What is Artisanal? The Birth of Artisanalism - A Revivalist Rendition

(All My Merkata and Adelante Shoe Co. photos here taken by Kyle Hilken)

It’s cool, we’re bringing it back.

In December 2013, The New York Times officially relegated “artisan” to the top of the trash heap, joining the likes of “brand” and “gluten-free” as words whose overuse has diluted their very meaning, and generally, just piss us off.

The New York Times, however, is not alone. The media has undertaken a massive smear campaign against artisanalism - a crucifixion of $8 mayonnaise and UV-treated, reverse-osmosized NYC tap water

Perhaps it is rightfully so. Artisanal has become less synonymous with craft and more closely associated with exorbitant price tags and taking your pour of Burgundy for one too many spins around the glass.

In the same way that hipsters scoff at hipsterism and environmentalists have all but tied a concrete block to the ankles of sustainability, artisans now shrink away at the mention of artisanal.  

But as the pendulum goes, every movement must have its counter-movement. Or maybe, for every counter-movement, there must be a return to the original, over and over again, until vintage and retro are recycled into eternity.

During our time in Central and South America, we’ve come across a number of artists, weavers, cobblers, and backyard moonshiners that have us reexamining the existence of artisanal. The more we were surrounded by these people - their processes and practices - the more we started realizing that artisanal goes well beyond a $50 bottle of shampoo stacked with provitamins.

Sure, it still carries the oft mocked marks of “hand-made” and “small-batch”, but it has deep roots in culture, politics, and history. It’s not just about the artisan products themselves - it’s about the hands that craft them.

So let’s breathe a little life back into that which has been left for dead; take it back from the asparagus waters and freshly sealed jars of air; and give artisans the celebration they deserve.

***

Before indulging this historical episode, I want to acknowledge that this short profile of artisanalism is coming from a pretty Western vantage point. I’m open to a crowd-funded exploration of the word’s more worldly origins, but this is all I have to offer for now.

It all started in a place far, far away from oatmeal stouts and triple-hopped rose petal IPAs: Egypt. Artisans made their first known appearance on the geologic time scale as highly skilled carpenters, stone-carvers, potters, and jewelers on the banks of the Nile some 5,000 years ago. Unfortunately, the craftsmen of Egypt suffered the same tortured fate of their modern day wood whittling counterparts - they were broke. Egypt’s artisan class were considered lower-middle class, just above slaves and farmers. Thanks for nothing, King Menes.

But fear not, our paper-mâchéing brothers and sisters - things are looking up in medieval times. No more taking it from demanding pyramid designers and overbearing emperors. We’re paying rent on the first - no! - the 31st.

During this period artisans formed guilds - the building blocks of modern day labor unions - to protect their earnings and ensure a quality standard for consumers. The formation of guilds saw the artisan ascend from starving creative visionary to burgeoning aristocrat. Master artisans owned their own businesses and educated apprentices in their craft - the building blocks of modern day internships.

But progress did not stop there. The Renaissance was to artisans as the age of the internet is to abysmal writers - everyone gets recognized for their genius and imagination. No longer are they simply delivering leather satchels to the masses, they are celebrated innovators. Which makes me, like, Michelangelo.

Fast forward 200 years to a young republic where merchants and craftsmen from Europe mixed with the democratic ideals of a new nation. In the late 18th century, shoemakers became the pioneers of U.S. labor unions, forming separate organizations in cities across the East Coast to seek higher wages, shorter hours, and the principle of exclusive union hiring.

In 1805, the Federal Society of Journeymen Cordwainers (ye olde English for leather shoemaker) engaged in one of the first formally organized labor strikes in the U.S. over wage reductions, which eventually brought the cordwainers’ (sorry, can’t stop saying that word) case in front of Philadelphia’s municipal court.

The journeymen were all identified as conspirators and charged $8 apiece. But that’s beside the point - it was the beginning of a political movement.

Unfortunately for the shoemakers, carpenters, and painters of early America, their political bravery did not ensure longevity. By the mid-19th century, craftsmen, tradesmen, artisans - the whole lot - lost out to the industrial revolution. Their highly skilled labor, which relied on a system of masters and apprentices, transformed into a new system of capitalists and proletarians.

So, maybe the 21st century resurrection of artisanal is a battle cry from Marxists. It would, after all, be the perfect explanation. Ideological New York and LA hipsters taking a stand against the insufferable oppression of capitalism by charging $12 for avocado lightly smattered on handmade toast (that was the sound of Karl Marx prying the nails off of his coffin).

I’m not sure the current artisanal movement wasn’t conceived in good faith - a return to craft and local production - but it seems that it’s just transformed into one hell of a marketing campaign.

That doesn’t mean, however, that artisanal has lost its meaning. In fact, perhaps this is the time when it means the most. But then, what is artisanal?

***

Morning rides across Lake Atitlan are serene. Cool overnight temperatures at 5,000’ leave the Guatemalan lake still and sparkling, a modest contrast to the massive mountains that jet out from its edges.

Atitlan is home to a handful of Mayan ethnic groups, most notably the Tz'utujil and Kaqchiquel, that live on the lake’s shores and hillsides. Despite a strong tourist presence, their Mayan culture, including language, dress, and art, have managed to prevail. Somewhat paradoxically, the tourist influx has actually helped preserve it.

The Mayan communities are famous for their elaborate textile creations that are sold at storefronts around the lake. The blankets, scarves, and handbags are wildly popular amongst visitors. Indeed, this is what we had come for.

We pulled into the dock at San Pedro a few minutes before 10 am. That day we would be visiting Teixchel Tejidos and Casa Flor Ixcaco cooperatives as part of a collaboration with My Merkata, an ethical fashion marketplace for Guatemalan weavers.

Textile weaving has been a part of the female Mayan tradition for thousands of years. Women from all walks of Mayan society - commoners and nobles alike - learned to weave. Ix Chel, the Mayan moon goddess, was the patron of weaving, and is often depicted sitting with the backstrap loom, one end tied to a tree and the other around her waist.

Today, the Mayan women in Atitlan use the same backstrap method to weave their products, which incorporate various geometric shapes and symbols to represent the lake’s physical features and Mayan identity.

The process is complex. The yarn from which the beautiful textiles are spun is made using natural dye from vegetables, coffee beans, and flowers, a process which can take up to two weeks. Making a huipil using the backstrap loom, a wonderfully intricate arrangement of colorful strands spread across thin wooden planks, can take more than 30 days. The plucking and spinning of each string is something like watching a Rodrigo y Gabriela performance. But as it goes with exquisite artisans, the women of Teixchel Tejidos and Casa Flor Ixcaco made it look easy.

There. I said it. Artisans. And what else could they possibly be?

Each step of the women’s craft requires painstaking precision. It is handmade because that is the only way it could possibly be. It is small-batch because large scale production would take a small army. But perhaps most importantly, woven into each textile is a distinct piece of history and culture. You’re paying not just for a blanket, but a blanket whose detail, design, and definition could not be recreated by another set of hands in the universe.

***

I think that’s what defines artisanal - not the product, but the set of hands that creates them.

Hands tell a remarkable story. They are the instruments of life, repeating hundreds and thousands of times the same movements that define our existence. Each set opens, touches, grips, plucks, and weaves in a different way; one pair does not look like another - callused, dry, mud-caked, slender, soft, strong, polished, crooked.

They are the road maps of both personal and cultural history. A Japanese knife-maker’s craft is learned from the same methods that sharpened katana swords 1,000 years ago. A mezcalero roasts agave hearts in the same stone ovens that Aztec men and women used to make elixirs five centuries ago. These hands channel years of family tradition, political strife, and personal experience to craft products that represent both people and place.

I don’t say this to be exclusive - surely artisans can craft items that don’t originate from their home country. Our friends at Adelante Shoe Co. make a damn good pair of leather boots, but I’m pretty sure cordwainers (OK, one more time) didn’t get their start in Guatemala. It does go to say, however, that artisanal requires a dedication to craft, cultural understanding, and evolutionary knowledge that goes well beyond Youtube tutorials. You can’t invent artisanal.

It feels like the modern application of the word has much more to do with cultural homogenization than it does with craft and art. You can now find your artisanal avocado toast and coffee in every major city in the U.S. - and throughout the world.

But just because we can’t help but roll our eyes at every bundle of artisanal firewood doesn’t mean we should give up on artisanal. It just means we need to do a little reexamination.