Artisanne was started by two sisters, Elizabeth based in London and Emma who lived in Senegal for six years. Elizabeth started her career as a Modern Languages teacher, two years moved into advertising where she worked for 13 years. She subsequently started a small brand consultancy with a colleague before eventually founding Artisanne.
Emma is a child protection specialist and has worked for several organisations including War Child, Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers and Child Frontiers. Alongside supporting Elizabeth with Artisanne, she currently works as a consultant on a wide range of initiatives, including research and evaluation, and policy development processes. She has lived and worked in Africa for the last 13 years, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Senegal and Kenya, where she is currently based.
Hi Elizabeth, so what inspired you to start such a unique project?
We started Artisanne 2 years ago. Emma lived in Senegal for 6 years and we both fell in love with the Senegalese handmade baskets and the traditional weaving style – a skill passed from mother to daughter.
I [Elizabeth] began by bringing home baskets as presents for friends and family every time I returned from visiting Emma, and we got great feedback. To get us started, Emma travelled every fortnight to remote Senegalese villages to find our weavers. Working directly with the women, without middlemen, allows the women to discuss issues and concerns with us, and helps us ensure a steady and fair income, for them and their families. It also allows the artisans to access an international market they would not otherwise reach.
How did you form such strong connections between yourselves at Artisanne and the villages you work with?
From the beginning, we have aimed to work directly with the weavers, ensuring they earn a fair and secure income for their products. This meant Emma travelling through the villages in the Thiès region, where weaving techniques have been handed down from generation to generation and the baskets are still used for general storage. Emma spent many long days travelling down remote dirt tracks to spend time looking at collections of baskets and sharing bowls of curdled milk (a local speciality!) with villagers as she explained the project.
We soon identified groups of artisans interested in working with us. The hours spent hours talking in the shade of a Baobab tree involved much laughter and helped establish strong relationships and an understanding of the intricacies of their craft. For example, a large Ali Baba basket takes several days to produce. Our close relationship with the weavers means we can design our own styles and guarantee our Artisanne quality.
Emma was living there and we love the traditional Senegalese Wolof weaving style.
The baskets and products produced by the craftsmen and women in the areas you source your products from are remarkable. What is the secret to their high quality?
Artisanne’s baskets are made by more than 25 women in a region called Thiès in Senegal. When we set up Artisanne Emma drove to the villages every fortnight in order to sit with the weavers to discuss the intricacies of the weaving and our designs. Our highly skilled weavers continue to perfect the tight weave and spacing that Artisanne baskets are renowned for. This ensures high quality that in turn makes the baskets more uniform and crucially more sturdy and durable.
Each basket is created respecting the traditional Senegalese Wolof weaving style whilst incorporating contemporary designs and colours. They are made using a local grass, ndiorokh, and long strips of different coloured plastic that are traditionally used for making bazin mats, similar to prayer mats.
Do you think the Fair-Trade and ethical style and approach of your business’ nature is a selling point in itself?
When we started the business it was incredibly important for us to adopt an ethical approach that would benefit the weavers and us. We were determined to work directly with the weavers – without middlemen and to negotiate with them. Our close relationship with the artisans enables them to discuss issues and concerns that arise directly with us. For example, there was a drought last year and the cost of the grasses went up 30%. The weavers came directly to us and we were able to cover that cost.
What is your most popular product?
Our most popular product is the Alibaba laundry basket. As a result we have expanded the colour scheme and the sizes. It now comes in 4 sizes including the extra large, which takes a week to weave, and in 9 colour-ways.
What does the future have in store for Artisanne?
In the last 18 months, we have grown from working with a small number weavers to working with over 25. As Artisanne has grown, our close relationship with the artisans has meant we have been able to train some weavers to organise, manage and quality control their own group of weavers. We are proud to of this work and are committed to the women’s further development and empowerment.
How can we order and get in touch?
Via our website www.artisanne.co.uk. We look forward to hearing from you.