Sorry, I have kept this pending for a while.
Honestly I was also trying to re-understand the topic one would presume I already know. And as I learnt more perspectives, my take on this was changing. But I am ready now.
The relationship between an artisan and designer is a unique one. It’s a very close partnership of sorts, built on a lot of mutual respect for each other’s skills. Then again, I have often seen both pride themselves about the creation as theirs, disregarding and dishonouring the bond. The debate about who the real creator is for another time. But talking about this unique relationship is important. A lot about your business’ success depends on it.
Access to information has always been the strength and secret of establishments, but now that information is omnipresent, how do you sort through it and find what's truly relevant to you?
So here we go, let's find your Artisans:
They are all around us, in every street, in every city, they are on Instagram, they are on Google, they are on Facebook groups, news articles; they have smartphones, they have kids who are thinking of giving their family craft one last chance.1. Product pre-work for a meaningful start: When you express your interest in making your products with an Artisan, they will measure you. Are you someone who has the potential to become a genuine high value, high volume customer, do you have your collections planned, do you have good tech packs to show what you want to make. If you go without a prototype or even a technical drawing of your product, they are going to think you are not serious. Artisans are doers and will only give you their precious time if they think it's worth it. Their worst nightmare is sampling for you and you ordering just 10 pieces per design. Just not worth it. Do note that most artisans don’t have ready stock, they make things to order, it is the traders or marketeers that have stock.
2. Get on the ground: You may not be able to do this for a few months, but there will be a time when you will and I did not want to list this any lower in the priority list. It’s way too important. For example, if you want to create hand block printed home products, you need to go to a very famous suburb of Jaipur called Sanganer; every second shed there is a block printing haven. Day 1: Go for a walk in the area, don’t go with any intention of developing any business, just go to understand who all are there in the area, which ones are makers, which ones are traders, which ones are aggregators. Day 2: Go to the 5 shortlisted ones who have artisans working in-house, with whom a deeper relationship is possible. Ali, an Auto Rickshaw guy in Jaipur took me to the units the first time I went there. If you don’t want a guide, it’s easy to google and go on your own in an Uber.
3. They are online on Instagram, Facebook, Google, Indiamart , blog posts: So it’s mainly in cases where they have kids or a young generation artisan in the family. I searched for #Indianweavers and found a few photos; Go for the photos that show the actual artisans weaving, sometimes you will land on accounts that are curating crafts from across India. Once you have access to one authentic artisan and not a trader, you will be able to find other peers. @ruhi_handloom is one such authentic weaver for you to start with; He is the guy who weaves in the day and he is the guy who posts on his own brand’s Insta :). Similarly I have seen a lot of Artisans who are on Facebook groups for handicrafts, trying to sell directly to customers; They will be happy to work on bulk orders. Be very wary of finding certain kinds of traders on Instagram, who will say they are making it, but are really just trading for other artisans. Always trust a trader who acknowledges that he is the trader and then his responsibilities and fee are transparent.
4. Always ask for the Factory: Transparency is one of the biggest ways in which we can build Traceability in the value chain and having traceability will help us ensure sustainability. This means you must find the source and know everything about it. Artisans have small production units or factories and are not afraid to share the photos, location, processes; They would love to have you visit — If they say yes its my factory in Gorakhpur but they are too afraid to invite you for a visit, it’s a sign that the person is a trader and not really the artisan. And of course, if you cannot see the factory there is no way you can ensure sustainability.
5. Focus on one craft and technique per Artisan: If the person is ready to find and supply any kind of fabric or embroidery you can possibly ask for, clearly they are not an artisan group; They are a consolidator or trader. Artisan groups usually work with only one or few types of crafts.
6. Reference over information: Craft and design institutions and the government bodies have a list of Artisans with them. But here’s the thing — I once got a massive list of all registered Artisans in the country. The intent was to help them, but no artisan would take the calls, respond properly, follow timelines; They just weren't sure who I was and if I was really going to help them. Nothing came out of this. But I learnt that no massive list can help you. You need to be referred and someone will only refer you to an Artisan if they think you can add value to the artisan group.
7. Find an Industry Connect: For this one, find someone who has worked in this industry, someone who has faith in you and has access to artisans. They will connect you to everyone you need — again only if they see potential in you to really be able to add value to the artisan.
8. If you don’t have a sourcing team yet, it's okay to work with honest middlemen: When I started I despised the idea of a middle man. 5 years later, I have understood the value of a good, honest one. For years, middlemen have made business out of having exclusive access to artisans. They would bring orders to the artisan groups, manage the relationships with the outside world, do the talking, cataloging and marketing for someone in the remotest part of India. Some honest, meaningful middlemen, and some highly exploitative. I love it when they are honest about being a trader, you anyway cannot hire a team to do things such as quality control, payment monitoring, delivery timelines, etc. for you. So when you do find an honest one, who understands their part of the delivery, you have hit gold.