The Online Revival of Pakistan’s Handmade Crafts By Moneeza Burney

in ,
The Online Revival of Pakistan’s Handmade Crafts By Moneeza Burney

Moneeza Burney is associated with several social projects in Pakistan – working as a freelance journalist, script writer, researcher in the development sector while leading her own youth programs. Since 2014, Moneeza has served as a Director of the Lahore Students Union (LSU), a platform for youth community service and social leadership, which has placed over 1,000 students across a network of 75+ partner NGOs, social projects and civil society initiatives that has supported over 15 youth social initiatives. The program has received  international recognition and awards. Moneeza has also been writing for DAWN newspaper in Pakistan, for whom she has worked as a feature writer since 2013. Moneeza is a recent graduate of New York University after completing her Masters in Near Eastern Studies as a Falak Sufi Scholar, and has a BA (Hons) degree from Sheffield Hallam University, UK, in Business Economics. 

The Online Revival of Pakistan’s Handmade Crafts

A screen printed tote bag, a rainbow colored paper bead bracelet, 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 diverse Pakistani handmade crafts. Artisans and hobbyists are now 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

Nasreen, Amna, Zahra, Anumta four bright girls, alongside Anumta’s mother, Kaneez Fatima, have been spending most of the summer in their empty school courtyard, surrounded by colorful 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 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. Maham noticed the women had 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 selling their crafts. Tinku & Co. took off immediately, selling a range of products including handmade bookmarks, keychains, cloth dolls, trinkets, necklaces, garden sticks and wood crafted spoons.

“The response has been quite overwhelming- I was not expecting it at all!” told 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 the society.”

Even though the raw materials being 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 for the crafts where possible. This not only makes it a wonderful opportunity for the artisans to showcase their talent and earn livelihood but also play a role in contributing to environmental sustainability.

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 by NGOs, social enterprises or projects within commercial fashion brands is a relatively recent trend. Communities of artisans, both those with unique skills and ancestral knowledge as well as new entrants who have been trained by these initiatives, can now reach a wider audience and earn a sustainable livelihood.

‘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 of carpets, ceramics, woodcraft, metal work and onyx, showcased the best selection from all over the country, as well as a textiles and hand embroideries. The store closed down in the 1980s, while its industrial home products sold from APWA Headquarters. In 2018, Fatma Shah, an experienced consultant with an interest in local crafts joined APWA Punjab as a volunteer curator for its shop and also began to explore online platforms, with the motivation to revive public interest and promote handmade products from across Pakistan.

“Artisans are still the most knowledgeable people to make 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.

Today, APWA Crafts is trying to work with notable artisans from villages, small towns and cities to create a retail platform for their crafts. Since APWA Crafts at the moment does not have a large team to manage an online store along with the shop, it has successfully been using Instagram and WhatsApp to sell products online, especially during the COVID-19 crisis. 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-Pukhtoonkhwa (KPK), natural dyed Chundri or Bandhani (fine tie and dye) from Southern Punjab, hand-embroidered cards & dolls from Okara, 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. Working with home-based women artisans was a totally different and new experience for me and the team of designers working alongside me. While these women were skilled, they lacked the techniques and knowledge to cater to the market outside their villages. Their potential was untapped,” told Samina.

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. 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 handmade crafts which also include luxury crafts, are a growing trend. People understand the value of these products despite their slight imperfections and higher prices than typical mass-produced items. Most of all, there is growing 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 like Daachi and online ventures promoting crafts like Vceela.

‘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. Like the other initiatives, Akeel believes 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.

“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,” noted Akeel.

Vceela has have been fortunate to have a supportive community of consumers who realize the importance of ethical and sustainable consumption, which indicates a promising future for the crafts industry.

Commenting on this, Akeel added: “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.”

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’ bead work to name a few.

“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 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.

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 jewelry 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.

“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 jewelry, 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.

Crafts for Eco-awareness

For some brands, ecofriendly crafts have emerged as a great tool to promote the use of sustainable material and create awareness about the environment among consumers in many small ways.

As a little girl in grade 8, Mehr Farhan keenly observed her science teacher show the class how to recycle paper; a lesson that stayed with her until she decided to try it herself during her second year of graduate studies. “That was an eye opener for me, as I realized that it is within our power to start small and do something,” she recalled during our interview. In 2018, her own initiative, Magpie Crafts was launched at a local exhibition, offering handmade recycled and later upcycled products.

Magpie Crafts began its journey with recycled paper notebooks, which are also individually assembled and neatly hand painted with watercolors. While experimenting with different kinds of paper, Mehr realized that glossy magazine paper and receipts cannot be recycled, so she decided to upcycle it to create something unique: customizable paper bead jewelry. As an astonishing alternate to plastic beads, the jewelry is a prime example of sustainable fashion. What is most striking about the process is her consciousness towards the environment, even when she is creating recycled and upcycled products. For instance, while recycling paper, she reuses water throughout the method to ensure minimal wastage while the paper beads are only made with spare magazine sheets.

“The products are such that a transition to environmentally friendly products is made easier. You don’t have to bring drastic changes to your lifestyle right away,” Mehr explained.

In terms of awareness, she feels it is a long process which requires concerted efforts over time however with the recent concerns about climate change have begun to encourage people to support and value initiatives like Magpie Crafts even if they are not willing to fully shift to recycled products. Mehr occasionally showcases her products at various local exhibitions, however, she also has a considerable online presence.

In a similar vein, ‘Mediocre by Mahrukh’ is another remarkable stationery brand for handmade notebooks, greeting cards and tote-bags, which is actively trying to reduce its carbon footprint. The brand’s founder, Mahrukh Mohsin, started creating amusing stationary for millennials in 2019, following her passion for greeting cards and her frustration at the lack of locally available options.

“During the process of starting the business, I realized what a big responsibility I had in terms of the decisions I was making. This is why I decided to exclude all plastic from my packaging, keep everything minimal, and source recycled materials wherever possible,” told Mahrukh.

All her notebooks are printed by a small printing set up in Saddar, Karachi, after which one designated person stiches them. Upon receiving the items, she meticulously packs each product with newspaper before delivering it to her customers. This has also allowed her to keep the prices reasonable.

“As far as trends go, people are not only willing to buy eco-friendly products, but now that they’re competitively priced and comparable to a lot of standard products in the market,” she explained.

Within this category, some initiatives like NOWPDP, a disability inclusion platform in Karachi, is creating awareness twofold. As part of its economic empowerment mandate, NOWPDP train persons with disabilities in making tote bags that are sold online and at various outlets, while ensuring the bags they create are sustainable and environmentally friendly. It uses sustainable fabric donated by local textile companies for the tote bags which can be also used as alternate plastic bags. The bags are stitched and screen printed by the trainees, whose stories are tagged with the bags they make.

NOWPDP’s external engagement manager, Amin Amir Andani, remarked “the stories of the people who made it help us create awareness about the cause. It gives life to the product and assists us develop a connection between the buyer and the person who makes it.” Overtime, NOWPDP have observed that its consumers convince their affiliated organizations to buy bags from them in bulk for various occasions, exhibiting greater awareness about their cause.

Recently, Mahrukh also collaborated with NOWPDP to produce tote bags for Mediocre by Mahrukh, which is another example of the responsible approach of these initiatives for handmade products.