MATTER Prints does beautiful things with ethical artisan fashion, and their new blazer and skirt releases are superb. There’s also a seasonal sale going on now!
This piece was written by me with compensation and support from MATTER Prints
Artisan made was the buzzword that triggered my exploration of ethical consumerism.
In 2011, while undertaking a routine shelf-tidying during my shift at Hobby Lobby, a privately held "Christian" craft and home decor chain, I came across a little metal frog, the kind of random object you buy for a friend's housewarming party without considering what they're actually going to do with it.
The tag said something along the lines of "made by skilled artisans in Haiti." The price? $3.99.
Holding that little frog in my hands, I was puzzled. Here was an item being marketed as a kind of art, intricately cut and crafted by skilled hands, and yet it was nestled onto a retail shelf containing dozens of like items. And yet it was the same price as a latte at Starbucks, less expensive than a Hallmark greeting card.
It hadn't occurred to me until that moment that there must have been hundreds of other items in that store that were made by human hands. The frames in the frame shop, cut to size before shipping to my store. The decorative vinegar bottles containing bright red peppers. These invisible hands were not even given the dignity of "artisanship," and yet they touched and crafted the things that bored grandmothers bought on a whim with their 50% off coupons.
This story might tell us lots of things - for one, it woke me up to the exploitative realities of the global consumer goods industry - but today I want to focus on something too often overlooked:
Artisan-made does not mean much without context.
What the designation does tell us is that a person, or group of people, made a product, likely with minimal high-tech tools.
But the phrase is thrown around to imply that these "artisans" are known entities - people with whom the company or boutique owner may have a relationship. But, as was the case with Hobby Lobby, more often than not these nameless, faceless craftspeople are anonymous even to the ones who've categorized them as artisans and subsequently exploited that label for marketing purposes.
The fair trade market is chock full of items designated as artisan-made, but even the best intentioned "ethical" advocates can get lazy when tracing these niche supply chains. Instead, they will tell a secondhand story passed down from middle men or co-op managers, not ever knowing how the artisan groups function, or whether they're receiving a living wage.
I have to admit that not even *I* was committed to doing this work until a reader asked me, point blank, if I knew how a fair trade organization I had promoted was linked to their artisan producers. So when
MATTER Prints reached out with the same conversation - themselves puzzled by the way other purportedly ethical producers were using the term - I was anxious to do a deep dive. I spoke with MATTER team member, Farisia, about how they derive greater, more transparent meaning from the artisan-made distinction.
How to Tell If Your Item is Artisan-Made and Honestly Made
1 | Artisans Live and Work in Multi-Generational Craft Communities
Unlike industrialized consumer product manufacturing, which typically takes place in designated facilities outside of town centers, artisans typically live in small communities or extended families that support and uphold multi-generational craft traditions.
To ensure authenticity, MATTER specifically partners with artisans that exhibit "skill in a craft acquired through generational transfer." This creates greater accountability between the brand/marketer and artisan because it makes it impossible for a Fortune 500 company to march into a community, half-heartedly "teach" a skill, then slap the artisan-made designation on their tags and websites.
2 | Local production is run by the same locals
Many well-intentioned fair trade business owners enter an artisan community with a plan to build something from scratch. On its surface, this is understandable. If you've been dreaming up your business from a far-removed location, it's easy to get wrapped up in an inaccurate idea of what products will be available to you, how you want them to look, and who your customer is.
But this is inappropriate, not only because it often perpetuates Colonialist ideas of "progress," but because it takes the power out of the hands of the people who hold all the skill. Artisan co-ops, when they are thriving, are run by locals, thereby keeping the heritage and financial success of the community in the community, where it belongs. Artisanship, by definition, resists outside forces that would place the burden of aggressive Capitalism on its shoulders.
3 | Materials are eco-conscious and locally derived
Because craft tradition is reliant on the physical location of a community, it is impacted by the holistic needs of the community and available natural resources.
For this reason, a majority of artisan-made products that fit the "generational transfer" designation will be made with materials indigenous to the region: things like cotton, silk, and various types of plant ingredients. Occasionally, items are also made with locally recycled materials, such as scrap metal and old tires. As demand for artisan goods has increased, and the world has modernized, more craftspeople are incorporating synthetic dyes into their goods, but traditionally dyes would have been plant-derived (you can read more about plant-based dyes here).
4 | Imperfections are apparent, but not distracting
A handmade item cannot, and should not, look like a factory-made item. Individual artisan taste and technique will impact the final product, which is part of what makes artisan work so meaningful.
Artisan craft, especially when it becomes available to a global marketplace via brands like Ten Thousand Villages and MATTER, is taken on as a collaborative process between the artisan, their community's tradition, designers, and merchandisers, and the final product is a testament to successful coalition-building. It is never merely a fashion statement.
5 | Artisans are artists
The artists out there will get in a fight with me for comparing craftsmanship to fine art (it's happened to me before), but I stand by this statement: artisanship was the first type of art and it's certainly the most meaningful.
This is because artisan goods tend to be purposeful goods. They often derive from basic needs of clothing, food, and shelter, but they expand on this need. They beautify it, ritualize it, culturally embed it, and make it good.
For this reason, it is imperative that those of us who appreciate and collect artisan-made goods do so with a knowledge of which motifs are culturally and religiously sacred versus those that are intended for multi-cultural enjoyment. It is also important that we take an interest in the people behind the products. Nameless, faceless "artisans" used as a marketing angle quite literally erase the artisans themselves.
If you consider yourself a conscious consumer, I encourage you to explore your favorite ethical websites and see what they say about their makers. How do they write about them? Can they speak to the intricacies of the craftsmanship? Do they understand the motifs and symbols?
Artisans do extraordinarily time consuming, skilled, creative work, increasingly to appeal to the whims of a global market content to condone a throwaway culture. But this misses the point.
When you touch the raised embroidery on a cotton dress, examine the dotted paint patterning on a Oaxacan mythological figure, or trace your fingers across intricately woven ikat, the experience is akin to beholding a miracle.
It's a reminder that humans are capable of more than arguing on Twitter, to more than oppression and greed. That maybe, given enough time and support, we could craft something beautiful together, too. All is not lost, and we have artisans to thank for it.
P.S. I think it is very difficult for Western and white brands to use images of artisans in their marketing and brand storytelling without inadvertently turning them into objects for the public gaze. This is due to the long history of imperialism and colonialism enacted by much of Europe and the United States over the last several hundred years. I generally avoid using images of non-Western artisans on StyleWise because I am wary of creating a power dynamic in which my reader, filtering through my own framing, sees them as novelties rather than equals. I am still trying to find a way to appropriately convey artisan stories in a way that reduces that power differential and I welcome your thoughts.
MATTER Prints is doing a three-day challenge ahead of Fashion Revolution Week this year.
Starting today, they're asking people to incorporate the same garment into three outfits and tag it with #morewithless and @matterprints on social media. The premise, if it's not already obvious, is to show how consuming less and wearing what you already own can be a fun creative exercise instead of a limitation. Feel free to join in on Instagram!
I wore this on Saturday (a high of 83 degrees!) to walk around downtown and catch up with shop owners I've befriended over the years. Charlottesville's Downtown Mall (an outdoor pedestrian street), when it's busy, is such a fun, bustling place perfect for people watching, bumping into people you know, and enjoying the homegrown music of buskers.
Unfortunately, the neo-Nazis and the violence they brought with them in August of last year has slowed down traffic to many local businesses as tourists fear that it's not safe and the local pro-Confederate population boycotts Charlottesville for being "too liberal." It's a mess, really, so it's nice to be able to give people my business and my support when I get the chance.
I actually bumped into the local Equal Exchange rep who trained me when I worked at the coffee shop and had a great time "talking shop" about the fair trade industry. Then I headed over to Low Vintage, my favorite curated vintage store in town, and co-owner Nora gave me a sweet deal on an '80s cotton sundress. The evening ended with local music, French wine, and sushi. It was perfect.
Note: I wrote the bulk of this post before the terrorizing events of August 11-12 took place. Perhaps it's a blessing in disguise that the folks at MATTER and I discussed this post months ago. I couldn't have foreseen how important it is to reclaim Charlottesville spaces and celebrate what it has to offer. Talking about the good things will never negate the violence and loss of life, but maybe it can unify us and remind us of the world we want to build. Thank you to everyone who prayed with me, checked up on me on social media, and wrote your own posts about Charlottesville. I can feel your love. Solidarity forever!
Charlottesville is really a vacation town and I'm just one of those awkward townies who calls it home.
This community at one point boasted more restaurants per capita than New York City; local wineries and breweries abound; Thomas Jefferson's mountaintop estate is available for tours every day of the week; and you could spend a week visiting all the antique, thrift, and secondhand shops.
While it sounds great - and it is - it's impossible to live like a tourist every day (unless you're lucky enough to be retired). So I like to scheme up little adventures that we can take once or twice a month to keep things interesting without exhausting our bank accounts.
I partnered with MATTER for this post specifically because their motto is "Pants to see the world in."
I like a good adventure as much as the next millennial, but I especially love when I can get away without boarding an air plane or renting an overpriced room at a questionable hotel. It's a nice reminder that, sometimes, the good things are close to home, and that anyplace can feel like an escape if you take the time to tap its resources. Plus, if you're cash strapped like I am, you have an excuse to splurge just a little bit on a good meal or an extra glass of wine without suffering an existential crisis when you get home and look at your bank account.
This is minimalism at its finest: enjoying the good things in life without living beyond your means.
So settle in, because my weekend in Charlottesville is jam packed...
Beers at Michael's BistroA UVa grad student hangout, Michael's is located in a warmly lit upstairs space on The Corner, the cobblestone strip of shops and restaurants across from the University. Lots of local beers on tap, seasonal egg rolls if you're hungry, and board games to play if you're up for it.
Dinner at Peter Chang'sMy all time favorite restaurant, Peter Chang's was founded by the former chef of the Chinese ambassador. There are a few locations throughout Virginia and DC (and no, it's not related to PF Chang). Peter Chang's specializes in authentic Szechuan style dishes presented family style, and it's great for large gatherings.
Early lunch at Bodo's BagelsAsk any Charlottesvillian for food recommendations and they're sure to mention Bodo's. Fresh, delicious bagels and bagel sandwiches that are amazingly cheap. I like their feta spread.
Hike at Humpback Rocks + Driving down the Blue Ridge ParkwayCharlottesville is only about 35-40 minutes away from Shenandoah National Park and Skyline Drive, but you can get similar overlook views free of charge on the Blue Ridge Parkway. If you're up for some exercise, bring your sturdy shoes and hike up to Humpback Rocks (just make sure to bring plenty of water and your camera).
-or- Ciders at Bold Rock + Wine at VeritasIf Humpback Rocks doesn't interest you, head over to the local cideries and wineries. Amazing mountain views and award winning alcoholic beverages: the perfect combination.
Dinner at Miso Sweet or Now and ZenHead downtown for dinner and enjoy some ramen and a brown butter donut at Miso Sweet or a sushi feast at Now and Zen. If the weather's nice, you can eat al fresco at Miso Sweet.
|Squinting on the Downtown Mall wearing MATTER's Sideswept Dhoti|
Drinks at South Street BreweryMy favorite local brewery, South Street is conveniently located on the other side of Charlottesville pedestrian mall - the Downtown Mall - from Miso Sweet and Now and Zen, so you can walk over after dinner. I recommend Satan's Pony, an easy-drinking amber ale.
Brunch at Cafe CaturraBack to The Corner for brunch at Cafe Caturra. Make sure to ask about mimosa pitchers. I recommend the Crispy Cheese Panini with the Arugala Goat Cheese salad.
Shopping at Darling, Low Vintage, ReThreads, and CircaDrive over to the Downtown Mall for some secondhand shopping at Darling Boutique and Low Vintage (if you want to check out some fair trade goods, make sure to stop in at Ten Thousand Villages and say hi to Sallie), then head to McIntire Plaza to check out ReThreads and furniture and home goods emporium, Circa.
Afternoon coffee at Java JavaEnd your visit with an organic, fair trade latte and Java Java's famous honey bunches (buttery, sweet muffins with coconut).
This town can feel claustrophobic and cluttered with tourists at times, but I love living here. It's full of natural beauty and all the good food and drinks you could want. Making this list reminded me how lucky I am.
So the next time you're looking to see the world, consider starting right where you are.
|Memorial for Heather Heyer, killed on this site by a neo-Nazi|
I wrote about my experience in Charlottesville this weekend for Christianity Today.
This post was sponsored by MATTER Prints and I received a pair of Sideswept Dhoti pants to review.
I'm a Florida girl at heart and maybe I always will be. I live for long, hot, humid summer days. As I type this post, I'm sitting in my backyard enjoying 93 degree temps and drinking hot tea.
Summer means there's no need for formality, no need for constricting layers and multiple wool socks. I feel free because I don't have to cocoon myself in so much fabric. My toes get to stretch out in sandals, my shoulders can make full rotations without my pesky wool coat getting in the way. At the same time, these lethargic days make me nostalgic for all those other sunny days growing up: sleeping in then taking a dip in a cool pool, bike rides and walks through woods, family trips with my sister and I playing "news anchor and weatherman" in the back seat (my parents were always the witnesses and the foreign correspondents).
MATTER and I are a good match, because there's something special about the freedom of their clothing, linked to the past but not tethered there, intentional but never fussy, made with outdoor exploration in mind.
MATTER sent me the Sideswept Dhoti in Kangura Charcoal ($139), part of their new Organic Cotton line, to review.
Made responsibly with azo-free dyes (azo dyes, which are common in the fashion industry, have been found to be potentially carcinogenic), the pants were block printed in Jaipur and stitched in Delhi, India. One of MATTER's missions is to help their customers appreciate process and provenance, linking people like you and me to the people who developed artisan processes long ago and the people who keep them alive against all odds in a modernized world. MATTER seeks to make rural textile industries sustainable. I love this, because I think that the best work-life balance comes when we're able to stay in our own communities and work in disciplines that connect us to the beauty of humanity.
The Sideswept Dhoti is designed just like a wrap skirt, which means a single size can accommodate about 2-3 standard sizes (I'm wearing a size 1). This design means there's no need for any hardware: simply slip the tie through a slit at the waist and knot it on the other side. The fabric is draped precisely on the right side to create a pocket without any additional tailoring.
As I've mentioned before, MATTER is truly wearable art. That makes me excited, and slightly intimidated, to review their pieces. I'm so encouraged by ethical companies that innovate in this way. They ensure that the industry won't be seen as tired or crunchy.
In one sentence or less, how would you describe MATTER?
How did MATTER start? Why pants?MATTER was sparked by the excitement of travel and the human connection that comes with it. The feeling of anything is possible, the richness of a life that is open to global inspiration. I met my co-founder, Yvonne, on the beaches of Mexico, and we were inspired to combine our love for travel, cultural stories, and unique travel wear into a business catering to the global nomad. Practically, it kicked off last year when I drove a tuktuk covering 3000km from North to South India for a charity drive – I fell in love with the country, met some key people I work with now, and was inspired as to how something small can really go a long way. The message is to find out the where and why something is made – we will make better choices when we know those stories, for ourselves and the world. Also, that we are all connected – that’s why it’s called MATTER – going back to the basics that connect us. In terms of why pants, there is still something slightly rebellious about women wearing pants. It suggests a woman in control and living her life and having her adventures. Those are the women who inspire me in my life and inspire us in Matter. Pants are extremely comfortable whether you’re getting wandering around the back streets of Barcelona or in the aisles of your local supermarket.
Plus, we believe in doing one thing really well and excelling in that. And so even though we want to eventually expand into other types of travel wear, pants will be our main focus for the near future.
What made you decide to source and work primarily within Singapore? What strengths and weaknesses does your location provide for the company?We actually work with artisans in Rajasthan, north India and Hyderabad, south India. HQ is in Singapore but we work in a 'network' form with people across geographies. For example, my co-founder is currently based in Shanghai. In terms of HQ being based in Singapore, what's difficult is sampling, prototyping and finding good pattern makers; given we are such a small country the manufacturing base is very small and so those vital aspects of the business are hard to keep close to hand. The main strength is that we are close to so many textile clusters in South east Asia and finding artisans and traveling to meet them is easy given our airport hub status. The cosmopolitan base of our city also means that there is a ready base of savvy, conscious consumers here as well.
Tell me a bit about the manufacturing process from start to finish. How does a pair of MATTER pants get made?Primarily, Matter is about providing our customer with the best quality product out there. That’s why we personally visit each of our supply partners with a certain set of criteria that focuses on product integrity, social and environmental impact, business imperatives and management robustness. First things first, is the fabric and print. We focus on working with rural textile artisans who are experts in their respective crafts and have passed it down from generation to generation, and they are our main consultants when it comes to producing this phase. They are mostly small family businesses where everyone is involved in the making.
In terms of the print design, we invest a lot of time into learning the cultural histories and symbolic stories behind the prints. This wasn’t an easy task as much of this is being lost – we visited over 10 blockprinting workshops in Rajasthan and found one person who still knew those origins well. Our designers then reinterpret the motif by playing with size, colour, outlines and white space to bring out the essence of its story. From there on its an iterative process between the designer and artisan to achieve the final perfect balance.
The fabric then goes to our factory partner in Delhi, also a family business who cuts and sews the final garments, before sending them to Singapore. For the style of the trousers, we reached out to the real women who Matter around us. We want our pants to be something that women can call upon not only when they’re travelling but when they are grounded back in their day to day. We curated a collection of styles from Asia and the rest of the world that were whittled down to 9 types. These were then road-tested by women of all ages, shapes and lifestyles who honed them to the 5 basic styles we now produce.
What is the future of MATTER? Do you have plans to expand to other styles or products?Well, sticking with the pants format, our next edition will be with men in mind – we feel they deserve to Matter as well! We've just launched scarves with a collaborative partner here in Singapore, as well as gift cards for the holiday season. I'm also planning to visit the Philippines for a sourcing trip next week, so expect more beautiful fabrics.
Thanks for the interview, Renyung!
If you're looking for Holiday gifts, check out Matter's new scarves and gift cards!