Artisan communities are disappearing under the pressures of fast fashion and global trade. Can social enterprise preserve a way of life through more predictable income?
“Predictability” has never been a very sexy term, but in a world turned upside down by coronavirus, it might be the one thing many people crave the most.
For traditional artisans in the developing world, however, that craving is nothing new.
When Mihai Patru first started investigating a social enterprise built around traditional, handmade textiles, he was going for sexy impact measures like education or financial literacy. But then he stopped to actually listen to the artisans — and that’s how Mozaïque got into the predictability business.
“Artisans know exactly what they need and what they can do. What they don’t have is access to money.”
Mozaïque is a social enterprise connecting traditional artisans in Guatemala and Romania to global markets through a webstore and physical boutiques across the country. The vision is to strike a balance between honoring traditional craft and innovating to make sure that artisans — and perhaps their children — can survive on the craft for years to come.
For Mihai, a native of Romania, the concept started in 2017 with a grad school project focused on artisans in Guatemala. “It got great feedback and won awards at Johns Hopkins. So, I thought, ‘If that’s what gets people excited, why not try to learn more, do more research?’ And of course, I had no idea what I was getting into,” Mihai said.
As he found out, supporting artisans is not as simple as going to a weekend market in Central America or the Balkans, and buying a boatload of textiles to keep or resell on Etsy. At least, supporting them sustainably isn’t that simple. In fact, that very practice undermines what Mihai and co-founder Diana Tatucu identified as the root issue most impacting the artisans’ lives: Financial predictability.
It Does Take a Village
The earliest conception of Mozaïque put emphasis on education, with priorities like financial education for the artisans and schooling for children in their households. Those weren’t bad ideas, but they weren’t coming from the artisans. “In reality, they know exactly what they need and what they can do,” Mihai said of the artisans. “What they don’t have is access to money.”
Weaving has been in these families, in some cases, for three generations. “There’s a lot of financial pressure when they don’t have orders, and their other source of income is often in agriculture. But still, that’s not enough,” Mihai learned. “In many cases, the artisans are just abandoning their craft, moving to a bigger city and getting regular jobs, or coming to the U.S. where they have relatives.”
Bucking that trend didn’t mean changing the way the artisans create, but rather connecting them to a global market. But even that had to be done the right way—ensuring that the materials were locally grown, ethically sourced, and of the highest quality; establishing zero waste production; developing products that would appeal to buyers beyond Guatemala; and involving the artisans in every stage of the process—so it took about a year-and-a-half before Mozaïque publicly launched in 2018.
The thoroughness was intended to help Mihai and his partners understand what the artisans’ capacities and access to resources looked like. But that knowledge also created an important selling point for Mozaïque, which is the storytelling about the process and the people involved.
“The reality is you’re not working with just one artisan,” he says. “You have to connect with a group of around six people. That includes the people who are sourcing the fabric who are also the quality control because you want to have good raw material, the people making sure the dyes we use are good quality so the fabrics aren’t bleeding, the people who prepare the yarn to put on the loom. It’s a collective effort in the village.”
In 2019 Mozaïque debuted a line of wool rugs and throw blankets from artisans in Romania, and once again traceability was a major concern. In Mihai’s words, “When people ask to see the sheep the wool comes from, we can do that.” While the wool-based textiles in Romania marked a departure from the cotton-based linens of Guatemala, key elements of the artisans’ lives and needs were quite similar.
As in Guatemala, Romanian artisans were dealing with a lack of orders, supplementing their income with agriculture, and worrying about the survival of traditional weaving as young folks abandoned the trade for more reliable ways to make a living.
“An artisan in one community near the Ukraine border, her main concern is that she is in her late fifties and she has no one to teach her craft,” Mihai said. “All the young people have left the country for Italy or Spain. She’s getting older and people are not interested in learning the skills. They ask themselves if it’s going to provide for their family and the answer is no.”
From Communism to Uncertainty
Ultimately, the areas of overlap meant that the learnings from Mozaïque’s collaboration with Guatemalan artisans translated well into the Romanian context with one interesting exception that might’ve been a curveball if not for Patru’s Romanian roots.
“Under the communist regime prior to 1989, the government was taking care of these artisans,” Mihai said. “Government had state-owned agencies that were bringing orders, attending international fairs, and had contact and contracts with buyers. Collectives were asked to deliver certain products and artisans were paid.”
That structure disappeared after 1989, and many artisans worked hard to adapt to market demands. “The two collectives that we work with, they were part of the state-owned collective,” Mihai said. “They know what quality control means, they respect deadlines, they want to work. Their work is exquisite. They source raw materials locally.”
What’s missing is simple: “They just don’t have the connections to the market.”
Today, all three collectives in Guatemala and Romania have access to a global market through Mozaïque’s presence online and in stores, and with that access, greater financial predictability. In terms of what impact that has had for the artisans’ lives, Mihai stresses that a lot of these people have been living in survival mode for far too long.
“Once this system has been sustainable and developed over time, that’s when we can see the artisans really plan ahead in terms of their livelihood,” he said. “They can start planning on improvements at home, buying a car, buying land, investing in something. With our artisans in Romania, they would like to hire people. But nobody wants to come on knowing that they might be employed one month and fired the next. Predictability means they will know they’ll have enough orders to pay employees.”
Looking ahead, Mozaïque is in no rush to grow the current store presence or bring more collectives in other countries on board.
“Everything is handmade and takes time to make, so there is a limit of orders artisans can fulfill. It’s not a factory. It’s not mass production. It’s better for us to have a limited number of products that are better quality and bring justice to the artisans. We are not trying to add more sweatshops to the textile industry.”
Quite the contrary, by delivering on the promise of consistent orders, Mozaïque has developed not only trust and goodwill with the artisans, but also genuine friendships. “We have learned a lot from them,” Mihai said, “and not only about the weaving process itself but their needs, their interest, and their lives as human beings.”
Mozaïque’s website is the easiest place to find their products. Other places to look for them include the Brooklyn Museum in New York, the GW Textile Museum in DC, and boutiques across the country—from Made. near Patru’s current home base of Riverside, California, to Cultural Cloth in Maiden Rock, Wisconsin.