The fine art of spinning a yarn!

Or what a tangled web we weave, when we first practice to deceive.

Six Yards Plus started, for me, as a way of opening up more wardrobes to sarees.

One of the main questions I get asked very frequently is ‘Do you directly work with the weavers?’

My honest answer to that is simply- ‘As much as possible’. And more often than not, most people are surprised when they hear this answer.

In my experience with buying and selling sarees and handlooms, this is what I have seen happening. Buyers want to believe that they are making a difference when they make a purchase and equally, sellers need to tell buyers the story of the saree in order to stand out in the crowd, I find there are typically three narratives that one comes across.

The first is the save the weaver/artisan narrative. Companies, designers and brands will tell you about how they work directly with weavers and artisans and that they are saving them from abject poverty.

The second is the save the craft narrative. That there is intangible and tangible culture, and skills being lost because weavers or artisans are now abandoning their traditional work and moving on to other, more lucrative livelihoods, and therefore we must all come together to preserve these arts.

The third narrative one hears about is how organisations are providing a livelihood to women or the disadvantaged by imparting skills to them. And by creating a market place for the products they make, they are assuring livelihoods of their trainees. This is a livelihoods narrative, similar to the save the weaver narrative, but slightly different because these skilling initiatives focus typically on empowerment of women and their economic independence.    

Now, all of these narratives position the brand, and by extension, its customers and clients as the saviour.

Please don’t get me wrong, there are several organisations in the private, government, non-profit as well as social enterprise space that do this. With an incredible amount of humility, patience, and with high quality outcomes. However, there are far too many brands, organisations, designers and all other formats of sellers, that will claim much, much more than they actually do

And having spent a large part of my career in monitoring and evaluation of development projects, I have never been truly satisfied with claims of ‘touching a million lives’. It appears specific, but is in reality very obscure. There are lots of ways to touch a million lives- it doesn’t follow that all of them have impact.

So how does one cut through all the marketing hype and analyse these claims? Here are some things to consider if you truly want to understand whether and how such claims are credible.

First and foremost- look at the ownership. How does the money flow? Do the artisans have a stake in the profit of the organisation? If so, it is more likely that some of these narratives are true.

On the other hand, if the product is purchased from weavers/artisans, or even made to order for the brand/organisation in question, it is still only a sourcing arrangement, and nothing more. In my view, this does not translate into a right to claim that one is saving anything.

It usually means that there is a profit-making organisation (which is a good thing, by the way!), which is sourcing (hopefully at fair prices) product from artisans and providing a market to these products. This is itself is a great arrangement, and I would love to see more of these in the artisanal livelihoods space.

But it will continue only as long as there is a market for the products made by those artisans/weavers. As the market changes, and the organisation (understandably) has to keep its share and margins alive, it will move on to the next thing that the customer is clamouring for- there have been numerous examples of a ‘wave’ of popularity for certain crafts and weaves, and when the wave dies, because, well, the market is a fickle friend, the brands/organisations move on.  

What then happens to the weavers or artisans who were being ‘saved’?

In a situation where ownership too resides with the artisans, as is the case with many Producer Organisations and Cooperatives, in spite of all their limitations, they will be more incentivised to pivot their model to survive in the market. Much more so than when it is a simple sourcing arrangement.

Therefore, the first thing is to look for who owns it, and who is making the final profit out of the sale.

The second question is, are you actually upskilling artisans? Many organisations do. In which case, both the craft and the artisan are being positively impacted if we are able to find them a good market. But again, the question is, who owns the design? If artisans are producing specific designs which require a specific skill set, has enough been done to ensure that they are not bound to sell their product only to the ‘saviour’ organisation in question.

Especially when design interventions are done on the basis of grant funds, which is the case with many social enterprises and non-profits, there is a duty on part of the organisations to allow artisans to use their skills to sell to others in the market as well. Otherwise, we go right back to the sourcing argument- you are not saving anything in particular, you are sourcing from certain artisans and if you continue to own the design, and do not translate enough of the technique for them to function independently, you are actually operating in a way that contradicts your claim, and you yourself become the gateway or the ‘middle man’ you are claiming to replace.

Which is why, when brands and even several social organisations make claims about ‘our weavers’ it truly angers me, because the skill resides with the artisans, and no one must claim to own them.

The thing to do here, is to separate the skill from the design, and examine if the artisans in question have the capacity and the freedom to pursue the opportunities that these new skills provide them.

Now let us come to the livelihoods question. In one of my conversations with a senior social entrepreneur in the creative livelihoods sector, we were discussing what it takes to actually enhance and nurture creative/artisanal livelihoods. If one assumes that that the MRP of a product has three large elements, more or less equal- raw material, labour cost and overheads & profit. Just for ease of calculation, let us assume that these are equal- as in 33% of the MRP each. This means, for one person if we’d like to enhance their monthly income by Rs. 10,000, we are looking at selling product worth roughly about Rs. 30,000. Now imagine if this is a group of 10 people. That’s Rs. 300,000 per month. We can keep extrapolating, but what is obvious is that this is quite a bit to sell. This may vary from craft to craft, but overall, the logic plays out.

Now let’s come back to how many women you are actually supporting by either procuring from a skilling initiative, or buying retail directly from them.

Of course, no number is big or small, and if we can help even one person, we’ve done good. But that’s at an individual level.

If, however, and organisation or a brand is claiming to empower women and creating livelihoods and economic independence, please consider at what scale it must operate. This is truly possible only in cases like a SEWA or a Fab India (as it was conceived, which I’m told is quite different from how it operates now), where the retail model is well established and the market is truly large scale.  Then consider if a brand that was started a couple of years ago by people who may or may not have the depth in the supply chain. Compare their claim of empowering women, to what it actually takes to empower one.

In my view, save for very few exceptions, organisations can either go deep into a particular craft and spend a lifetime working on design revival or intervention, capacity building of artisans and market expansion of that one craft, or a small number of crafts, typically limited to a geographical/cultural grouping.

Or they can go wide and stock a variety of products which come from across the country, but will most probably not have the ability to support artisanal communities to a great extent, except through fair-trade practices and absorption of inventory risks. That is a really good thing to do, but to claim that it is single handedly saving the art, the artisan and the culture is a little far-fetched.

As a mindful customer, though, do analyse claims and question brands that make tall claims. That is the first step to mindful consumption. Do buy what you like, what you can afford, and most importantly, what you are likely to use. Let us not assume more greatness than we deserve.


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