Textile Toolbox: , image 1

People Tree founder Safia Minney (right) with an Indian textile producer

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Isabelle Duchamp’s collaborations with Bangladeshi potters

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Detail of the Journey Map of an ikat weaver in Orissa, by Priti Rao

Production contexts

Clara Vuletich
PhD Researcher, Textiles Environment Design, University of the Arts London

30 April 2014

In my last post, I suggested that while ‘human centered design’ encourages designers to consider the user first, what does ‘human centered production’ look like for textile and fashion designers in the fashion system? How can designers consider the people involved in the production of the textiles and garments and design in ways that considers the producers as human beings with their own values, needs and skills.

Clara Vuletich

Posted on 30 April 2014 by Clara Vuletich in:
Design for Ethical Production

In this and the next post, I will explore the social impact issues from two production contexts: firstly involving people who are artisan producers, often in traditional craft communities, fulfilling small to medium size orders of either textile or garment production; and secondly the context that involves people working in garment factories, often fulfilling large volume orders for multi-national fashion brands, producing garments. As Liz Parker, researcher and educator in international human and workers’ rights in the fashion industry explains, the employment and social impact issues affecting the people in these contexts are both different, mainly due to the employment relationship they are in. A weaver who is part of a co-operative in a rural community will have different issues and needs compared to a worker in full-time employment in a garment factory. This means the barriers for designers to create change are different, and the two contexts require different levels of design knowledge and skills.

Producers with traditional craft skills

The first production context I would like to analyse is of workers who are involved in production that mostly utilises a traditional craft skill that is part of the cultural heritage of the community, such as the hand weaving communities of Northern Thailand, or a particular embroidery technique such as kantha, seen in many parts of West Bengal in India. Some of these communities are part of a global supply chain for the fashion industry, often employed through co-operative structures, working either as home workers, or in small production centres, creating either woven textiles or performing embellishment work such as beading and embroidery. While these producers are highly skilled in the crafts aspects, there is often a lack of knowledge and understanding of consumer needs and tastes. In this context, the designer can be seen as the intermediary between the producers and the consumers. However, this role as the intermediary is often easier than it seems, and there are multiple challenges and complexities for designers when engaging in these contexts: issues that can arise include the designer exploiting the skills of the producers, so the producer is merely seen as skilled labour, and the lack of reference to, or respect for, the cultural context of the work. The Australian government has recently set up an initiative with the Indian government, to co-develop best practice guidelines for designers wishing to work with Indian craft producers (Sangam Project).

There is also the issue of livelihoods. Many of these producers do not have access to basic services such as clean water and health care, and working on product design is not going to be sustainable and effective if the community cannot support the production due to lack of materials or basic services. 

So, how can designers support these artisanal communities in a more sustainable way? I would like to use a definition of design, that highlights the unique epistemology and skill of a textile or fashion designer, as a ‘designerly way of knowing’, based on Cross (Cross 2006). By engaging this ‘way of knowing’ with an intended goal – to support the people involved in textile production in artisan communities – the designer is able to intervene to create positive change. I have identified three different levels of design intervention Design for, Design with and Design beyond the Product. These levels of design intervention move beyond the ‘normal’ way of designing that exists completely disconnected from the producers as human beings with lives, skills, values and needs.

Design for 

This type of design practice asks designers to consider the craft skills and capabilities of the makers of the garments and textiles, along with the aesthetic and cost considerations of a ‘normal’ design practice, and to synthesise all of these elements into a garment or collection that will be commercially successful. Whereas some designers may design their collections, and then try to find production partners who have ethical credentials, this approach is more pro-active, and asks the designer to consider the human skills and resources first and then to design to support it. In this way, the producers gain access to markets and economic benefit, through the engagement with the designer. 

People Tree is a fashion brand that demonstrates this approach. Working with small producers in India, People Tree design collections based on the existing skill set of the producers, mainly hand weavers, block printers and hand embroiderers. As Parker (Parker 2011) noted in a report on People Tree’s role in the Bangladesh textile industry, “People Tree is a design-led company that sees clothing as a vehicle for poverty alleviation. Thus its focus is on community centred sustainability through economic stability, skills preservation and low impact production methods”. The company has a ten-year business plan, which shows their long-term commitment to supporting these producers, working with them each year to build technical skill.

Image 1: People Tree founder Safia Minney (right) with an Indian textile producer

Design with

A second level of design intervention is Design with. Here the designer works in collaboration with the artisanal community and co-designs garments or products based on their skills. This type of design is rarely seen in a fashion context, possibly because most textile artisans are not involved in producing garment shapes, but are just constructing or embellishing fabric.

An example from product design is the work of German designer Isabelle Dechamps. Dechamps who worked with a group of Bangladeshi potters to develop new products. Rather than merely dictating the form or style based on her understanding of their production/making process, she engaged the makers in initial design activities, such as drawing, form studies and prototyping experiments. Dechamps calls this method  ‘participatory design education’, and is attempting to transfer the ‘designerly way of knowing’ and thinking to the producers, in the process of co-designing with them.

Image 2: Isabelle Duchamp’s collaborations with Bangladeshi potters

Design beyond Product 

The third level of design intervention is Design Beyond the Product. Here the designer uses their ‘designerly ways of knowing’ to begin to address the systemic livelihood issues that affect many of these artisan communities beyond their ability to create hand made goods, such as a lack of access to materials, marketing, finance and skill development. So the designer is not applying their design knowledge and value at the product level, but is applying it at a system/service level, as in TED’s Design for Systems/Services.

Priti Roa (Rao 2012) has recently completed a design research project on how design can contribute to the challenges facing rural ikat weaving communities in Orissa, India, focused on designing for services. She emphasises that the study was not an attempt to solve the problem, but to use a design approach to reframe and reconsider the existing problems that other stakeholders – policy makers, aid workers etc – have been grappling with, and to offer a guide and new methods.

Image 3: Detail of the Journey Map of an ikat weaver in Orissa, by Priti Rao

Roa reframes the artisan weaver from being a producer of craft objects or beneficiary of government aid, to being an active customer of services, who makes conscious decisions to fit their capabilities and circumstances. Roa also utilises all the skills of a design approach in her study, such as visualising, actor and journey mapping and empathising, based on participatory design methods, working directly with the weavers themselves. The proposition is that through ‘empathising’ with the community members, and demonstrating the design approach to the other stakeholders who are involved, more effective approaches can be found. Although, Rao is a sociologist using design methods, not a fashion or textile designer, this project demonstrates the inter-disciplinary nature of a design intervention that is required into such a complex context.

Textile and fashion designers have a ‘way of knowing’ that is embodied in, and through, the design of textiles and garments. This definition of a design practice allows us to consider how the textile/fashion designer may be able to impact and influence the producers involved in the supply chain for positive change. By exploring several levels for design intervention in a textile artisan community context, an understanding of how designers can design for producer’s needs and skills is revealed.

Thanks to Liz Parker for her insights into the relationship between ethical production, workers rights and design.


Cross, N. (2006),Designerly ways of knowing, Springer, London.

Parker, L. (2011),Steps Towards Sustainability in Fashion: Snapshot Bangladesh, vol. 6, London College of Fashion and Fashioning an Ethical Industry, London.

Rao, P. (2012), 'Connecting the Dots: a Design Approach to Services for the Poor', PhD, Northumbria University, UK.

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