Context of the craft/artisan sector in Bangladesh

Section One: Context of the craft/artisan sector in Bangladesh

The economy of Bangladesh relies on the ready made garment industry – having grown from US$6.4billion in 2005 to US$12.5billion in 2010 – and accounts for 80% of the country’s export (Hussain, 2010). It is estimated that 3.5million Bangladeshis work in the sector, the majority of whom are women

However this sector is beset with problems as we have seen over the last number of years – low wages, forced overtime and .unsafe buildings. Environmental impacts of this largescale industry include water pollution, huge energy use, and waste.

The other sector which Bangladesh holds deep  in the memory of its existence is artisanal. Rich textile industry – beautiful handcrafted items Men and women – different tasks.

“Bangladesh is yet to see any serious and systematic documentation of its textile traditions, both woven and embroidered. The textiles of Bangladesh go back to remote antiquity. The most noteworthy tradition among the crafts and industries which developed early in this fertile and prosperous delta was that centred on textile production. According to Kautilya’s Arthasastra a compilation of writings begun in the 3rd century BC, it was already then a well-established industry with an extensive reputation at home and abroad.” Hoque, E. (2005) Textile Traditions of Bangladesh, National Crafts Council of Bangladesh

The Handloom industry has been a major source of economic support in Bangladesh with over 500,000 handlooms still operating.

Approximately 3 million workers are employed in textile, jute goods, wood, leather, cane and bamboo. (Paul, T.K., 2009) This is a rural and village based enterprise with on average 10 people employed for preparation, dyeing, warping, weaving, trading etc. (Bangladesh Handloom Board Website)

Handloom production has been located in villages for many years and has been part of the fabric of rural society and communities in Bangladesh since the early nineteenth century. Woven products were originally made for domestic use within the family, but have since migrated to commercial use and have become a vital part of the sustainable economy.

If sustainability is the dynamic process as it has been defined by the Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED 1987)  “..which enables all people to realize their potential and to improve their quality of life in ways which simultaneously protect and enhance the Earth’s life support system” , then it can be said that many of the handcrafted products of Bangladesh have been produced in a sustainable manner. The micro companies producing these products are quite often committed to sustainability in both their ethical and responsible environmental practices.

Companies such as Jatra, Prabartana and Aranya actively promote a more sustainable approach to the design process through considered use of natural resources and recycling of materials while also encouraging social enterprise through the employment of women in their own homes.

However, there are areas where these and similar companies could improve. Some of the threats faced by the craft industry include the loss of the tacit knowledge embedded in the making process, there is a need also for better marketing and technologies to promote and communicate the unique nature of these exclusive products. The authors have found that opportunities for these enterprises could be far greater if more was understood about how collaboration and intergenerational knowledge and skills are being passed on to the next generation of designers.

Prabartana are actively trying to preserve the weaving traditions of Bangladesh. By creating a festival such as the Adivasi Taant, they have created a platform which showcases traditional weaving practices in danger of dying out.  Binodini Rema, a weaver from Netrokona acknowledges that more and more garments are being made by machine, this threatens the existence of traditional fabrics. Three generations of women from her family including her mother and daughter are weavers. She says “Social structures have changed, there was a time when all of us knew how to weave but now our offspring know very little- to salvage that lost heritage we must pass our knowledge to the next generation.” (Parveen, S.  2006)

Established craft techniques are in many cases handed down through generations as the authors have seen from their visit to the Tangail district. Here, it was observed that inter-generational learning is coupled with distribution of tacit knowledge. For example, four generations of reed makers live together in the Tangail village under the tutelage of the 105 year old master, Fakir. The craft of reedmaking was traditionally a mans job but now this skill is being transferred to the women of the community.  Likewise in another neighbouring village, Master Jacquard Weaver Kartik Basak has been designing and distributing his skills to his children and now grandchildren for over 40 years.

According to Gratton & Erickson  (2009) research into collaborative teams, point out the success or failure at collaborating reflects the leadership and investment of senior managers and directors in building and maintaining social relationships throughout the organization. The majority of studies into successful collaboration all highlight the elements of building trust, shared purpose, common goals, and a strong sense of community to share knowledge. (Gratton & Erickson  2009)

The most exciting results in the handcraft sector are coming from the marriage of young designers practice with traditional artisans skill. Here we can see the value of collaboration between generations, between traditions, between approaches to practice. Here new and unique heritage objects of value are being created.

Section two: Case Studies of the Four Bangladesh micro enterprises

The four case studies of existing and new creative practitioners and companies have been conducted to look at how collaboration is driving change. This section will explore the design and cultural factors that influence collaboration in a sustainable context through how the value of design heritage in preserving craft techniques; how professional design education of young designers(NGO, LCF) is influencing new practices; what role does leadership play to drive innovation and future practices; what socio-economic factors such as the role of outsourcing and home working are important to female empowerment, and what Intergenerational factors such as the importance of family play in continuing craft practices.

Case Study 1: Prabartana


Prabartana is a Bengali word meaning an act of promotion and was established with an objective to work towards an alternative path of rural industrialization to revitalize Bangladesh’s traditional craft industries. One of their main objectives is to undertake community-led research and practical actions towards more sustainable livelihoods.

The company was started in 1989 and specialises in handloomed textiles from different regions of Bangladesh, including Nakshi-buti Sarees from Tangail, Jamdani from Dhaka.

Prabartana is a sustainable concept for a holistic and financially viable enterprise that embodies complete lifecycle choices in its daily decisions and all of which have implications for the life and livelihood of many people.

As outlined on the UBINIG website, the platform is an outcome of the research work done by this leading policy research, campaign and advocacy organization in Bangladesh. They also operate through Biddaghors (Learning Places) in various districts of Bangladesh to promote self and communal education. (Akter, 2007) The company is actively involved in different weaving communities and focuses on the integrity of the making process with a commitment to working with women to develop their lives through their craft skills. One of the endangered techniques is the Lohori from Chapainabaganj, the only area still producing this complex textile of seven layers embroidered with four ply thread. This requires skill passed from grandmother to mother to daughter. Prabartana are also work with up and coming designers to bring craft practices into new areas of potential growth.


The company’s Chief Executive Officer is Shahid Hussain Shamin. He learnt the art of handloom while his father was the director of the then East Pakistan Small Industries Corporation (EPSIC). Shahid Hussain Shamin graduated with management and accounting, which enabled him to work collaboratively with producers for the promotion of handloom products and the betterment of the local weavers.  The company was set up in 1989 and employs 5,000 workers in developing all types of handicrafts. The company supplies the local domestic market and has a turnover of 100million Taka. (Paul, 2009 Textile Today) Shamim was also the Past President of the National Crafts Council Bangladesh (NCCB), which is a national entity of the World Crafts Council International (WCCI).

collaboration and innovation

The company works with over 500 rural weavers and acts as a platform for the products developed and sold. Through their work within the community, Prabartana continually enable the upskilling and livelihoods of women. Shamim talks about women being able to sustain themselves and their families through the selling of their woven fabric. Shamim says that “responsible and sensible business practices make sense in Bangladesh and promotes self dependence through entrepreneurial activities” (Shahid, S.  personal communication, 22/09/2014)

There are also 2 full time designers, but importantly, Prabartana also collaborates with a range of freelance and commissioned designers to ensure new products and ranges are constantly being developed. The young designers that Prabartana employs are either educated in fashion design or fine arts and they provide new ideas and inspiration using traditional patterns and motifs for new designs. The Prabartana design studio is shared with the Jatra studio -a highly creative environment which promotes the sharing of new practices.

Steinhilber (2008) talks about the relationship between one or more organisations through the combination of resources as a strategic alliance, which can create significant and sustainable value for everyone involved.

Prabartana have always opened their doors to collaborate with other design practitioners. This has sparked innovative design processes as well as helping to distribute the basic ethos of the company. Shamim has worked with Ruby Ghuznavi the managing director of Aranya which was set up in 1990 to revive the natural dyeing tradition inherent to Bangladesh. Ruby’s commitment is to working with women and helping them to develop their lives through the use of their craft skills.

Similarly, Shamim encouraged Namrata Shah to open her own design studio after an internship with Prabartana. She and Shamim started to develop the Shibori technique during her time with Prabartana. She maintains that  Bangladesh was her first step in  the introduction of shibori. Namrata then went on to found Two Up Two Down;  a sustainable enterprise which offers exclusive hand-crafted fabrics outsourced to women working from home. This she says, allows them to participate in the design process while improving their livelihoods. Two Up Two Down have recently set up a weave studio for Freeset;  a fair trade organization which works against the against trafficking of women by offering employment to women trapped in the sex trade. Namrata says that she feels a great sense of achievement in knowing that the company is making other women financially secure.

From these collaborations grew the union between Bangladeshi kantha stitch, natural dyeing and Japanese Shibori. Prabartana are transferring the skill of natural indigo dyeing to many people outside the village community including product developers, artists and designers.

This has led to the creation of not only beautiful, unique products, but long-lasting relationships which are leading to among other things, friendship marketing. A new business has been set up called Ajiyer, which extends the craft products to craft experiences. Using eco-tourism as a way of promoting craft skills and techniques in context is a new business opportunity that is keeping alive master craftsmanship while evolving those traditional skills to create products laden with meaning and significance.


Prabartana has started to develop collaborative initiatives through its relations with designers and makers.  One such collaboration with is with Twine Studio, a Fair Trade organization in Taiwan. Prabartana works with the designers at twine to create simple garments embellished with shibori and naturally dyed with indigo.  This innovation has proved to be successful, as it has opened up new market opportunities in Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Bangladesh.

Written by: Tara Baoth Mooney

( Tara has trained and worked as a designer in the textile industry in New York the UK, Ireland and China. Tara has recently become an associate research fellow on the SMARTfashion team at SMARTlab based in UCD where she is investigating the idea of sustainability and its transcendence through many different forms- including the boundaries of human experience, communication, and interaction in regard to personal and immediate environments.



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