museums&MORE Winter 2014
Artist Spotlight: Handmade Expressions

Creating building blocks for sustainable success

People want to support ethical products and producers. This is made clear as consumers begin to ask where their products are coming from, what types of materials they are made out of and whether their purchases are making a difference in the world. At Handmade Expressions, they believe that economic sustainability and social empowerment are the keys for community development.

By working in his family’s business in rural villages in Rajasthan, India, Handmade Expressions’ founder, Manish Gupta, learned how communities that are touched by the power of trade are also very dependent on it. This insight into the community impacts of trade and his youthful enthusiasm to take on world challenges inspired him to start Handmade Expressions in 2006. Today more than 1,500 museums, gift shops, co-ops, fair trade stores, boutiques and booksellers throughout North America carry their block printed products.

Building Blocks to Success

Wood block printing — in which hand-carved wood blocks are used to create design patterns on a wide variety of creations, from bedding and table linens to bags and fashion accessories — is a centuries-old tradition with a strong cultural heritage. The skills are passed down through the generations to preserve this traditional art form and support their livelihoods.

The artisans live in scattered rural villages, their biggest challenges being poverty and the underdevelopment of their isolated communities. There are few opportunities for jobs in this desert region, where the climate is too dry for agriculture. Most artisans live in mud huts and some do not have electricity.

Gupta is driven by a commitment to ensure that the artisans that make their products benefit positively, which is no easy task.

One of the key strategies Gupta adopted from the beginning was to focus on one country and build a team in India so that they can provide the on-ground support that is important for these communities to successfully engage in trade.

We also decided to focus on communities in need rather than communities that are already involved in trade,” Gupta said. “This made our jobs even harder, yet it was central to our mission. It also gave us access to art forms and products that are more unique, as well as stronger direct partnerships with the artisans, which helped differentiate us in the marketplace and has been a key to our success and growth year after year.”

The artisans create products using traditional art forms that combine modern, inspired design and enchanting Indian influences. Due to their limited production batches, every piece has a distinctively handmade, unique and rich feel. In addition, products are safe for people and the planet — they’re nontoxic, biodegradable and compostable.

An in-house design team also enables them to create custom designs and establish private label partnerships, particularly with museums. For instance, they’ve created custom bags and branded items for special museum exhibits and cultural centers such as The Smithsonian, The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Philadelphia Museum of Art, National Geographic, the Field Museum, Skirball Center and many others feature Handmade Expressions products in their gift stores.

The artisans had been unable to sell their vibrant, colorful fabrics and earn a living, so Handmade Expressions partnered with them to develop Eco Shoppers — bags made from locally grown and woven, unbleached cotton and block printed by hand using mineral and vegetable dyes. Due to the popularity of these bags, the Khatri community now has a steady income and has hired more tailors to help stitch the Eco Shoppers.

“Our Eco Shopper reusable tote bags are one of our most popular design creations,” Gupta said. “The Khatri artisan community that makes them is led by a renowned fabric artist who has won prestigious national awards for his work.

“Not only fair trade, these bags foster sustainable development,” Gupta continued. “We installed a water filtration and conservation system that saves this artisan community 5 million liters of water per year.”

Here to Stay

With commitment and creativity, Handmade Expressions has built a strong foundation of sustainability. Gupta said that while it’s not always easy to stick to the mission and turn down short-term opportunities, this journey is incredibly rewarding. The satisfaction of making direct, positive impacts for producers and the environment and growing a global base of informed ethical consumers keeps them going and striving for more.

“Since our beginning, Handmade Expressions has engaged in numerous projects in artisans’ communities, including solar lamps, education for women, water conservation, health camps, and skills and training workshops,” Gupta said. “We continue to invest in sustainable development initiatives like these as part of our commitment to our artisan partners and responsible trade.

“Next year, buyers will travel with Handmade Expressions’ staff to meet our artisan partners and truly experience how our products are made,” Gupta continued. “This is the first time we are bringing customers to India — everybody is very excited about this trip.”

What is block printing?

An ancient craft in India, block printing is a painstaking process of labor-intensive steps that can produce the most stunning and unique art made by hands and nature. A high level of mastery is needed for quality production, especially in wood-block carving.

Basic Tools: Wooden blocks, 100-percent cotton fabric, natural dyes

Step 1: Creating Wood Blocks — Carvers cut into blocks of wood to create a mirror image of the pattern to be imprinted. Each color gets its own block. Intricate designs can take several carvers up to three days to create a pattern. Blocks soak in oil for two weeks to soften the wood.

Step 2: Fabric Preparation — Raw, unbleached fabric is dipped into a mix of natural herbs and cow dung to make it absorbent for dyes. It is then washed and dried.

Step 3: Dye Preparation — Natural dyes are extracted from plants, minerals and flowers such as indigo, turmeric roots, pomegranate skin, iron, and madder root. The dyes are prepared as liquids and put in a tray with a sponge in which the block is dipped.

Step 4: Block Printing — Starting from one corner, the artisan presses the block with wet dye onto the fabric. The block is dipped again in dye and reapplied at precise spots for pattern continuation. It’s important to apply even pressure during block placement for uniform printing and color. The block condition also plays a major role in shade variation. Even slight manual variations can cause differential pressure and shade variations in the cloth. When the pattern is complete, artisans toss sawdust on it to absorb additional dye.

Step 5: Finish — For natural dyes, the printed fabric is usually washed or boiled for the final color to come to surface. The color changes throughout the process — shade variations can be dramatic depending on a fabric’s exposure time in sunlight while drying. A clear and sunny day will give a much different result than cloudy weather. Uniform drying conditions and timing are keys to achieving color consistency.

By Abby Heugel
Managing Editor

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