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Talking with the owners of VASTRA
Vichitraweer Singh and Sofía Salas
Interviewed by Susan Lutz, ATH Editor of Organic Living
Editor's Note from Susan Lutz: The basic theme of "organic" starts with how a something is produced and not just the ingredients that go in it. Hand-made products, such as those crafted by artisans in India and discovered by Vichitrweer Singh and Sofía Salas, are beautiful and support artisans and craft workers to sustain their livelihood. Opening up a world market means connecting with a community of committed retailers. Vichitrweer and Sofía, who own the store VASTRA in Costa Rica, started working for human rights, which lead them on a path of bringing special, hand-made items to a new market. The shirts, tablecloths, and baby slings they've selected are lovely and emit a feeling of serenity, something that can only come from the attention of an artisan's hands. In additiion, they bring to the market several hand-woven pieces that support the environment by not destroying life as it comes to fruition, adding to the quality of not only the product, but also leaving less of a toxic impact behind. Several of the silk lines in the VASTRA store are made by a special silk worm that is left to live in peace rather than boiled (as is the fate of most silk worms). This practice gives a true, organic setting to respecting the cycle of life that gives us so much.
Blue Pottery artisan painting a bowl before it is fired in a traditional kiln.
Originally, blue pottery involved only blue and greenish-blue colors on a white base. Lately, however, it has experimented with other colors such as yellow, dark blue and brown. Location - Jaipur, Capital of Rajasthan, India.
1. Choosing such beautiful clothing as you have in your store, where do you get them from?
Most of the products from our store come from India. VASTRA buys directly from independent artisans and cooperatives from different regions in the country, especially Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Kashmir, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu. We also source from like minded (hand-made) businesses in India that are members of All India Artisans and Craftworkers Welfare Association (AIACA). [AIACA is a "membership-based apex body for the handloom and handicraft sectors. It seeks to represent a range of organizations in these sectors and to engage in policy advocacy activities aimed at increasing the domestic market for handloom and handicraft products along with improving the standard of living of craft workers"]
VASTRA has also been afforded the Craftmark certificate for its hand-embroidery items. Craftmark is an initiative of AIACA to recognize authentic handmade products and procedures. We import directly from India and have traveled extensively to meet artisans and identify new products, and continue to do so.
2. How does choosing handmade products support the makers and artisans?
India has a millinery and vast tradition of handicrafts. We believe that in a world full of mass produced and factory made products, the art of handmaking brings unique and personalized products of the highest quality. By purchasing a handmade product one contributes to supporting the livelihood of artisans and their families and brings recognition to their traditional art. Although many of the artisans throughout India - as occurs in many regions of the world - still use simple, indigenous tools to make their products and live without getting competitive wages for their work, we have encountered well organized and empowered groups of artisans that have gotten rid of intermediaries and are directly managing, selling and promoting their products. In addition, these organizations have a well structured system of assistance for their members in terms of education, medicine and housing. These are the groups VASTRA seeks to buy from. Some of these groups are: Sadhna, UMBVS Urmul, and KASAB, a collective of rural women that brings together over 12,000 members from hundreds of villages.
Undeniably, the retail price of products normally varies significantly from the price set by artisans. We seek to have sustainable margins for our store but keep prices as accessible as we can for others to buy.
Group of women doing chikankari embroidery.
Chikankari is a traditional embroidery that dates back to the 17 century and originated in the court of empress Noor Jahan ( Mughal Dynasty). Chikankari embroidery is mainly done on white fine cotton fabric using white thread. Today colors are also used, as are also different types of fabric. Location - Lucknow, capital of Uttar Pradesh, India.
3. Crops add an undeniable stress to the planet, balancing that stress whenever we can with organic methods such as your silk clothing made from worms that like to live on special trees. Can you explain the process?
VASTRA buys only natural fiber materials which include cotton, linen, silk, wool, viscose and jute. Many of our silk products are made out of tussar silk. This is coarse silk generated by the silkworm (Antheraea mylitta) which are not bred on mulberry trees but whose cocoons are collected from local trees like Sal, Arjun and Saja. It is less expensive than cultivated silk. Some of the Tussar silk that is made today is called "non-violent silk, or Ahimsa Silk", since it is extracted from the cocoon after the silkworm larvae has left it. In those processes where the cocoon with the larvae is boiled, the dead worm inside the cocoon is often sold as fertilizer and food for birds.
India produces the bulk of the world’s production of Tussar silk. Most of Indian tussar comes from the poor states of Bihar and Jharkhand. For the locals there (mostly tribal people), sericulture is one of the most viable income generation options available. Tussar is valued for its texture and natural gold colour. Both spun and reeled thread is used for weaving. In tussar weave, both warp and weft are silk threads. The spun thread is spun by hand only.
4. What is the difference between this silk and the usual silk found in most manufacturing?
Tussar silk is a wild silk. This differentiates it from other types of silks, in which the silkworms are fed mulberry leaves in conventional silk farms. Also, in conventional sericulture, the cocoons are normally boiled with the larvae still inside. In Ahimsa silk manufacture (a common type of tussar silk), the cocoons are boiled after the larvae have left them.
Artisan printing cloth with elaborately carved wooden blocks.
A different block is needed for each color in the design. Good printing skill and practice is necessary to get uniform and clear block printing. Location: Kutch, region in Gujarat, India .
Hand Block Printing - One of the oldest known techniques for printing fabric. Hand block printing involves laying the cloth/fabric, which is to be printed, on flat tables and impressions are made using elaborately carved blocks. Traditionally natural and vegetable sources were used for dyes. Nowadays, however, the ease of usage and the availability of synthetic dyes have replaced the vegetable dye in many cases.
5. Besides clothing, you have some other products such as rugs and blankets. How are these made?
VASTRA carries natural fiber rugs made out of jute and sea grass. We also carry wool rugs made in Kashmir, north part of India. All of our rugs are hand-woven. As part of our home furnishing items, we also have hand-woven cotton towels, tablecloths and bedcovers. Some of our tablecloths and bedcovers are also hand painted by the usage of wooden blocks. Our clothes are either made of 100% cotton, linen or silk, or a combination of them. They are either hand-woven, hand block painted or hand embroidered. In cotton, we also carry "khadi", which is a hand-spun and hand-woven cotton widely used in India and which supports the livelihood of thousands of village people.
VASTRA also has hand-woven products made from recycled materials such as newspapers. They come in different colors and designs and include coasters, tablemats, earrings, and pencil holders.
6. What is the consciousness that you would like your products to project?
We would like our products to project the unique and intrinsic value of a handmade product. To create a handmade product of high quality is a skill that requires years of experience and dedication. It's a tradition and it's art. We would like our customers to understand that by buying a handmade product, they contribute to support the livelihood of artisans and their families and bring recognition to their traditional art.
Skilled artisan crafting a design on a wooden block.
Wood Block Carving - The design is first drawn on wood using a sharp needle before it is carved with a chisel, hammer, file and nails. Carving the blocks by hand is a different skill from printing the fabric with the wooden blocks. Location: Jaipur, capital of Rajasthan, India.
7. How do you see that by supporting small artisans we can not only shift the focus from using toxic plastics and products, but we can support a more sustainable lifestyle for others and how is the issue of human rights tied to the issue of organic living?
Human rights and organic living are both very broad concepts, often hard to define. Yet, both of them are intrinsic to any human being. Regarding their link:
The right to life and a healthy standard of living, as well as the right to work, to education and food are just some of the basic human rights that play a very important role when talking about fair trade and artisans. Why? Firstly, it is essential to understand that the handicraft tradition has and continues to sustain generations of people across the globe. India is a clear example of this. By preserving and supporting such sectors (i.e. having artisans themselves establish their fair wages and prices, giving craftworkers the opportunity to connect to mainstream markets, recognizing genuine handicrafts, raising consumer awareness of handicraft procedures and traditions and its uniqueness, etc), one contributes to having people whose lives depend on craftwork meet their basic human rights.
Human rights are linked to integral/organic living since without the first, the second would not be possible.
Many of the small artisans we work with use natural fibers and dyes instead of synthetic ones. This contributes to a conscious use of resources that are not only 100% natural but aesthetically beautiful and benign.
8. Why did you choose Costa Rica as a destination?
While working in eastern Nepal during 2007-2009, we met different artisan communities and groups and immediately got interested in their work and stories. This triggered our idea to quit our jobs in order to open a handmade store. We chose Costa Rica as destination as it is the home country of Sofia, one of the owners. We thought it would be great if people from "the West" could have access - at fair prices and not at boutique unaffordable ones - to high quality products from India and Nepal, countries that are still unknown to large extent by many in Latin America. It was also a way of bringing our two homes (India and Costa Rica) together. Our wish is that beyond buying, our customers may learn about traditional craft processes in other parts of the world and to trigger their interest in the art of handmade.
9. What are your hopes for not only your vision but that of our future?
In today's world of consumerism, where anything and everything sells, we believe that bringing in quality handmade products at a competitive price as opposed to mass produced products can contribute to better living conditions of talented artisans and craftworkers.
In relation to our future, we would like to fund projects in the artisan communities that we work with related to marketing strategies and product design and innovation. This will help the artisan communities to economically prosper and, at the same time, it will bring recognition to their tradition and craft. If VASTRA grows, we plan to bring in products from artisan communities around the world including Latin America.
Note: These photos come from our travel in India and the artisan groups from whom we purchase. We carry hand block printed products (garments and home furnishing), blue pottery, and Chikankari embroidered garments and tablecloth.
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About Vichitraweer and Sofía
Vichitraweer Singh - commercial pilot and historian with postgraduate degree in human rights, Indian, residing in Costa Rica since Nov 2009, email: firstname.lastname@example.org Former jobs: NGO sector in/outside India, work related to HIV/TB awareness, microcredit, IT and education and refugees.
Sofía Salas - lawyer with postgraduate degree in human rights, Costa Rican, email: email@example.com. Former jobs: International Organization for Migration. Work related to resettlement of refugees from different nationalities and international migration law.
We both worked with Bhutanese refugees in Damak, Nepal from 2007-2009 before returning to Costa Rica to start our handmade store project.
Guachipelin de Escazu
600m N del Bac San Jose
A look inside VASTRA (right)
What does VASTRA have to offer.....Look Below!