Story by Eugenio Hendro | Photos by Ferdi Perwiranata
Mass produced items, including woven crafts, have been dominating the market for a long time, leaving many people less appreciative of traditional handicrafts. In the last couple of years, urbanites have shown growing interest in the authentically handmade items, which has led to the rising demand for the products. The trend has gradually brought the traditional handwoven products back to the limelight.
What comes to your mind when you hear the word weaving? A mat? Basket? Rattan? Or maybe traditional fabric? Yes, that is indeed our initial perception of the word weaving. Many people think that woven items are products of the past, something traditional. Very few of us can immediately associate the word weaving with an Italian brand Bottega Veneta that has a very contemporary impression with an international taste. Modern, chic and exclusive due to the complexity of the woven technique in each product that are made by human hands.
Even though similar woven products are made by hand, we are frequently apt to give different values. A case in point is how one “mini Jodie bag” from Bottega Veneta costs much higher than that woven mat from Kalimantan. We will never have a thought to bargain the price of the bag, with international brand used as the pretext for agreeing on the price. Conversely, most of us will immediately think of bargaining for a lower price when buying rattan mats made in Kalimantan despite their use of fine material, the intricacy of plaits, the weaving process and the philosophical meaning of the motifs. We tend not to care about the social impact that one hundred percent handmade products bring because we value the products based on our perception on the products, instead of the price tag attached to the items.
I was not aware of the real situation facing traditional craftsmen until I met and talked with many craftsmen or artisans in Yogyakarta and Solo where I established a collaboration with the manufacturer of furniture and home décor for my business development. For many years local craftsmen have found it difficult to sell their items despite their good craftsmanship. It was later found that their handcrafted items failed to attract buyers largely due to the craftsmen’ inability to meet the need of consumers on the ground that they were unable to adapt to the fast-changing market. The changing market means the change in consumers’ behaviour, need and expectation. This is not to mention the required branding. As a consequence, handcrafted products were unable to compete with manufactured ones, which are easily available and sold at affordable price. This has affected the handcrafted product business as evidenced by the craftsmen’s reluctance to make more product designs.
I’m also concerned about the decline in the number of artisans with traditional craftsmanship because local young people prefer to work in a factory as a worker rather than becoming a craftsman to continue their parent’s business. If the situation continues, the traditional craftsmanship, passed down from one generation to another, is at risk of dying out. Many other craftsmen in Sumatra, Kalimantan, East Nusa Tenggara (NTT) and other areas are also facing similar situation. This explains why a number of well-informed product designers are frequently invited to visit different areas to provide counseling about crafts-related marketing to help local craftsmen solve the lingering problems so as to grow their business and conserve the cultural heritage.
In the last ten years, the market for crafts has showed a trend of growing demand of handmade products from urbanites, driven by their increasing fondness for unique and authentic products. This has encouraged a number of product designers to visit areas, where craftsmen produce handicrafts, to raise their awareness about the value of craftsmanship that needs to be continually developed and preserved not only to meet consumers’ need but also help build sustainable future.
In 2020, a client asked my team and I to help purun craftsmen in South Kalimantan to cope with a similar problem. Purun is a wild long grass-like plant with straight and hollow stems, which is commonly found in peatlands. In a bid to solve the problem pertaining to the absence of the regeneration of weavers, and, at the same time, revive weaving crafts, we empowered local women around the swamp area by scaling up their weaving skills. We also helped local craftsmen cope with the issue of material sustainability by asking them to stop utilizing textile dyes, which they had been utilized to make bold and bright colors, as a way to preserve the freshwater swamp ecosystem that has abundant fishery potential and becomes a source of livelihood and where purun grows well. This means that it is of paramount importance to ensure that handcrafted products have a positive impact on environment and communities, more than just making it visually appealing and affordable. What’s more, the traditional skills in making crafts can be passed down to the next generation.
Our efforts have borne fruit, with the craftsmen successfully producing varied types of simple handwoven containers, including baskets that fit into bookcases, which are tailored to the needs of modern urbanites as part of furniture design. The versatile and synthetic dyes-free containers allow the purun material to display its original color which will remain unchanged over time. The simple handwoven techniques, which can expedite the production process, are easily duplicatable and suitable for young weavers who start to learn the art of weaving. Product-wise, the size and functions are adjusted to fit for particular target market, making it attractive, marketable and salable. In less than a year, we produced 20 product designs inspired by the daily lives of local people, starting from wooden boats, vegetable bowls, to raindrops.
It is worth noting that we earned an award at the Good Design Indonesia in 2021 with the GDI BEST predicate for a design process that take consumers and social impact into consideration. In the same year, we also garnered G MARK from Japan, as a stamp of approval for products that have high value in the market. It is a proud achievement for us and an encouragement for weavers in the area. A product with a high value must not only fulfill the needs of its users, and have an emotional connection, but also have a positive impact that makes users feel good about the product. So, increasing the handcrafting values is crucial to appeal to modern-day consumers.