Heirloom Quality: Redefining Value Through Fair Trade

Heirloom Quality: Redefining Value Through Fair Trade
March 16, 2016 Sarah Culler


Sentimental objects, heirlooms, or family treasures are not valued nowadays the same way they were in generations past. We may have keepsakes or collectibles that stir up special memories, but we don’t hold onto as many things that we consider valuable in a traditional sense. Centuries ago, people would pass on furniture, fine pottery, jewelry, and other objects to their family members because the objects increased in value over time and because they often had stories attached to them. They knew where it was made and who made it and the techniques that they used. They were proud of having something handcrafted of the highest quality in their home.

With the rise of manufacturing and the general increase in the number and variety of products available to us, the art of creating and passing down heirlooms has dwindled. Fair trade, however, has the potential to change this. We were inspired by a blog post written by our fair trade partner Sevya. Their description of the heirloom quality of their products really rings true.

For example, let’s take a look at some of our favorite embroidered tunics. Sevya works with nearly 2000 women in India who create extremely detailed embroidery in a style called Chikankari. The women learned the technique from their mothers and grandmothers, and Indian “chikan” work dates back to as early as the 3rd century BC. Chikankari is a type of shadow-work embroidery where the stitching is done on the reverse side of the fabric. The effect is stunning and involves 36 different types of stitches!

embroidered tunics

Each tunic involves many steps in production, beginning with hand block printing the design on the cotton. This is done by a separate group of artisans who specialize in block printing. Then, the tunics are transported by bicycle to women in villages in Uttar Pradesh. There, the women embroider together in groups in their homes. The finished tunics are then taken back by bicycle to be washed and pressed before shipping. The women get payed per piece and work on one piece at a time. Depending on the intricacy, a single tunic can take between 3-15 hours to embroider.

While you may not pass down a tunic or a scarf to your children, there is something “heirloom-like” about fair trade products in the sense that they are handcrafted using traditional techniques, unique to a geographical area, and they are made with pride. Take a close look at a tunic and you will see the intricate stitching and realize that each stitch represents a moment in time. Each stitch is a moment a woman in Northern India spent dedicated to her craft, concentrating on guiding her hand just so to create a garment that preserves her tradition. Each tunic embodies that tradition and you enliven that tradition each time you wear it.

heirloom quality fair trade

Sevya also considers the word “heirloom” in a more broad sense that really resonates with all fair trade products. Fair trade is a holistic approach to trade that considers not only the people who make the products, but also the impact they have on artisans and communities, locally and globally. Like the embroidered tunics which use natural dyes and no electricity in their production, fair trade products are often made using sustainable materials and methods. This consideration of the interconnectedness of  people and planet preserves a heritage of sustainability and compassion for all living beings that will come after us.

The ultimate heirloom is our planet, and it is crucial to pass along something that celebrates traditions, promotes environmental stewardship, and cultivates real value in the exchange of goods. Fair trade helps to achieve this purposeful way of living.

embroidered tunics mosaic

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