AAKS Weaving for Change making process

The Role of Women Artisans in Sustainable Production and Manufacturing

As the world grapples with the ever-pressing issue of climate change, the fashion industry has found itself under intense scrutiny for its contribution to environmental degradation. As a result, sustainable design and ethical production have taken center stage across the industry in recent years.

While major fashion brands have made strides in implementing environmentally friendly practices, a growing number of brands that employ collectives of female artisans are also playing a critical role in the movement towards a more sustainable industry. The artisanal design movement has been steadily growing, with more and more consumers seeking unique, handcrafted pieces that are made with care and attention to detail. Reports by the Aspen Institute reveal that artisanal craft is the second-largest source of employment in many developing nations.

Although the movement includes people of all genders, more often than not, it is women that are at the forefront , particularly in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. There are a number of factors driving this shift. Harriet Ann Adjabeng, a sustainable fashion researcher and writer believes it is rooted in the history of mankind. “Women have historically been involved in textile and garment production in many parts of the world,” she explains. “In Ghana, for example, mobile garment menders – mostly women – popularly called “oyeadieyie” have been an integral part of Ghanaian fashion for decades. These skilled female artisans travel from neighborhood to neighborhood, with sewing tools and equipment offering repair services.

“Their services range from hand sewing, and simple mending to intricate alterations that expand the lifespan of garments,” Adjabeng says. “Then we have the women weavers in northern Ghana as well as the Kuba cloth weavers in Congo.”

AAKS Weaving for Change project

In Latin America, the likes of the Quechua weavers of Peru and Mexico’s Otomi embroidery artisans consist of groups of women that champion handloom weaving to create intricate textiles. The Kutchi women in Asia are also renowned for their exquisite embroidery, beadwork and appliqué skills.

Today, these ancient practices continue to inspire modern sustainable fashion. By weaving together time-honored techniques spanning centuries with today’s contemporary design sensibilities, these remarkable artisans are catalyzing change within the fashion industry. Their remarkable craftsmanship not only aids brands in reducing their carbon footprints but also fosters the development of ethical supply chains, leading to fashion design that is truly exceptional and sustainable in equal measure.

One brand that is leading the way when it comes to working with women artisans is the Ghanaian-based accessories label AAKS. Founded by Akosua Afriyie-Kumi, AAKS works with female artisans in Ghana and Burkina Faso to create handcrafted raffia bags and accessories using traditional African weaving techniques. For Afriyie-Kumi, the choice to collaborate exclusively with female artisans holds a deep cultural significance. “Women are nurturing and they play a vital role in each family unit, especially in Africa,” she explains. “It is said that ‘when sleeping women wake, mountains move’. These women are custodians of ancient practices that can be harnessed in fashion today.”

Nevertheless, this commitment to female artisans extends far beyond the mere acknowledgement and utilization of their skills. Afriyie-Kumi sees it as an avenue for empowering these remarkable women, many of whom hail from underprivileged backgrounds. “The women I work with are from poor backgrounds, some are even refugees,” she says. “They are often the primary caregivers in their families and communities, so by investing in them we can help to create more stable and sustainable communities. We also believe that by promoting gender equality we can create a more diverse and inclusive industry, where everyone has the opportunity to succeed.”

AAKS manufacturing process

Like many brands that use female artisans, AAKS’ goal is threefold. First is to use sustainable methods to create their products, preserve ancient skills and financially empower local communities. Through regular workshops and training sessions, the brand ensures that the skills these artisans possess are preserved for the future generation. “For us, our core brand technique is weaving, and we endeavor that this skill is passed down from generation to generation, through training and apprenticeship,” Afriyie-Kumi says. “We are not only creating sustainable products but also preserving our culture and identity. The aim is to ignite a passion for weaving, even in those who may not initially envision it as their primary vocation, because these skills carry so much transformative power.”

Similarly, in Latin America, Mafanfa believes that “when you wear an artisanal piece, you are taking an intimate story with you.” That is why the womenswear brand taps into the extraordinary talents of skilled women artisans from different communities in Latin America to create an array of ethically handmade pieces, ranging from exquisite dresses, kaftans and ponchos to alluring bags and other accessories. The artistry of loom weaving, natural dyeing, hand embroidery, and other skills such as crocheting form the basis of Mafanfa’s operations. The brand paves the way for these women to thrive, using their artistry to foster economic independence and create a positive ripple effect within their communities.

Kardo block printing in progress

In Asia, female artisans are also making their mark in sustainable fashion. Traditional weaving, stitching, and printing techniques of India take center stage in the New Delhi workshop of menswear brand Kardo. Specializing in creating eco-conscious and slow-made pieces, Kardo works with a network of female artisans from across the country. “The textile that makes up the piece has been touched and processed by so many creative hands," says Rikki Kher, the founder of the brand. The Khadi, kantha-embroidered fabrics and block prints, which are a mainstay for the brand are all designed and crafted by the women artisans they collaborate with.

For Kher, the only way to avoid the gimmicky style of sustainability that has become common in the fashion industry is to create a circular system where everyone (the artisan included) is supported, promoted and financially independent. “Our commitment is to ensure that wherever we produce textiles or craft, the artisan community that produces it is supported financially, emotionally and that they are credited with the work,” Kher told Gear Patrol in a recent interview.

The success of brands like Kardo, AAKS and Mafanfa is a testament to the crucial role that women artisans play in the industry. As Adjabeng puts it, "One cannot talk about sustainable fashion without mentioning women." Their deep-rooted connection to cultural heritage, commitment to preserving traditional techniques, and understanding of the importance of sustainability make these women artisans indispensable in the quest for a more responsible fashion industry.




Words by Eyram Rafael

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