10 Questions for the Founder of House of Wandering Silk
At Shatter, we are deeply committed to highlighting companies and entrepreneurs that focus on ethical travel, social responsibility, and cultural preservation. Our Editor had the chance to sit down with Katherine Neumann, the Founder and Director of the textile company House of Wandering Silk to talk more about working with women artisans, curating textiles, and developing a line of fair-trade and ethically made products from around the world.
Tell me about your journey. How did you go from ten years in the humanitarian aid industry to starting a global textile company?
House of Wandering Silk is the culmination of two divergent paths which came together in Delhi in 2011.
The first path was my ten year career as a Humanitarian Aid Worker; starting in Afghanistan and working my way through disasters and conflicts across Asia and in the Middle East and Africa. I was greatly touched by the resilience of people, even those living in the most desperate of circumstances, and struck by the tremendous inequality I saw around me. I started working for a humanitarian organisation in the first place because I wanted to contribute in some way to addressing this inequality; this same desire was the seed for House of Wandering Silk.
The second path was my growing love for the rich textile heritage I discovered during my work and travels. Stunning silk embroidery made by women in remote villages in Swat Valley in the mountains of Pakistan, for example; women there are able, in need and are extremely eager to earn a living to support their families and themselves but simply have no way to make this happen. Most of the women we work with are bound to their homes for societal and religious reasons, and do not have the option of working outside their homes. The textiles themselves represents the culture and history of their people, which makes it fascinating as well as beautiful, while its creation offers a safe and dignified livelihood option for these women.
House of Wandering Silk Sari String Necklaces are handcrafted by women artisans in India
Let’s talk about design and intellectual property for a minute. So many times, I will go into a quick fashion store (say H&M or Zara) and I will see a replication of an Akha or Hmong, or an Ikat bag, it may not have the attention to detail as a handmade one would, but many consumers don’t know or don’t care where the design was taken from–how do you view the line between intellectual property and inspiration? Why is it important to keep these textiles and designs true to their roots?
For us as a brand and for our customers, authenticity is very important – the story of the product is just as valuable as the final product. A hand spun, hand woven scarf will always be more beautiful to us than a power loom scarf, mass produced in a factory; the small imperfections and uniqueness tell us that the scarf has played an important role in another person’s life, as they sat for days or weeks weaving it.
But this isn’t the case for all consumers and I do believe that traditional designs – be it ikat or block print or Hmong embroidery – finding their way into the mainstream through fast fashion is one step towards promoting an awareness, interest and deeper curiosity amongst consumers. As awareness grows, consumers will look behind the labels. Reports have shown that when consumers know that the production of a piece of clothing has negatively affected the producer or environment, they won’t spend their money on it. And I think that this is very closely tied to the authenticity of the materials, design and production process.
So while theoretically I may not be comfortable with it, I have a sense that the mainstreaming of traditional designs into the mass market will lead to more conscious and careful consumption in the future.
What is your creative process and production process like? How do you identify and connect with the artisans and weavers who will be making each textile?
Our design and production process is an inverted version of a typical manufacturing brand: rather than first designing the product then seeking out producers, we identified the groups that we wanted to work with, explored their skills, needs and capacities, and then designed products which would fit this – while keeping an eye on market demand and the desires of our target customers as well. This was partly a carry over from my work in the humanitarian sector – identifying vulnerable groups, their needs and capacities, and then designing programmes to fit into this framework; and partly a reflection on the importance to HOWS of putting the producers first.
Our process of identifying and connecting with artisans and producer groups is very organic. It started with personal connections that I made during my earlier work in the humanitarian sector, and has spread from there. We’ve approached and met with dozens if not hundreds of groups and artisans and are constantly on the lookout for new partners to work with. The main difference with my earlier work is that in the humanitarian sector, you make the selection of who you will work with based solely on need and vulnerability. As a fairtrade producer, we look at need, but have to take into account skill and desire to work as well. It means we end up not always working with the poorest or most vulnerable groups. This is the fair trade trade off.
Once we identify a group or artisan that fits our criteria, we go through several rounds of sampling and auditing, which is quite an informal process involving me spending time with the artisans.
A gathering of the kantha artisans in Murshidabad District, West Bengal. They are a few of the 1400 women belonging to the cooperative that crafts House of Wandering Silk Textiles.
You have a section on the site called “Meet the Makers”; What is the importance of the story, both for House of Wandering Silk, and for the artisans who create these beautiful pieces?
I can’t speak for all the artisans we work with, who number in the hundreds, but based on my discussions and interviews with many of our artisans, their main concerns are getting regular work that is fairly paid and allows them to work from home. They are, of course, very proud when they hear that their work is appreciated and valued by people across the world, but the rest of it – the concepts related to fair trade and slow fashion such as the “authenticity” of the product, the “story”, – this is much more important for us than for them! They are very practical when it comes to their work, and are clear on their priorities – fairly paid, safe and dignified work from home.
A House of Wandering Silk Artisan works on a silk Kantha scarf.
What do the artisans you are working with think or say about people in New York or London wearing their textiles?
Last time I was visiting our kantha artisans in their village, I asked a group of ladies if they had anything they would like to say to our customers who wear their products. And here’s what they said…
Its great to see a mens section on the site– why do you think there isn’t more of a demand for beautifully crafted fair trade products/apparel for men?
I believe it’s simply because men make up a fraction of fashion consumers, and fair trade enterprise or not, you have to have the market in mind when designing, producing snd selling! The vast majority of our customers who buy our men’s products are in fact women buying gifts.
What will it take to raise a larger awareness about #whomademyclothes, among the general public?
Unfortunately it seems that only huge disasters like the collapse of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh in 2013 are able to capture public awareness on a large scale and push mainstream fashion consumers towards more ethical consumption choices. But so long as those of us who care keeping talking about it, keeping discussing it, keep writing about it, we can also contribute to greater awareness. For example, I’m increasingly seeing HOWS as a platform for not just practicing ethical production, but also espousing it through our website and social media; we try to share as much information about ethical production as we can to inform and encourage discussions amongst our followers. I think small steps like this will eventually lead to a big change.
Women artisans working on kantha at the co-operative.
What is your most memorable anecdote/moment from the time you started HOS?
My most enjoyable times working on HOWS are spread amongst my interactions with our artisans, our customers, and the design process. But if I’m really honest about my most memorable moment – although I feel like I should be telling you a story involving our artisans – it was actually when we made our first sale! Back in 2012, after sampling products for over a year and meeting with loads of producer groups, the Crafts Council store, “Kamala”, in New Delhi, bought a pile of our kantha scarves outright. That was our first serious sale and I felt like it validated all the decisions I had made about leaving my day job and starting my own enterprise from scratch; it confirmed that our products were special enough to be valued in the very saturated Indian “crafts” market; and it meant that we were headed in the right direction. This is the moment I remember most clearly and fondly!
Can you talk about the upcoming launch of Korakohl?
Korakohl has been on my mind since last year. The concept of the brand takes the same core values as HOWS – authenticity, respect and beauty – but translates them into products which are extremely simple. The idea is in fact to maintain korakohl as a unique collection under HOWS; one that will appeal to lovers of simplicity, clean cuts and luxe textures. I think the idea started out as a personal desire to take a break from the vibrant, saturated colours of our HOWS product range! We have been hoping to launch it soon, but “soon” keeps getting delayed… We’re working on a range of products for korkohl, at least with the objective of launching for the festive and winter season!
What countries, textiles or adventures are next for House of Wandering Silk?
We’ve recently left New Delhi as our permanent base. While our main studio, the majority of our artisan and producer partners, and the bulk of our textile sourcing is still in India, we’re now turning towards Southeast Asia and South China with a view towards setting up a second studio. We’ve already started sourcing vintage materials from Thailand (coming soon!) and working with NGOs in Cambodia, Indonesia and Laos. We are super excited about the ikat from across the region, as well as the beautiful embroidery made by minority tribal groups from the mountains. What we’re especially interested in exploring, however, is fusing materials, weaving and embroidery skills from South Asia with those of Southeast Asia to create something truly unique!
A Kantha Hand Blocked Print House of Wandering Silk Textile
Check out more about House of Wandering Silk and their incredible line of textiles and jewelry at wanderingsilk.org