair that could be developed in order to design competitive products for the marketplace. Sometimes there is a local artist, good at design who learns readily from a foreign designer how to translate her training and artistic talents into marketable products, and then later can help a group of artisans become less dependent on outside consultants.

The question of how to enable sustainability of product design in groups around the world is connected to other questions: How much training of local designers is needed? Can enough skills be taught to a product developer who lives in another country but does not have exposure to the international marketplace? At what point will they have enough analytical skills and design training to be able to carry on independently to produce things that will sell in any market in the world?  For example, in the Philippines there has been investment at all levels, such as adding design classes to the art school curriculum or businesses supporting the design profession by hiring a trained designer full time.

Design schools in the West do not prepare designers for working with artisans. A design curriculum is needed to educate new designers about market analysis and design for artisan groups. Designers need training in figuring out market demands and trends and how to get the right information that can be analyzed and then applied creatively in product design. In the future some universities may introduce special industrial design courses that specifically address the discipline of market-led product designing for artisans.

Mentoring programmes in design schools have potential to increase the numbers of young designers who have sensitivity and social conscience to work with artisans groups.

Example. In a California design class project students can learn about what is involved in working with artisans. They learn about where different products come from, how they are made and used, what symbols they contain, and how to apply this knowledge in their own work. One consultant is involved in a mentoring program with a thesis student from India who wants to return to India and work with women artisans.

Example. A mentoring programme at a New York high school of fashion industry uses a Mali artisan project as the basis of an integrative high school curriculum. The designer who worked in Mali talked with students about skills they need as designers and also different paths they can take in their careers. Students worked in a design class on making products from leather and Bizan fabric. In a marketing and merchandizing class they came up with creative ways to market and retail the products. In social studies they learned about importing and exporting from Western Africa.

Product development is partly instinctual and new designers are creating their own businesses. Young people have opportunities to travel, many have been culturally sensitized as Peace Corps volunteers, and those who live in the U.S. have exposure to a sophisticated marketplace. For example, they go to Thailand, see the crafts, figure out how to make products marketable in the U.S. based on what their friends like, how they live and the stores where they shop. The major challenge when they start out as an importer is to work with the demands of retailers who always want and expect a new infusion of ideas. As they start their businesses, these young entrepreneurs find they suddenly have to shift their attention from an appreciation of the craft and the craftspeople to spending 80% of their time building the business, marketing, working with retailers, and filling orders. At this point the mentoring and nurturing and buying from the artisan takes back seat.

  1. 6. Ensuring Opportunities for Designers to Continue Working

A designer who has new product ideas and methods wants to be able to use these with different artisan groups to give them support and encourage their independence. She has ideas for product lines that could be developed, for example, a line of children’s boots and hats that are priced high enough so they can survive in the market. She also has ideas for applying the same methodology in American cities, working with groups of people that have skills that can be used to create products and help them financially.

Another designer who has recently entered this field, and enjoys the process of helping artisans think differently, wants to continue to learn and work at the grassroots level in product design, training and teaching. She finds it difficult, however, to know about opportunities to do this work. It would be helpful if there were a broader picture of the field and available information about organizations that do this work.


 VII. 1. Perspective Shifts

Following are comments product developers made about the impact this work has on their self-awareness and on their lives.

I became less able to just do it as an interesting life for me and trying to sell beautiful one-of-a-kind pieces and I became more and more committed to selling things that enabled whole communities to get out of poverty and that meant understanding the marketplace more and figuring out how to get consistent orders to people who wanted to work and then pay them fair wages, better than they could get anywhere else doing anything else in their own country and also generating interest in the sector that was buying it. That reflects my personal commitment to poverty and discrimination, human justice and dignity, and to my desire to generate income for artisans so they can continue being artisans, as opposed to trying to keep alive a particular tradition in a particular town. I tried to figure out how to make the business work so that it would be profitable and grow and be able to employ more artisans on a continuing basis.

You are looked at with a certain amount of trepidation – you are looked at – “well who are you, what are you going to do?”

Many of the groups with whom I have worked have a preconceived notion about me as an American. It is important to me to downplay the fact that I am American. First, I am a human being who has compassion and skills, which can be of assistance to clients.

When I learned about ATA I wanted to work for them. I said I’ll go as a volunteer on a project because I really believe in what you are doing. My first trip was to Ghana where we designed products using a lost wax technique and recycled materials, such as old brass spigots melted down and turned into candle holders. We made a variety of products, which sold well at the NY gift fair. The whole experience was incredibly inspiring as an artist/designer and it felt wonderful to be helping.

It is a privilege to be able to work with artisans. They know how to make many things and it is very rewarding to help revitalize the crafts, increase pride in their design heritage and create an income for them. I try to facilitate that creative collaboration. I am inspired because I’m learning but it is hard work. At the end I am exhausted and usually I say that is the last time I’m going to do this, but of course I will do more.

The best possible scenario is to see these artisans as our brothers and sisters and ask what can we learn from each other, what can we make together? I was honoured in Peru when the people invited me to a ceremony in Conocucho Mountain. Everyone brought candles to place in a stone niche carved in a wall and everyone spoke in Spanish about their gratitude to Mother Earth and for this project, and they sang songs. There was no cynicism, only gratitude. Although the workshop had begun poorly, it ended like that after four weeks.

At the end of each class, people took turns, standing up one by one and speaking about the impact that the workshop was going to have on their lives. They said this is how they were going to be able to feed their children; their children would be healthy or they could take them to the doctor. All other issues fall by the wayside when you realize that you are helping somebody somewhere to do something on their own for themselves. To hear them speak like this was a profoundly moving experience. It makes you come away quite full. You are learning so much from them. But what they are learning from you is something that will help them feed their families.

It is hard to keep a level business head and keep my emotional concerns from affecting my work. For example, India is a country of extremes. There is obscene wealth and totally devastating poverty and filth right next to each other and oblivious to each other. I worked with a group in a rural area where women wove sleeping mats with their fingers and toes while most of the men drank away earnings. The women turned to prostitution to pay 30% interest rates on the money they borrowed to buy reeds to make the mats. The average wage was 21 cents a day, and two women killed themselves because they couldn’t pay their loans. With my daily expenses about $6 I felt overly rich. I had problems with this until I accepted that I have an expense account to keep me safe, healthy and energized, and I earn my salary because I live in the U.S. with U.S. prices. Not using my expense money for my own care wouldn’t help anyone; it would just get me sick and make me useless.

The work load is intense and emotionally taxing, working with people who are living in difficult circumstances, struggling to put food on the table, or keep daughters out of prostitution, or give kids a bit of education. Development work has an emotional roll, and then to work in environments that are post- conflict areas is even a heavier emotional blow. Example: After six weeks work in Cambodia and seeing the level of things that people do to each other, seeing the result of Khmer Rouge activities – the legacy of land mines. Also after one month of work in Hezbollah villages in South Lebanon and post-conflict work in Tajikistan. People are in situations that are a direct result of hatred. It makes me think how important it is for mankind to be good to each other. It keeps coming home to me that we need to be human. I need to travel on my own, take breaks, and not only work in conflict or post-conflict zones, but also intersperse work that is a bit lighter in nature.

Often there are not the amenities that you are used to. For example, a pit toilet or the electricity goes off and you work by gas light or there is no water in the morning and you boil hot water to take a wash. But you just get on with it. You have to be quite hardy. That is part of why we do this work because you scratch beneath the surface. I choose to live with people in their apartments rather than in their hotels because they benefit from the little rent I give them and I experience the culture more. I come back home and realize how affluent we are–there is a culture shock–but you are thankful for the hot water running. You also see you don’t necessarily need that new bedspread that you were lusting after, because you feel you have so much already, that you really don’t need all that stuff.

Not knowing languages well is a problem. It is hard to talk about technical details, such as, dyestuffs or techniques in French or Spanish. I have a translator but it is frustrating sometimes because the artisans want to ask questions about the U.S. and I want to know more about them and it is hard to have a natural flow of conversation through a translator. It takes time to learn languages from tapes and these don’t deal with the specifics terms of product design. Also I don’t like taking all the shots or taking malaria pills for an extended period of time. But the personal issues pale in comparison to the bigger picture; there is so much to be gained for everybody.

VII. 2. Networking and Cooperation

Consultants had a range of responses to the following questions: Do you have opportunities to discuss ideas, issues, or concerns with other product development consultants? How important is this to you? Are

you interested in the future to meet with other designer consultants to share ideas and concerns?  Following are some of the responses.

Aid to Artisans has a network of designers; about ten are active designers who have been trained informally.

Product designers have their own network of contacts with others who work with artisans. Informally, they support each other in a number of ways: establishing contacts when appropriate, discussing specific problems or issues, sharing information, generating ideas and insights, and providing contacts for work in different projects.

Some consultants express interest in having more opportunity to discuss issues of product development with other consultants. Although they know other designers to discuss experiences and exchange ideas, some would like to take a more active stance and have a forum to get together nationally or internationally to exchange information, share experiences and talk about the challenges and what they can do to make things better.

It would also be useful for some consultants to have a means to know about the different kinds of organizations that are working with the artisan sector and what they are doing. It is hard to get this information.

A designer, who is just entering the field of working with artisan groups through non-profit organizations, sees the importance of having a forum for exchange of information. She sees the value of cooperative effort, and thinks a clearinghouse of information would be useful. Instead of finding a willingness to share information and methods and work together, she experiences a sense of competition among designers. A lack of funding for projects means competition for jobs, but partnerships would be valuable. It is helpful to have someone to bounce ideas off and it would be very good to find a way for cooperation and sharing of ideas at least once every six months. Among the different organizations and people working in this sector, there is a common goal of helping artisans and by working together all may benefit from each other.

Some consultants say they have informal opportunities to share their experiences and ideas with other consultants but they are very busy doing freelance work and it is not that important to get together in a more formal way. After working on a project, they write a report and give recommendations to the organization that hired them, and then they go on to the next project.

Getting together with other designers who work with artisans may provoke some ideas that can be applied in different areas. But experiences vary so much from country to country and the problems encountered often cannot be resolved through discussion. For example, a problem related to dyes might need another workshop or funding for infrastructure to set up a dye import company. This could not be taken care of by discussion with other consultants. A designer, focused on time management, questions whether it would be worthwhile to get together unless there was a specific focus on practical considerations and solving problems.

The idea of having a conference as a forum to exchange information and discuss issues related to product development interests a number of consultants. One designer has long recommended an international forum for designers and design centers as an opportunity to get together and share experiences. The usefulness of this event, however, would depend on getting funding so people from the South could attend.


Globally, millions of artisans are seeking ways to use craft skills and knowledge to improve their livelihoods. Local craft production is a significant part of cultural identity and heritage and also a potential for income, particularly for women in rural areas of less-developed countries. However, there are major difficulties for artisans who try to make a transition from producing crafts for their own use or sale in local markets to making marketable products for urban and international customers.

Product development is a critical element in helping artisans improve their sales in local, tourist, national and international markets. This report examined a range of product development situations and challenges from the points of view of North American product design consultants who try to assist producers to value their craft traditions, access new markets and earn a decent living from their work. Essentially the designer looks for ways to draw from local cultural traditions and effectively integrate these elements with market realities, such as, demand for quality, consistency and functionality. The process is complex and there are differences in opinion about what is culturally appropriate.

Artisans encounter many obstacles in trying to make and sell crafts, including, lack of quality raw materials, financing and credit, current information on market trends, business skills development, and supportive economic policies nationally and internationally. During assignments with artisan groups, product development consultants bring information and advice to help artisans understand about markets in general and also about particular opportunities and constraints to be taken into account. Product designers must make a bridge between the worlds of artisans and distant consumers and this requires a unique combination of knowledge, skills and sensitivities on the part of the consultant.

The issue of improving the situation for artisans involves not only the design of marketable products but also the search for ways to expand market options. There is the question of how to encourage import companies to be interested in handmade crafts and develop businesses based on ethical practices and respect for artisans. As well, consumer education is needed to raise awareness about the value of handmade products and how their purchases make a difference to the lives of artisans and the health of the globe in terms of sustaining cultural diversity and small-scale cottage industry lifestyles. Both consumer education and international policies and enforcement are also needed to protect the cultural property rights of artisans. Exploitation of indigenous designs and products, and production of cheaper copies that flood the market, threaten the survival of many artisans and their specialized craft processes.

Product designers take on a range of assignments in widely different situations around the world. They may be asked to develop a product line or give a workshop or seminar on topics, such as, natural dyeing, market trends, business skills or export requirements. They often encounter problems associated with project demands, time limitations and production uncertainties. Where possible, they benefit from collaboration and advice from in-country project directors, facilitators and local designers.

The elements of product development fall into three broad categories: (1) creating products, (2) understanding business and markets, and (3) establishing trade links. Each of these has specific requirements, including, technical skills, material and design resources, quality standards, costing and pricing, merchandizing, market exposure and communication.

A wealth of learning takes place within the relationship between product designers and artisans. The experience provokes shifts in awareness and perspective on both sides. Consultants recognize the conflict   inherent in introducing ways of thinking and doing things that impact strongly on changing values and lifestyles in artisan communities. On the other hand, many designers are touched by the gratitude expressed by artisans after learning practical details that they feel will help them overcome hardships, improve their ability to earn money and help their families.

A significant issue is how to ensure the continuity of benefits to artisan groups, through support and product development, until they have the capacity to be self-sustaining. It is very difficult for groups to become self-sustaining within the time frame of projects or after project funding is over. Several problems include: lack of capacity to keep current on market demands and opportunities, and lack of assurance that market relations, once established, will be maintained. Some ATOs and import companies try to sustain relations with producer groups until they are able to be independent.

When compared to the need worldwide for assistance to artisans, there are relatively few development initiatives, trade centres or commercial enterprises that work with artisans to help them develop and market handmade products. In addition, the product designers whose insights form the basis of this report are among the very few North American consultants that have the experience and capacity to make an impact on the sustainability of artisan livelihoods. When more people in governments, NGOs, development agencies and import businesses become convinced that the skills, products and concerns of artisans are important, assistance can be expanded in response to their needs. When this happens, product development expertise will be increasingly in demand. A variety of innovative programmes, including interdisciplinary learning in colleges and universities will be needed to prepare young designers to work in this field and experienced product designers would have a significant role as mentors.


 Books and Articles

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Jongeward, C. (2000). Cultural Investing: Artisans, Livelihoods and the Indian Context. In Johnston, Tremblay & Wood (Eds.), South Asia: Between Turmoil and Hope (pp.291-304). South Asia Council of Canadian Asian Studies Association and Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute: Simon Fraser University.

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Special Edition Summer 2002: Global Artisan Profiles. Hartford: ATA.

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(2002) Maker to Market.ATA Marketing Report. Hartford, CT.

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Liebl, M. and Roy T. (2000). Handmade in India: Preliminary Analysis of Crafts Producers and Crafts Production in India: Issues, Initiatives, Interventions. A report prepared for the Policy Sciences Center, Inc. CT and World Bank, Washington, D.C.

Satyanand, K. and Singh, S. (1995). India’s Artisans: A Status Report. New Delhi: Society for Rural, Urban and Tribal Initiatives.

UNESCO. (2001). Vital Traditions: Revival and Innovation in Traditional Textiles. Final Report of a Regional Workshop 28 November-16 December 2001, Hanoi, Vietnam.UNESCO, Hanoi office.

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United Nations University. (1999). Towards a New Vision: Traditional Crafts for Sustainable Development. Report of International Conference, November 27-28, 1998, Kanazawa, Japan. Kanazawa: IICRC.


AEN – Artisan Enterprise Network http//
ATA – Aid to Artisans  http//
CBI – Centre for Promotion of Imports from developing countries http//
The Craft Center  http//
EZIBA    http//
FTF – Fair Trade Federation http//
HomeNet – International Network for HomebasedWorkers  http//
IFAT – International Federation of Alternative Trade   http//
ITC – International Trade Center  http//
MAIWA  http//
Making Cents  http//
SERRV   http//
Ten Thousand Villages   http//
Traidcraft  http//
UNESCO  http//


Additional copies of this report may be obtained from the author


Many people contributed their time and thoughts to this research. Special thanks go to the product development consultants who shared the stories of their work with artisans: Rochelle Beck, Margaret Bishop, Patti Carpenter, Jane Griffith, Lynda Grose, Vicki Lederman, Docey Lewis, Rachel MacHenry, Cindy Owings, Mimi Robinson, Karen Selk, Stacy Spivak, Andrea Snyder and Michele Wipplinger. Thanks to Aid to Artisans, especially the contributions of Tom Aageson, Mary Cockram, Beth Gottschling, Keith Recker and Clare Brett Smith, and to the Craft Center, for assistance from Leah Kaplan and Caroline Ramsey. Thanks also to the dedicated business people involved in artisan trade: Amber Chand, Gaye Ellis, Charlotte Kwon, Holland Millis, Stephanie Odegard, and Jacqui Starkey. I am grateful also for the contributions of Doug Dirk of Ten Thousand Villages, Nina Smith of Rugmark and Carol Wills of International Federation of Alternative Trade.

April 2003

This work was carried out with the aid of a grant from the International Development Research Centre, Ottawa, Canada and a grant from York University, Canada. 

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