Something can be made from nothing.
And “nothing” can then be sustained. Sustainability can then create economic development. This is a story about women with common goals, shared by working artists and cottage industries, and how a partnership between maker and buyer can change the world.
When people ask me what I do, I tell them that I am an artist and the questions usually stop there. “Artist”, nebulous enough, doesn’t really describe what I do: sew, scrounge for vintage textiles, manage three shops on Etsy (Rayela Art, Afghan Tribal Arts and Oshiwa Designs), and run an organization called TAFA: The Textile and Fiber Art List. “Creative Entrepreneur” is the word bandied about for people like me. We wear a bunch of different hats and mix something creative in with business. TAFA’s story is about other creative entrepreneurs like me. The common bond: handmade textiles that we promote on the web.
For twenty years I struggled to make a brick and mortar business work in Chicago. There were various incarnations with locations and partners, always revolving around handmade ethnic crafts. The cost of living in Chicago finally drove me to leave and I moved to Paducah, Kentucky in 2005 with a new mission: make it all happen on the web.
Making Something From Nothing.
Social media took off about five years ago. Think about it: YouTube, Flickr, Facebook, Twitter and most of the other platforms are less than seven years old! When they emerged, I jumped in and taught myself how to use these tools and met a whole new group of people who were also trying to figure it all out. If social media had been what it is today, my Chicago businesses would have been just fine. Social media can be powerful stuff. But, it changes quickly and it is tough to stay on top of things. These new friends all struggled with the same issues that I did, so we tried to help each other out. Our main problem was determining how to drive people to our platforms and develop a following then converting that interest into sales. Each year, the competition grew more and more fierce. Sure, more people were buying online, but sellers also invaded the scene with massive force.
I wondered what would happen if we banded together as a group—shared promotion might stand a better chance of getting that audience we needed. Realizing that this was a needed niche, I set up a blog as a prototype for a textile and fiber art organization and invited these first friends to join. Initially, TAFA members were charged $25 for membership, basically to cover profile set-up time. The blog launched in January 2010 and by the end of the year, it became clear that a “real” site with a powerful search capability, image results, and other tools was needed.
The members formed a special brainstorming group on Facebook to define TAFA’s mission, goals, and determine which features the site would require. This took a couple of months and in June of 2011, a fundraiser was held on IndieGoGo to raise money for the site. We estimated that $5,000 would do it and enough was contributed to make it happen. A design group was hired to build the site—www.tafalist.com—which was launched in January 2012.
Two years ago we had nothing—now we have something.
TAFA has over 450 members from 35 countries and an active presence on Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, Etsy, Flickr and now Ravelry. (See our Hubs Page.) Half of our members have shops on Etsy and with over 2,500 combined items. All of this happened because of shared needs and goals, camaraderie, and a true love for what we do. We didn’t have the capital for fancy websites individually, but as a group, it became possible.
When something is sustainable, it can maintain itself which means different things for TAFA as a group and for its individual members. For the site, it means financial stability to maintain and grow the website, current efforts on the web, and the group’s dynamic interaction. For individual members, it means sustaining or maintaining themselves financially. We all have bills and we need at least our basic needs met. For some it can be the barest of necessities—a roof, running water, and food—while others have bigger financial obligations with mortgages, careers, travel expenses, etc. We all need materials to produce the work, a space where the work can be created, and the means to market it.
Then, the products themselves can have sustainable properties. A great majority of our members seek to make a positive impact on the environment by using supplies that do not harm the environment. Some raise their own animals for wool, others buy from small farms to spin or felt, others support organic cotton and other plant fibers, and many use recycled materials for their products. (One more example of making something from nothing.) Those of us who embrace this ethic get a real sense of connectedness with each other and with customers who also support these efforts.
I read an article several years ago about the dyes used in Indonesia for batik. These dyes, made in the United States, were horribly toxic, polluting Indonesian rivers, were not allowed for use in the US. When a community as large as the textile industry chooses to go green, the impact is enormous. Often, industry standards in the commercial world have been led by the small weavers, dyers, spinners, and sewers who demanded and made green supplies and products. Why have they had this impact? Because the market exists—consumers want the good stuff. There is also a deep connectedness that comes from learning from the past and keeping old practices alive, reinterpreting them into a contemporary language.
The main problem that keeps so many green products inaccessible to the larger population is the price point. As the demand has increased, much progress has been made in lowering those prices to a competitive rate with the mainstream market. If we can make “green” the norm, we all contribute to the sustainability of our world itself.
TAFA’s members are judged on the quality of their product, their professionalism, web presence, and in how they contribute to the group as a whole. From the beginning, we sought diversity within the group, giving products from different traditions and price points equal representation. But, because membership is curated, we keep quality and presentation as a high priority, which helps create a pleasing destination for the visitor.
Many of our members are studio artists creating high-end art quilts or weavings destined for galleries and corporate buyers. They have traditionally been shown in separate circles from similar products made by cottage industries or fair trade groups. On TAFA, visitors who might normally look for fair trade or green products might find inspiration by a contemporary art quilt, or a boutique looking for new handmade work, might find fair trade pillows that fit perfectly in their shop.
Thus, a weaver from Guatemala and a weaver from Arizona get to access the same markets. The Guatemalan may not have the technical expertise, language abilities or access to a computer to get herself on the web, so she might find representation through a fair trade organization or a small importer. TAFA embraces all of these scenarios and sees them as part of a larger picture of sustainability: one where we own our choices. We each decide what system works best to fulfill our needs and interests: independent artist, non-profit, small business, etc. TAFA’s role is to promote the end product and to take the visitor to wherever the member is at on the web.
Both the working artist in a developed country and the “artisan” in a Third World country face similar problems in accessing larger markets, of breaking out of their niche. The web has helped make this more affordable and democratic, but navigating it and staying on top of constant change can drain an artist or small business, taking time away from the studio or production. TAFA can help sift through the chatter and point to the best usage of one’s time and members benefit from each other’s experiences.
Economic development initiatives normally address issues of poverty, looking at how a distressed area can access the opportunities it needs to sustain itself. Yet, it can also look at how we can avoid dropping into poverty. If we consider that that a healthy society should support the creation of art and functional craft, then one would hope that the makers should also live well with health insurance, decent housing, and life choices that allow for mobility. When there is a recession, as we have experienced world-wide in the last decade, artists suffer the threat of moving into poverty as most have few safety nets in times of economic instability. Organizations such as TAFA seek to assist artists in living a sustainable life.
The 1970’s saw the beginnings of the fair trade movement. Organizations that have been around since then can now demonstrate the impact: schools, clinics, better housing and nutrition, etc. It was also a time of craft revival around the world. Many of the textile and fiber artists who elevated functional craft to art status during that time are now retiring or dying. Their persistence and experiments paved the way to the amazing movements we see today: works which push the boundaries of the traditional into new interpretations of what is art. These two movements have run parallel to each other but merged into what we now call “indie” art. Cottage industries are no longer a third world phenomena, but are a vibrant part of our world economies, including in the United States, Canada, Europe and Australia.
The internet has allowed individuals to create a web presence as powerful as a large corporation’s. I used to buy from small importers and re-sell on eBay several years ago. There was a small group of people like me who had Zulu baskets, African indigo, Tibetan bells and so on. Now, I have been cut out by people selling directly from those faraway places. The Uzbeks, Moroccans, Mexicans, and Aborigines are selling their own work, directly to the public. This is as it should be, but it gets us back to that problem of competition and access to the markets. By coming together as a group under TAFA’s umbrella, we hope to find those people who will support and sustain artists and artisans.
For me, the last ten years on the internet have been amazing. I am able to live in a small town in Kentucky and still access the world. I have friendships with people I will probably never meet. People buy from me and they live in countries that I might never visit. This virtual community has impact and it creates both sustainability and economic development. And it’s mostly about women. The fastest growing population on Facebook is women over 50. I just turned 50 and TAFA’s demographic is exactly that. Yes, we have many young women and some men who are members, but our Facebook and Google Analytics stats tell us that our base is made up of women over 50. This tells me that we, as a group, have power. We can change the way things are done in this world, starting in our homes and extending out to the ways we earn a living and the purchases we make.
TAFA is a part of a picture of sustainability through partnership—a place where we join together to make transformation happen. We need the writers and the readers, the makers and the buyers, the speakers and the audience. When we stand alone, we face an insurmountable gap. But together bridges are built and we can create something out of nothing.
You can visits the artists through TAFA’s Member List.