Pil Bredahl, Liselotte Risell and Henriette Melchiorsen are the three Danish women that make up FairTrade Designers, a group dedicated to blending Scandinavian design with indigenous craft from around the world. Fair trade and fair play are the underlying concepts that drive these designers, and a recent project with the Chinese women who do embroidery for Threads of Yunnan resulted in a series of handmade textiles that are part of the Danish Crafts' Collection. FairTrade designers give us some insight into what it is like to work with these craftspeople.
Pun Pillow, the latest in the series of Threads for Yunnan projects
How was the Yunnan area chosen for this project?
When we started FairTrade Designers, we already had some experience working with mass and upmarket design products in China. But we found it interesting on many levels both political and design wise if our pilot project could be a FAIR TRADE project in China! We knew that 30 % of the population in China was part of the 'Tiger economy' - but the rest of the Chinese people have a much lower living standard, and very few opportunities to improve it.
When we got in contact with Danish businesswoman Bitten Høgh, she already had a small production of things running. And few months later she got Fair-trade certified. Bitten had created 'Threads of Yunnan' following a visit to the mountains after an earthquake, where she saw the terrible situation the ethnic women from the villages were in, and decided to do something to help them. When we got in contact with her, she was in need of new products to keep selling and to be able to enter new markets and was, therefore, very interested in co-operating with a design team. We too wanted this co-operation since it made it possible for us to do Fair Trade in China. The match was very convenient for both parties, and we went to Yunnan shortly after to meet the women; we hope to be able to make another trip in 2011.
How did the women react to personalizing the pillows?
The ethnic women do not have a lot of confidence in themselves and the Chinese culture is not like ours, where a person's individuality is in favor. We guess that is why the women were very reluctant to personalize their work. And when it came to making up their own ideas, it simply does not come easy for them. Instead of being part of the design process, they seem to prefer to get clear orders. They feel fine and proud about putting their name and hands outlined on the pillow now, and we are getting them to choose more and more details like some of the colors and decorations on the products. They also get to read and write through the project and that is also helping them to feel more confident.
The embroiderer draws her hand
Without your involvement, would these women be providing their products for destinations outside China?
Without Bitten Høgh's company, Threads of Yunnan, the woman would not be making any handicrafts; they would only be working in agriculture. FairTrade Designers have aimed to get the products into new markets, especially Scandinavia and the north of Europe, because that is the market we understand. By participating in Danish Crafts Collection and being exposed in Paris, NYC and Shanghai we have got new costumers in US, GB, France and Italy, and have helped the women to be able to sell to new markets and equally important new segments.
The embroidery workshop
How many women are involved in the project?
The number of women working with embroidery for Threads of Yunnan varies, from 5 to 50 depending on the time of the year, and of course the amount and size of orders. In August the women are involved in the harvest and do not have too much time for embroidery. The women working for Threads of Yunnan come from several small villages in the mountain areas and from many different ethnic groups. For every woman involved in Threads of Yunnan, a whole family will benefit from the income, since in this area most families have a very low income, if any. With the money from the embroidery work the women can send their children to school and buy things not possible to exchange and get without money.
Wedding soles in a contemporary context
How did Scandinavian design intersect with Chinese experience?
We think that the Scandinavian design and the Chinese experience work very well together; Danish thought frames the colorful Chinese embroidery. The fabric used for the pillows is rough and a wonderful contrast to the delicate embroidery tradition.
FairTrade Designers also take up old Chinese traditions e.g. the Wedding Soles, which are given to the visitors at one's wedding to show that you appreciate the effort the guests have made by participating. Often you walk several days to get to a wedding in the mountains, and you wear out your shoes and soles. We think the soles could be absolutely beautiful in a pair of modern European designer shoes as well.
What are the reactions of consumers to all the Homemade in China cushions?
We have gotten really good reactions from our customers. They like and appreciate that they know the story about how the pillows were made and especially they like the 'hand' signatures embroidered on the pillow, showing the hand and name of the woman who made the embroidery. Some reactions have been that the pillows are still a bit too expensive, although the costumers knows they are getting something unique that at the same time is making a positive difference. But we feel the trend is now to buy less but better, so that will soon change.