Three Reasons Why It is Important to Preserve Traditions and Craft

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Three Reasons Why It is Important to Preserve Traditions and Craft
Weave a Story, Agy Textile Artist

My Weave a Story upcycling community installation traveled to the Green Is the New Black "The Conscious Festival" in May.  Adults and children alike were engaged in the installation and it was exciting to see how the piece grew organically (take a look at the video here). The piece became a good starting point for conversations on how we consume our clothing and what we can do to slow it down. Yes, this is a form of artivism / gentle protest, something I would definitely like to see grow in Singapore. However, one thing I questioned was whether the act of making (in this case weaving upcycled t-shirt dreamcatchers) made the participants realise how our need for speed has caused such traditional forms of making to be lost.

Coopita - Preserving Traditions

My collaborator for the installation, Coopita, is all about preserving traditions. I loved how they brought in artisans from South East Asia to showcase their creations and techniques at Green Is the New Black. While Coopita supports artisans and craftsmen across the region, they promote their work, enhance their capabilities and empower their communities as well.  I was very eager to chat with co-founder of Coopita, Naomi Jacob, and find out why preserving tradition and craft is important in this technology-filled world of ours.

Coopita, Naomi Jacobs, Co-founder

How Did Coopita Begin?

Naomi says, "When I got married in 2013, my mother gave me a trousseau of about five saris that she had collected over the years from her travels across India. What was unique about each one of the saris was that the particular weave could not be found anymore. In the space of one generation, the skills required to create the weaves had vanished. As the craft sector is the largest employer in India after the agrarian sector, this loss of skills and traditions came as a surprise to me and I found myself pondering this conundrum.

A few years later, I was lucky enough to meet two individuals who were not just interested in this topic, but keen to do something to enhance craft preservation.Our little team really compliments each other; Isaac brings to the table his insights and experience as an entrepreneur, Mayur has over a decade of experience in investments, turnarounds and corporate strategy for small businesses and I come from an economics and development policy background with experience in policy making.

What started out as chats over coffee turned into weekend trips where we travelled across Asia over weekends to meet different artisan communities. The issues of a lack of market access and a loss of skills due to the disinclination of the next generation to take up traditional crafts seemed to cut across countries we visited such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, in addition to India. The insights we gained from these trips eventually turned into a business plan for Coopita.

Today Coopita’s purpose or mission is very clear to us - to focus on enhancing the capabilities of maker communities across Asia that work on craft preservation. Our efforts have brought us to a point where within the first year of our operations, we have been able to transfer over $25,000 to our maker communities (and our year isn’t over yet!). As a completely bootstrapped team, I am proud of our efforts, but know that there is a huge untapped opportunity here to do more and have a much greater impact. "

Top 3 Reasons for Preserving Traditions and Craft

Just like Naomi, I have a passion for preserving traditions. As the world gets faster, I see many people lose touch with traditional skills such as sewing, repairing and even taking care of our clothes. Naomi gives her top 3 reasons why it is important to preserve traditions and craft:

  1. Prevent loss of skills and know-how, which would be irreversible;
  2. Sometimes the traditional ways are actually better, as with the example of cast-iron pans  (see video below) when it comes to cooking or the Bolivian weavers who are able to create medical devices that cannot be replicated by machines and which save the lives of millions of children every year; and
  3. To prevent the loss of the intangible cultural heritage that traditional crafts are a manifestation.

So How Does Coopita Aid Craft Preservation?

"In order to reduce the dependence of makers on the seasonal tourism industry, Coopita’s first solution was to set up a customised e-commerce platform for the Asian makers we had met during our travels, that would take into account their specific requirements for logistics and payments.

By the summer of 2016, we had all the processes in place to start operating the Coopita platform. We started operations with about 20 maker communities on board our platform. In the first six months alone, we grew this number to 100+ makers in 8 countries across Asia.

We constantly look at ways in which we can add more value to our makers - starting with building up a pipeline of business to business (B2B) orders for our makers, to working with communities looking to finance product innovations to see how best we could raise this money and finally to grow the community of conscious consumers around us through events or workshops, so that we could showcase why craft preservation is so important."

I asked Naomi about her thoughts on traditional techniques vis a vis today's retail demand for quicker time to market.  In today's business environment, many say traditional techniques are not cost effective and scalable when it comes to making things. 

"Today, we have oceans that cannot breathe because of plastics. Fish that have ingested toxic amounts of micro-fibres and are unsafe for human consumption. Skies that are choked grey with haze from slash and burn farming. Factories that turn to rubble in an instant, destroying precious human lives, because they are built with only cost-effectiveness in mind. Perhaps it’s time more of us take a pause to recognise the toll that mass-production is taking on the Earth. Are all the negative externalities of mass production truly taken into account by capitalism today?
I would also pose a question on whether we should consider how traditional craftsmanship can achieve scale, while still maintaining their core values - taking the example of the English shoemaking company, John Lobb.

Coopita aims to take such learnings from how craft clusters abroad have achieved scale and see how it can be applied within the Asian context."

Working with Communities

"We try to make sure that our sourcing team personally connects with each and every maker that we bring on board Coopita, to make sure that our community stays true to our mission. Since we are working with a relatively small group of 100+ makers now, each maker is unique and exciting and adds to the diversity of the community.

Revolutionising Fashion

While each of the Coopita makers I have met have personally inspired me, there are a few whose stories I’d like to share:

(i) Lara Frayre, the founder of social enterprise Batak Craft is someone who has deeply impressed me with her commitment to her cause. Coopita is currently collaborating with Batak Craft on the crowdfunding campaign, Project Bamboo. Lara has tremendous respect for the Batak community she works with, and her organisation works within the tribe’s cultural foundation to find a sustainable livelihood that can lift them out of their current cycle of poverty. You can find more information on Project Bamboo here and your support would go a long way in helping the Batak tribe.

(ii) Recently, one of the best experiences the Coopita team has had with our makers was during our Meet the Makers Singapore event from 12-13 May 2017. 28 different maker communities from 9 different countries across Asia flew into Singapore for the event, which included demonstrations of weaving and ceramics as well as workshops where people could learn to use traditional craft tools like the backstrap loom/loin loom. The best part of the event was seeing how our makers connected with each other - we are looking forward to seeing some interesting collaborations arising from the event!"

Meet the Makers, Coopita

Thank you, Naomi for the insights behind Coopita, and why it's important to preserve traditions and craft!

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