Handmade Opportunity

Vietnamese non-profit Craft Link helps artisans revive their cultures and create economic opportunity

Vietnam’s booming export sector, which grew from $15 billion in 2001 to over $132 billion in 2013, has infused the country with economic growth. That growth has occurred mostly in cities, however, leaving more remote areas behind. Because most of Vietnam’s 50+ ethnic minorities live in these remote areas, groups like the Hmong need help in creating economic opportunities. That’s exactly what Craft Link, a Vietnamese not-for-profit fair trade organization based in Hanoi, does. 

“Our mission is to help traditional craft producers, ethnic minority groups and disadvantaged improve their livelihoods through handicraft production and marketing,” says Lan Tran, Craft Link’s longtime general manager. “We give special focus to marginalized producers, such as ethnic minority people in remote areas, street children, and people with disabilities. Right now we work with 65 groups from all over the country.” 

One of Craft Link’s most important commitments is to the Hmong, most of whom live in the hilly north. Embroidery is the Hmong craft most admired by visitors and collectors. “The Hmong use their traditional embroidery skills and patterns on their own clothing as well as for exportable craft objects,” says Lan. “Each pattern has its own meaning and reflects the daily life of the artisans. For example, most jacket collars incorporate a cu, or snail design, formed by a curling black chain stitch. Other popular motifs are the khau li, a tool used for winding hemp fibers, and chicken feet, which are important in Hmong rituals. Plants and flowers are also represented.”

Since 2001, Craft Link has operated a Hmong women’s handicraft project in Y Linh Ho, located along Vietnam’s northern border with China. The Hmong population there terraces steep mountainsides for farming, eking out one crop a year of rice or corn before winter ends the growing season. Essential cash is earned by collecting cardamom used in traditional medicines from the forest – but this pays for few of a family’s educational, medical or transportation needs.

Working with Craft Link, the women of Y Linh Ho village are supplementing their incomes with  traditional skills of batik and embroidery.  Craft Link has encouraged a revival of the rich surfaces created with layers of Hmong appliqué, and silk and cotton embroidery – with the careful introduction of contemporary colors. Women of all ages are learning to reproduce and adapt beautiful pieces that they can either sell as small works of art or turn into products such as bags and cushion covers.  Craft Link has also provided training in colorfast indigo dyeing, machine and hand sewing, bookkeeping and marketing skills for project leaders,  and literacy. 

Another key focus for Craft Link is the ancient Vietnamese pottery tradition still pursued in the village of Bat Trang, about ten kilometers from Hanoi. As long ago as the 4th century CE, Bat Trang had mastered a beautiful ivory glaze. By the 11th century, the village was making ivory as well as celadon ceramics – with increasingly sophisticated polychrome patterns. Bat Trang, which means village of bowls, still earns its name with over 1000 households participating in some aspect of ceramic production – many of them producing everyday household items whose beauty makes them objects of desire both at home and abroad.

“We hope to find new customers during our visit to New York City this August,” relays Lan. “We will be showing Hmong embroideries, Bat Trang ceramics, hand woven and hand dyed silks, and many more examples of export-ready Vietnamese crafts. Connecting our artisans to the world helps all of us.”

Visit Craft Link at NY Now’s® Artisan Resource® section at Manhattan’s Pier 94, August 16-19.  For more on Craft Link, visit http://www.craftlink.com.vn.

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