Updated: Sep 17, 2020
Following on from the article ‘How can the fashion industry treat Indigenous people and craft communities with fairness and equity?’ that discusses the 3Cs’ Rule of consent, credit and compensation, this article explores the motivations of institutions and creative industry stakeholders for being inspired by Traditional Cultural Expressions and collaborations with Traditional Knowledge holders.
Why are appropriative design practices so common?
Decoration of cloth is not necessary to its function of modesty and protection from nature. It is human desire to adorn ourselves in stories that communicate our values to society. As we identified ourselves as separate to the rest of life on earth through the development and use of covering our bodies with textiles, so too did we establish aesthetics of specific meaning culturally and spiritually.
The original creators of these are Traditional Knowledge (TK) holders and their textiles are a type of Traditional Cultural Expression (TCE). Conventional Intellectual Property protection systems deem fashion too utilitarian for copyright protection, however, the artwork on the textile that satisfies human desire, is considered Intellectual Property which is protected by Copyright. Concepts are not protected, simply that specific visual communication of that idea.
Many aesthetics and motifs that were developed by Traditional Knowledge holders expressed through Traditional Cultural Expressions have, therefore, been adopted and implemented out of context. There are many negative implications that have severe effects on cultural sustainability which calls for a framework for Cultural Intellectual Property.
There are numerous texts that document practices of textile design such as the Journal of Design and Manufacturers from London in 1849 which was compiled to educate the British on how to design ornamentation as successfully as the French. It likens the act of copying another manufacturer's designs to robbing their tills and that designers should be concentrating on quality over quantity and not react to novelty or bad taste, however, does not identify the cultural custodians of particular aesthetics, simply how to design in that style.
Source: University of Glasgow
This established a monetary based value system of an item as more important than cultural values. The Textile Manufacturers and Costumes of the People of India by John Forbes Watson from Britain in 1866 is a series of 18 books of which 20 copies were produced and distributed around England and India.
They contain 700 specimens of textiles detailing from concept and design to measurements and production processes so Britain could specifically replicate these Indian designs for export to India as they were concerned with their desire and need for Indian textiles which were not reciprocated. It describes the designs as beautiful beyond western capabilities, however, in the hopes that technology and innovation would one day eventually trump to conquer this market.
From European aristocracy bringing utopian luxury to the masses through the Industrial Revolution and exploitation of traditional culture, our design decisions and values systems became distorted. Design may have made some processes more efficient, however, the negative results are catastrophic culturally, environmentally, socially and economically.
The Journal of Design and Manufacturers, 1849 states:
The love of novelty, strong in most human beings, is the source of great pleasure and a considerable motive power in generating improvement. But it may have its disadvantages, and it is quite possible that, fostered by circumstances unduly, it may be pushed to an unhealthy extreme. There is a morbid craving in the public mind for novelty as mere novelty, without regard to instinct goodness; and all manufacturers in the present mischievous race for competition, are driven to pander it. In the spasmodic effort to obtain novelty all kinds of absurdities are committed. We are most decidedly of the opinion that this course is generally detrimental to the advance of ornamental design, to the growth of public taste, and to the commercial interest of the manufacturer and the designer. We also believe that the rage for novelty is the main support for the practical designer. The means of checking the evil are not very obvious or direct, but we are convinced that something may be done. A better copyright law is one means. The public has to be taught to appreciate the best designs.
We need to apply this mentality for appreciating, respecting and legally protecting Traditional Knowledge holders and their Traditional Cultural Expressions internationally.
If you simply adopt aesthetic inspiration from a suppressed or marginalised culture that you are not part of or have deep immersive experience and understanding of, you are lumping the challenging aspects associated with that culture on its people, who then carry a heavier burden of your weight.
If specific Indigenous and cultural practices were once illegal, discriminated against and assimilation encouraged, to then go and use those in a commercial context for financial and social benefit is extremely offensive. This, as expressed by the bolivian artist, researcher and weaver Elvira Espejo Ayca (1) is a form of cultural and epistemic extractivism. It is also thought of as a postcolonial practice, since it perpetuates old colonialist ways of acting from a place of privilege. We need to acknowledge that this is the way we’ve been taught to design.
Taking cultural symbols and motifs out of context, for some cultures, is even thought to interrupt the balance of the universe and the connection of all systems that support our well-being (2). If there is such an importance for sustaining culture, why are there so many cases of cultural misappropriation when there is clearly an opportunity and a market to exhibit such works?
Shifting our mindsets
It starts with understanding who you are internally and your relationship with the land you live and the community you are part of. Communicating and engaging with those around you and putting the needs of Indigenous people and their traditions and the land from which you are sourcing first, is the first step in developing positive motivations for a collaboration with Traditional Knowledge holders to create textiles and crafts.
Once this is achieved, the 3Cs’ Rule can be implemented to guide a partnership. Firstly, consent and a legal framework to facilitate a collaboration can be developed. Collaborations are equal and have to be agreed upon by both parties to be established. Credit needs to be given to all partners. As the moral rights of intellectual property cannot be transferred, each reference of culturally sensitive motifs needs to credit the traditional custodians, not the brand who has used them through the 3C’s Rule. Finally, compensation can come in many forms, not just financially. Long term partnerships that sustain a traditional technique, the communities, families and facilities for the Traditional Knowledge holders are important considerations.
Artisans and craftspeople are not to be thought of as in need of aid. They are masters and are rich in culture and sustainability practices.
The overconsumption mindset of the West is what is in need of aid and decolonization. The motivations to create textiles and fashion should be an approach of creative exchange to facilitate cultural sustainability within a global arena. To proudly communicate and express the values of our collective capacities through relatable, transparent, information to an informed audience who is receptive.
Guatemala’s National Weavers’ Movement
This is a long term commitment that is the essence of the passionate endeavour of textile creation. Not a short, trend based exercise to meet a temporary material desire for business. It is time to take the creation of textiles back to the fulfilling, meditative, skillful and liberating process that it was established to be rather than the unnecessary, stressful, exploitative and competitive environment we are currently operating within.
It would be impossible to create the amount of textiles we currently produce through hand making, however, we need to stop creating this amount of textiles for novelty. Fashion is utilitarian with the luxury of embellishment to communicate our values to society, not disposable. If textiles can last hundreds of years, why are we discarding them so easily? It is the industry and brands that dictate the rhythm of supply to consumers.
The current overconsumption mindset is a reflection of what has been available. If this shifts then so will the needs of consumers. Just like every fashion brand operates differently, there is no one particular formula for executing this. It takes a creative approach of thinking through doing and having conversations to form best practices and new collective ways of designing. It is time to start listening to and creating alternatives to our mass production and overconsumption system.
Where we are and where we’re going
Questioning and defying the logic of the system itself is what most Indigenous and local communities have done for decades, for it is them who have suffered its real consequences: Dispossession and exploitation of the lands they’ve not only inhabited, but guarded for centuries; displacement from these lands; and disregard or shame over their cultures and languages.
It is important to understand that textiles, design and fashion are embedded in a larger and more complex network of inequitable human relations. So in order to honor Indigenous peoples and local communities’ Traditional Cultural Expressions, it becomes necessary to acknowledge their history and their present fights, just like the National Weavers’ Movement Ruchajixik ri qana’ojbäl from Guatemala are so brightly expressing.
Just as we’ve most recently seen with the #BlacksLivesMatter movement, privileges must be put into question to even begin to think about being an ally, in this case, for cultural sustainability. Textiles are being crafted by their custodians not only because they know the skill, but because it Is part of their daily lives, their cultures and their communitary dynamics.
Design processes while working with local and Indigenous communities should not stick to preconceived ideas of the outcome. The process itself should take in consideration those peoples’ needs, times, community agreements, customary laws, as well as their ways of engaging with creation. This approach does not mean having zero control, but using all participants' strengths of Traditional Knowledge and understanding of international markets to harmoniously come together to meet all needs.
An example of alternative production practices is the one coined over the last 12 years by Malcate Taller Experimental Texil. This is a women’s collective from the highlands of Chiapas, in Mexico, that is approaching textile production and commercialization from a consensus based project, in which the selling and marketing of their marvellously crafted textiles is not their ultimate goal. As said by their coordinator, Karla Pérez Cánovas (3), they do not prioritise profit over the agreements within the organization to protect and respect their livelihoods.
For them, it is crucial to create a dialogue with the buyer in which it develops a connection and understanding of the object they are acquiring. The production time for every piece is established by the artisans themselves and it depends not only on their productivity as artisans but also as farmers, caregivers, household managers, and students, just to mention some. This is just one example of community based practices that are arising every day in different corners of the world from which we can all learn.
For the industry to engage in more ethical practices, it must question its role in the bigger picture problems. The Cultural Intellectual Property Rights Initiative, by designing its 3Cs’ Rule, is giving the industry a starting point for rethinking the way of approaching collaborations with artisans. Consent, credit and compensation. These are, with no doubt, important pillars to build around. As mentioned previously, collaboration with artisans should be thought of in the long term in order to deeply understand their cultures and create respectful work dynamics that will not compromise their fights for dignity.
Final thoughts for the future
According to psychology there are three types of happiness. The first is a temporary pleasure that is felt such as the retail experience and thrill of purchasing a new garment. This type of pleasure quickly disappears after a couple of wears. The second is engagement which is not tangible, it is acknowledging your strengths, the things that make time stop for you and exercising them to your satisfaction. The third is the most meaningful and promises lasting happiness: it is applying these skills and strengths to contribute to a cause greater than yourself.
As our textile and garment choices have increased, our happiness has decreased. This is not just about choosing what to adorn our bodies with and how to communicate our values to society, it is about our individual happiness and the well-being of all of the systems we choose to interact with and consume from.
We encourage people when considering the purchase of a garment to touch the textiles, think about the farm they came from, the person who picked the cotton, spun the yarn, wove or knitted the fabric. If a machine did these processes, think about the communities that have had this joy taken away from them due to design decisions.
Think about the person who dyed the fabric in the colour it is, who might have been exposed to dangerous chemicals because you want the colour the trends have dictated to you rather than engaging in their traditional knowledge and natural dyes.
Think about the history and meaning of motifs, the context in which they belong and honouring that. Think about the person who created the textiles for an unfathomably small amount of money, putting at risk the continuity of the artisanal craft of their heritage.
The way forward is not about blaming anyone or shaming others. It is about understanding why we’re doing things the way we are and therefore finding new, positive and exciting models of working where everyone learns, is inspired and filled with the happiness that comes from contributing to a cause greater than themselves.
If the aesthetics created, maintained, copied and desired across the world have lasted this test of time, then it is essential to honour the cultural custodians passing the microphone to them in equal exchange collaborative models. This requires a passion beyond financial gain and in return comes the benefits of lifelong happiness.
Authors: Nicole Crouch & Mónica Parra for The Cultural IP Rights Initiative™
(1) Espejo, E. Online forum “Creaciones colectivas en el Abya Yala.”
(2) Tunstall, D. Online lecture “Respectful Design: Models for Diversity, Inclusion, & Decolonization.”
(3) Pérez, K. [Online forum] “Diseño, territorios e identidades ¿Por qué descolonizar el diseño?”
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Espejo, E. “Creaciones colectivas en el Abya Yala” Organized by Ad Llallin Arte Textil Mapuche. August 2nd, 2020. Available at: https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=1203469446665643
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Pérez, K. “Diseño, territorios e identidades ¿Por qué descolonizar el diseño?” Organized by the Universidad Católica de Temuco. August 17, 2020. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=youtu.be&v=_uPT75ZL8Z0&app=desktop
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