The online revival of Pakistan’s handmade crafts is giving local artisans a much-needed boost

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An embroidered tote bag, a blue pottery jar, a deep maroon Ajrak and a set of quirky fabric dolls —scrolling through these glistening images on Instagram today feels synonymous to stepping into a meta bazaar of Pakistani handmade crafts.

Artisans and hobbyists are using digital spaces as a powerful medium to generate sales and sustainability for a large variety of unique local crafts —and a growing subculture of ecofriendly products— that were once only to be found in certain localities, shops or at yearly exhibitions.

Handmade crafts in online spaces

Tinku & Co.
Tinku & Co.

Nasreen, Amna, Zahra, Anumta, four bright girls, alongside Anumta’s mother, Kaneez Fatima, have been spending most of the summer in an empty school courtyard, surrounded by colourful reels of wool, cloth, buttons and other material to create handmade products for a small nonprofit startup based in Karachi called Tinku & Co.

Hailing from Gilgit Baltistan, the artisans use their skills for traditional embroidery and stitch work which have been passed down to them over generations.

The initiative was launched online in August 2020 by Maham Zehra, an HR professional who had left her job in 2013 to look after her father’s school in Awami Colony, Korangi, which among others, caters to migrants from Gilgit Baltistan.

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Maham noticed the women had an immense talent for creating exceptional crafts like dolls and decorative pencils. When COVID-19 struck, she decided to work with these women to help them earn a sustainable livelihood by making handmade crafts. These include bookmarks, keychains, cloth dolls, trinkets, necklaces, garden sticks and wood crafted spoons.

Even though the raw materials used by the artisans are limited, Maham and the artisans actively try to use recycled material such as defected t-shirts, old paper bags and cotton, where possible, to create sustainable products.

“The response has been quite overwhelming- I was not expecting it at all!”, says Maham, “I feel that people see value in the crafts which are not only unique but also helping empower the women artisan. By buying the products they feel they are playing a role in supporting their talent and giving back to society.”

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While Tinku & Co. is still fairly recent, some other initiatives selling handmade traditional crafts online have been around for decades. Traditional crafts have always been an essential part of Pakistani culture but selling the work of local artisans on digital platforms for a wider audience by NGOs, social enterprises or projects within commercial fashion brands is a relatively recent trend.

APWA Crafts Lahore started its journey back in the 1950s, as part of ‘All Pakistan Women’s Association (APWA)’ Punjab’s Industrial Home & the Cottage Industries Store on the Mall, Lahore.

The store with more than 1000 suppliers or vendors, showcased the best selection from all over the country, as well as textiles and hand embroideries. The store closed down in the 1980s, while its industrial home products sold from APWA Headquarters.

However, decades later as the world got used to navigating digital spaces, Fatma Shah, an experienced consultant, joined APWA Punjab in 2018 as a volunteer curator for its shop as well as to explore online platforms to help revive public interest in crafts. Today, APWA Crafts is successfully using Instagram and WhatsApp to sell products online alongside its retail shop; mediums that particularly proved useful during the COVID-19 crisis.

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“Artisans are still the most knowledgeable people to make a craft in the most sustainable fashion. However, over a period of time, objects made by these craftsmen and craftswomen, that were selling in government-managed outlets/ handicraft shops clearly showed that product designs have not kept up with time, and or contemporary lifestyles, but that their skill levels were still amazing,” Fatma explained.

“Social distancing has made this a viable way of managing craft sales to clients, all over Pakistan.”

APWA Crafts is currently working with notable artisans from villages, small towns and cities to create a retail platform for their crafts. These include handwoven date-palm baskets from Sindh and Dera Ghazi Khan, natural jute or coir baskets, recycled polythene and paper products sourced from APWA’s Rana Liaqat Ali Craft Colony (RLCC) in Karachi, Phulkari, Tarkashi & Kacha Tanka embroideries from artisans in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KPK), natural dyed Chundri or Bandhani (fine tie and dye) from Southern Punjab and a wide variety of high-quality hand-embroidered apparel and homeware, crafted in Punjab and Sindh under the aegis of Indus Heritage.

The story of Samina Mahmud, founder of SheWorks, strikes a similar chord. After 25 years in the textile sector, in 2016 Samina began working with a development project that aimed to revive and preserve the skill of hand embroideries in Southern Punjab and Sindh. “It was exhilarating to discover the depth and variety of the heritage embroideries in these regions of Pakistan”, she said.

Earlier this year, she decided to launch SheWorks as a social enterprise with an online presence that intended to take the work done by nonprofit organizations further. She wanted to utilize the pool of trained and skilled women and present the diversity of handwork to the international and local markets and give an opportunity to rural women to earn a decent livelihood using their skills.

Photo courtesy: sheworkspvt.com
Photo courtesy: sheworkspvt.com

Currently, the initiative is developing products using traditional stitches of Punjab including Shadow Work, ChikanKari, Andhi Booti, Tarkashi and Phulkari. SheWorks is also involved in providing consultation to programs working in the field of the textile value chain.

“Starting the business online allows us to access a wider audience, allowing us to tell the story behind the products and the women whose livelihood depends on this industry. Demand has grown worldwide for unique artisan-made products that express worldliness, exclusive access and ethical luxury. Shifts in values towards global sustainability, particularly in the young and affluent consumers, are inspiring greater commitment to fair trade. This has created an opportunity for artisanal products catering to a growing market segment as well as to the luxury elite,” Samina explained.

Both Fatma and Samina believe that people understand the value of handmade crafts, especially luxury crafts despite their slight imperfections and higher prices than typical mass-produced items. Most of all, there is an increased interest in the stories behind the products, their origin, sources and the impact on the livelihood of artisans. Samina also credited the emerging interest in crafts to local exhibitions and online ventures promoting crafts like Vceela.

Scaling up the crafts industry

Vceela, founded in 2015 by Akeel Khalid, aims to directly connect Pakistani artisans, especially from small cities and rural areas, to the local and international market through its online platform. It is going a step ahead by creating an ecosystem around it, by offering skill development, partnership linkages, access to capital and similar support.

This was evidently beneficial during the COVID-19 crisis when its digital channels saw a rise in its online sales and artisans had the support they needed to meet the growing demand.

Browsing through Vceela’s wonderfully detailed crafts map is an enlightening experience, as it showcases the hundreds of items within homeware, décor, apparel and footwear categories that it is helping to revive, promote and develop across the country.

Photo courtesy: vceela.com
Photo courtesy: vceela.com

Akeel also believes that the awareness about the importance of the crafts and ethical consumption is created by the stories behind them, whether its Naseem Bibi from Haripur, involved in Mukesh, Phulkari and Gaba work, Amanullah Magsi from Balochistan, known for his handcrafted traditional ‘Chappals’ (slippers) or Shamim Akhtar from Ghora Gali, skilled in the region’s popular ‘Namday Kada’ work.

“The trend towards ethical buying has surely started in Pakistan but to turn it into a robust movement, all the relevant stakeholders should work together to educate the consumers about its socio-economic and environmental benefits,” noted Akeel. “Vceela highlights the stories of the artisans and how every purchase impacts the lives of these artisans and their family. Customers can talk to the artisans directly to learn about them and their craft, thereby, establishing a human connection behind every product.”

Another major online platform for handmade crafts is being run by Kaarvan Crafts Foundation, a well-known nonprofit organization founded in 2004. To date, it has mobilized, trained and capacitated more than 25,000 women artisans in over 1,000 of villages of 22 different districts across Pakistan. Artisan crafts offered by the initiative vary across the different geographic regions, which includes an extensive variety of hand embroideries such as ‘Rilli’, ‘Chikankari’, ‘Mukesh’, Mirror Work, ‘Gota’ and ‘Kalasha’ beadwork to name a few.

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“As such the concept ‘online’ business is new and uncharted terrain for the rural artisans. The object of digital literacy is to give these women access to viable resource upon which they can choose of their own free will to market their crafts,” explained Danish Jabbar Khan, CEO of Kaarvan Crafts.

“It is a step towards inclusivity that shed away gender marginalization and focuses on building the capacity of individual, family and community. By striving individual betterment, everything around becomes better too — as boundaries blur in network of collaborative kinship.”

With Kaarvan Craft’s theory of change revolving around education, enablement and empowerment of women’s economic capacities, it is placing women in the heart of development.

During their annual exhibition this year, the artisans from across Pakistan showcased their work via Facebook Live by simply using their phones and data connection, attracting customers from all over the world.

Going global with handmade crafts

In response to rising demand, the craft industry itself is evolving to cater to consumers with both a traditional and modern appeal; Pakistani fashion designers like Huma Adnan, whose brand FnkAsia is widely known for utilizing indigenous crafts from across the world, is highlighting the diverse crafts of Pakistan through her latest venture called Craft Stories.

In collaboration with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), Craft Stories is working with refugees from Afghanistan, Rohingya, Syria, Yemen in Karachi to polish their craft to create trendy jewellery for the modern woman who celebrates inclusive and responsible fashion carrying the exuberance of culture and train their business acumen. In the past two years, it has given artisans the opportunity to achieve financial sustainability while helping protect the heritage.

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“Every piece in the accessory has a special meaning to me personally because I know the stories of each and every person who works on The Craft Stories. They were not artisans and yet they were quick learners and mastered the craft in no time. Craft Stories prides itself in collaborating with refugees living in Pakistan with the goal of sustaining their work and keeping the craft alive,” explained Huma.

The dazzling handcrafted jewellery, which is a unique fusion of Huma’s designs and the artisan’s diverse talent, has been catching the attention of consumers worldwide. The products are regularly stocked at Huma’s stores; however, the Craft Stories has a significant online presence to cater to the wide consumer interest, especially during COVID-19. The online platform also helps in highlighting the importance of crafts and the stories of the artisans which makes the brand a major trendsetter in the digital space.

Apart from fashion designers, Pakistani crafts are also gaining the interest of international experts in the field.

With the curiosity of exploring his identity, Pakistani heritage and roots, a Scotland based textile and craft practitioner, Adil Iqbal started Twilling Tweeds as a way of celebrating and connecting craft cultures from both Outer Hebrides in Scotland and Chitral in Pakistan.

The initiative is working with local artisans to create wall hangings, zip clutches, totes and cushions using Qalami, Chain Stitch and Cross Stitch embroidery across Chitral valley, villages surrounding Chitral and in remote villages in upper Chitral (Torkhow valley), most of which are available on its online platforms.

One of the key aspects of his work is the revival of the beautiful, hand-woven woollen cloth called Shu (also known as Patti) by craft communities in Garam Chashma, Arkari and Madaklasht region.

Known as the ‘soul of Chitral’, the craft has been lost over the years as the cottage industry was destroyed with external interventions.

For Adil, ‘online’ is the future. It provides an incredible opportunity for all the Chitrali makers to sell their handicrafts under one platform. Sharing his thoughts about this recent trend in Pakistan, he said: “There is also a substantial and growing market within Pakistan, although it is slow there is an increased awareness of ethical, local and fair trade products among Pakistani. Many are not able to purchase traditional Chitrali crafts and these online platforms will ensure transparency and will inspire a new generation of makers from Chitral.”

Image credit: Mahraka Centre
Image credit: Mahraka Centre

However, similar to other initiatives, the wellbeing of the craft communities is a high priority for Adil.

To support artisans beyond their craft, Mahraka Centre, a community hub was set up in collaboration between Scottish Social Enterprise Kilcheran and a local non-profit Kho and Kalashi.

It aims to represent the voices of the artisans, help with their personal development and ensure they have opportunities to earn a sustainable livelihood through its online platforms. For example, during the recent pandemic, it managed to generate orders for over 250 over women embroiderers in Chitral to support their families.

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