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  • Writer's pictureShila Desai

Being a respectful traveller in textile cultures

Photo by Porapak Apichodilok from Pexels

I recently stumbled upon an excellent guide by Clothroads on how to “Be a Star Textile Ambassador: How to Travel Sensitively and Sensibly in Textile Cultures”. Global travel to remote corners of the world is taking off – but often, the principles of ethical travel aren’t keeping pace. While “travelling ethically” sounds good, what does it mean in practice? When it comes to themed travel, like textile tours, I want to help my travellers understand the concrete actions they can take to protect and support the art that they love – and the artists who create it. To travel is a privilege. Often, we are able to travel because of our wealth, citizenship, skin colour, social status, spoken languages, etc. We could have just as easily been born into a life where our situation did not allow us to travel. But more specifically, it’s a privilege to be able to cultivate an interest in textiles from another culture – and to follow that interest across the world!

Kantha workshop in West Bengal village

When we follow our interest to the heart of textile cultures, we can leave the places we visit better than before. Some positive consequences of textile tourism are direct support and empowerment for artisans, more visibility for the art form, more resources for its preservation and protection, and better wages for the artisans. At the same time, there is more potential for exploitation, instances of cultural misunderstanding and appropriation, and more lack of awareness of basic travel responsibility and conscientiousness. After numerous textile tours, and the inspiration of Clothroads’ article, here is a guide for travellers wishing to immerse themselves in the global textile community in the most respectful, conscious, and ethical way.

1. Listen. Be present and patient​ - Give your host your undivided attention. Wait until their presentations are finished to inquire into purchasing, and avoid being assertive and grabbing at works. Be inclusive of shyer fellow travellers and allow them equal access to works, especially when stock is limited.

2. Be mindfully curious​ - Before asking something, consider how the question might make someone feel. Artisans often have a hard time answering questions like “what does this piece represent for you?” or “how long did this take you to make?” because often the answers are not as straightforward as we expect.

3. Be a good guest​ - When an artisan opens their home to you, you are an honoured guest, especially in cultures we come in contact with on E.Y.H.O tours. Remembering it is their home and not a museum, getting permission before touching things or entering different rooms, and when gifted something by a host or artisan, accepting it graciously - these are all ways in which you validate and equalize your relationship with the artisan.

Meghwal village

4. Be a generous buyer and an ethical bargainer​ - Being a traveller to a textile culture, you almost certainly have more financial privilege than the artisans you meet. Buying directly from artisans support the local economy, and the craft. Before jumping into bargaining, ask your local guide to help you understand why certain pieces may be differently priced. Pricing is more often than not based on the amount of work a piece demanded, and not necessarily on its aesthetics. When bargaining, start by offering a price that you consider honest and fair. Don’t try to gain advantage by finding flaws or criticizing the work, or lowball the price because their economy is “weaker”.

5. Be respectful of what’s not for sale​ - In short, don’t try to buy the cloth off an artisan’s back. Respect the limits of what the artisan has not put up for sale, no matter how beautiful or unique it seems.

6. Be a photographer who asks for permission​ - This is especially applicable for certain tribes we will visit, such as the females members of the Mutwa tribe in Kutch, Gujarat. Be conscious and steer clear of any motivations to photograph a person, place or thing because it looks “exotic” - be mindful that these are real aspects of real people’s lives.

7. Make the effort​ - to learn textile terms, speak the language/dialect, and respect cultural norms. For many artisans, meeting travellers from across the globe can already be a step out of their comfort zone, so it helps to make efforts to facilitate the encounter, and reciprocate the effort made by artisans.

Buying bangles in a street market, Orissa

8. Use their currency ​- Many of the artisans we visit live in remote villages and may not have access to foreign currency (e.g. USD), nor to large amounts of change to break big bills. Whenever visiting artisans, ensure you have small change and coins to facilitate transactions. And above all, be genuine in your sentiments and enjoy. Who wouldn’t love interacting with your interest and amazement of their craft and culture!

Meghwal village welcome

Our textile tour of north west India takes in tribal communities and their generational textiles. Join us! Click here for more info.

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