This is the 7th installment of our “Conversations” series where we interview our fair trade partners about their work with artisans around the world. Today’s post takes us to Kyrgysztan, a mountainous country where felting is a way of life. Craftspring works with women in Kyrgyzstan to create a variety of beautiful felt products like ornaments and other decorations for the home. Using locally sourced materials, the resulting felt work not only captures the eye but preserves a generations old tradition of hand-crafted wet felting. We talked with Anne, Craftspring’s founder (pictured on the right below with artisans Fariza and Sveta), about her latest visit with the artisans this past summer and here are her responses.
How often do you/your team have the opportunity to visit the artisans?
We visit each studio at least once a year (This is the best part of the year for us!). Our administrative and logistics partner, Begimai, is based in the capital city of Bishkek. She is available on a daily basis to problem solve and support the artisans.
We are deeply embedded in the communities that we work with in Kyrgyzstan. We know each and every artisan personally, and have great respect for them as women and as business leaders. Not only do we have a relationship of equals with our artisan partners – but we have close personal relationships with each artisan. They inspire us – and we think that they are amazing people!
What were the goals of your most recent visit? (If you were working on new products, how do you decide what new products/designs to work on?)
Our most recent visit to Kyrgyzstan was this past summer. We worked mainly on product design during this trip, but it was also a chance for Sole (our wholesale and retail sales manager) to meet all of the artisans that she has heard so much about. Sole had such a blast and was so loved by our Kyrgyz team. Sole also got to go hiking in the mountains and go meet some of our rural village-based partners on the south side of lake Issyk Kul.
We love the design and product development process – and each year we launch new ornaments. So it’s really important for us to go to Kyrgyzstan to work on the designs and prototyping with the artisans directly in their studios. Although we communicate a lot via email, skype, facebook and WhatsApp – nothing beats working face to face in the same workshop. We are able to do a lot of design work in a much faster time if we are just working together and on-site. And honestly – for us, it’s just so much fun!
During each visit – we also take the time to have some parties, gather all of our partners together and celebrate a little.
Do you have a story to share about an artisan or artisan family?
This year – we were so pleased to visit Fariza and Sveta’s new home. Fariza and Sveta are sisters that have worked with us for the past 5 years – and we love their work, and hope to keep on increasing our collaboration. (They make our save the ice polar bear, our memory elephants, our petroglyph collection …. and many other ornaments). Thanks in part to our work together – they were able to move out of their small apartment and build a beautiful new home this year. We had visited the construction site last year, and it was so great to see their sparkling warm and inviting new home finally lived in, with a beautiful studio and vegetable garden. It is such a great place to work and welcome in their staff and community – we are so proud of what they have built! It was amazing for us to see a palpable benefit of our work too. And as always – so great to see these two strong women continue to build their business and expand.
What kind of positive changes have you seen occur in the communities/families that you work with since you founded Craftspring?
The artisans that we partner with are really thriving. Their businesses are much more steady and stable – because we are able to send them orders regularly throughout the year. Before they mainly sustained their businesses with sales made to tourists in the summer months and some small holiday orders around October and November. We are able to provide work for them every month of the year – so that they have a steady and strong income throughout the year. Many of our partners are expanding their studios and businesses, building new homes or summer homes, travelling, and sending their children to travel and study abroad. We have felt and seen a lot of positive impact of our work.
With our design and prototyping work – the collections of each studio has also greatly expanded, so that each studio is now armed with a really nice portfolio of products.
Many of the artisans also regularly introduce us to new artisans and potential partners – so we find that we are really growing a community of small workshops that collaborate and exchange ideas and opportunities.
What is one difficulty that you or the artisans have faced?
Kyrgyzstan is a tough place to work – and the economic crisis, political strife with Russia, internal politics, ethnic tensions, etc….all contribute to real uncertainty. Our artisans have really suffered from the overall economic environment in which they try to operate. Often times – the price of raw materials will suddenly go up, or abruptly the cost of basic living necessities will also suddenly rise. These are real problems that directly impact the women we partner with. We understand this environment and are always working with the artisans to make sure that the wages we pay are fair and honest and that they enable them to live a good and prosperous life. It’s a challenge – but it’s also why we love our work, because we have a continuous and close conversation with all of our producers and partners. It makes us feel connected and regenerative.
Thanks so much to Anne for taking the time to fill us in on her fair trade adventures and to the whole Craftspring team in the U.S. and Kyrgyzstan for their wonderful work!