Rural women artisans in Pakistan are the custodians of some of the most exquisite textile embroidery skills in the world, but are often left without the monetary returns to reflect the high level of their craft when producing items for the domestic and international markets.
The Commonwealth Secretariat, in collaboration with the Rural Support Programmes Network (RSPN)’s Venture Support Unit in Pakistan, piloted an initiative aimed at opening direct market access opportunities for rural women artisans, with a focus on the medium to high-end textiles goods industry at the national and international levels.
Following a scoping visit to Pakistan in April 2006, a report was prepared that identified the level of skills among the women as ideal for the high-end international and domestic textiles goods industry. A pilot proposal was then agreed between the Commonwealth Secretariat and RSPN, and from January 2007 the recommendations of the proposal were systematically implemented by the RSPN in partnership with the Commonwealth Secretariat in London and three partner RSPs in Pakistan, namely Agha Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP), Thardeep Rural Development Programme (TRDP) and Sindh Rural Support Organization (SRSO).
The Harnessing Threads of Change project was managed by the Venture Support Unit, housed at the RSPN in Islamabad and under its monitoring and coordination work was carried out in Gilgi, Hunza (AKRSP), Mithi (TRDP) and Sukkur (SRSO).
This project also included two international consultants provided by the Commonwealth Secretariat, one for design and one for institutional development. Student interns from the Central St. Martin’s Collage of Art and Design, London, England were also placed at the Venture Support Unit on a rotational basis.
Also involved in the project were 5 international designers; Mo Tomaney, Sue Holt, Cressida Bell, Natalie Gibson, Anthony Knight. The international designers conducted design master classes with the artisans and also gave orders for products.
The objectives of the project were two pronged, first to develop the skills of the artisans and update them to modern tastes and designs. And second to provide them with the tools to better interact and access a market.
The project selected approximately 30 female artisans from each area targeted; this selection was based on the already existing skill level of the artisan. In September 2007, two master-class design workshops were held in Pakistan with the artisans. International designers were given the opportunity to work directly with them, developing products for their own collections and giving the artisans an opportunity to access, high value international markets directly through the designer.
Over the course of the project ten skills development workshops were held, four in the south and six in the north. These workshops were conducted by the Venture Support Unit staff and the team of international design interns. In the workshops the artisans were taught quality control and time management along with skills to identify good quality materials and colour coordination.
During the project the artisans worked on 60 design briefs to produce 32 final products for the international designers. An exhibition of these products, along with traditional crafts and an audio-visual documentation of the projects, was subsequently held in November 2008 at the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts in London. Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales officially launched the exhibition himself on Tuesday 18th November 2008.
The institutional development side of the project included running a series of enterprise cooperative workshops among the women with assistance from United Cooperatives (now part of the the Cooperative). These workshops were aimed at increasing awareness amongst the artisans and enable them to develop organizationally into functioning enterprise cooperatives capable of communicating directly with designers and the market. These workshops included sessions on such aspects as the benefits of producer cooperatives and the legal benefits of cooperatives.
During the period 2006-2008 the project delivered the following milestones in collaboration with the Commonwealth Secretariat:
The Commonwealth Secretariat provided RSPN with a budget of GBP £24,150 for expenses related to the Exhibition, it also funded the design and organizational development consultant. The remaining budget was picked up by RSPN.
Due to the worldwide global financial crisis, the high end textile market has suffered greatly and market opportunities for these artisans have decreased, there is a need to plan a domestic market stream for these artisans. RSPN is looking into collaborating with organizations