Splendours of the Cloth


Wow!  A recent class visit to the Maiwa Handprints atelier accomplished two things for me: a behind the scenes look at the operation and product at one of my favorite stores on Granville Island (even though we visited only the atelier/workshop/research lab area and did not venture into the retail store) and a whole new learning and appreciation for the skill, determination and effort required to marry humanitarian interest and motivation with the complex challenges of working in the traditional context of rural India.

Charlotte Kwon is the owner of Maiwa Handprints Ltd, which she founded almost 3o years ago, selling artisanal cloth, clothing and jewellery, handmade in India. The product is beautiful and unique; a wide array of fabrics both functional and ornamental; wearable works of art, the kind which conjure up for most of us the mystique and romantic lore of colonial India; jewels, the Raj, kings, queens, antiquity! Most of the inventory is made available to the international, particularly North American public, through Charlotte’s ongoing passion for the support and promotion of artisans in India, specifically of the artists involved in the intricate art of hand dying and printing and her status as an international expert in fiber arts and natural dye techniques.  In addition, she is a researcher and documentarian, constantly seeking to preserve the techniques and recipes of the practitioners of this unique art form.  Her nuanced knowledge and love of her life’s work shone through the demonstrations she provided of the various cloths, shawls and fabrics of intricate stitchery and embroidery.  I felt the intense rush of the desire to acquire; the almost physical impulse to possess and own everything we touched.  Such colours; such artistry; some of the handprints sublimely intricate and ornate; others subtle and of beautifully muted elegance: I wanted them all!  William Morris’ sage old advice to acquire and possess only that which is “either functional or beautiful (or both)” suddenly made perfect sense and it didn’t hurt to consider that such a Maiwa purchase would be functional as well as lovely, not a speculative commodity purchase as is common in today’s overheated art world.

Ms. Kwon’s work with the indigenous peoples and artisans of India’s rural areas is both inspirational and humbling; she seems to have succeeded where so many other well intentioned individuals and organizations have failed.  Maiwa’s business plan and mission have been effective in their goal to advocate for the preservation and promotion of traditional artisanal handiwork as well as address humanitarian needs in the communities they work in by raising money through their Maiwa foundation for the small but necessary ‘helping hand’ kind of grants.    In the process, they have managed to navigate the treacherous shoals of humanitarian work while forging a business, evidently profitable enough for them to continue for these many years, as well as the artisans they work with.  Ms. Kwon, along with Tim McLaughlin, business partner, writer and photojournalist, have forged a demonstrably successful model of combining the emotion and passion to save and preserve an art form and the theoretical framework for doing so and presumably, how it could be done again.  Maiwa,  in Cantonese and Mandarin means “a word used to name the language through which art speaks”.  How very appropriate.

2 thoughts on “Splendours of the Cloth

  1. I was overwhelmed by our visit to the Maiwa Handprints atelier. You gave voice to the richness and sensuousness of the experience of being surrounded by the textiles in that space. Not only were those textiles rich in colour and texture, but they were rich in history, in community, in identity, and in the deep skill of their makers. Where Morris was concerned about the de-skilling of mass production, Charlotte’s business model supports the re-skilling of the artisans with whom she works. It should be noted that she is not merely interested in training artisans to duplicate traditional work, but is specifically interested in capturing the authentic, culturally specific handwork that communities have lost or are in the process of losing. This is perhaps why we both felt the strong need to examine, to handle, and to drape ourselves in those exquisite pieces – could it be that Benjamin’s aura was calling to us?

    I concur that Charlotte has done an admirable job of navigating “the treacherous shoals of humanitarian work while forging a business” (Roche, 2017). I pondered this at length and the word that most occupied my thoughts was “generous”. A spirit of generosity runs throughout their enterprise. We were told that the atelier functions as a library for the general public, that the books and textiles are available to be handled and studied. Charlotte and Tim were generous with their time and knowledge during our visit, speaking at length about their work and responding to our inquiries with a refreshing transparency. Charlotte’s openness to error, to experimentation, and to taking the time needed (needed to learn, needed to meet community demands, needed to reach for the sublime) are all extensions of that generosity. I even see the workshops offered through the atelier as an extension of that generosity. I will acknowledge that the cost of the workshops place them above the means of many, but I respect that they are priced in line with the expertise of their instructors. Looking through the catalogue of classes, I see the care that Maiwa takes in seeking artisans with extensive skill and knowledge. I also see a generous number of inexpensive or free lectures and events that offer the interested public an opportunity to learn from the artists themselves. I agree that Maiwa’s success could/should be used as a framework for duplication – I don’t believe I would feel this way if I had not experienced that spirit of generosity in action. Thank you for helping me think through this experience Judith.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks Andrea! There really are several affordable workshops (oh to be in that environment again) and several very interesting lectures with Maiwa guest artists to attend this fall; and we can engage in more envious handling of shawls perhaps?
    I liked and appreciated your expansion of the themes of my original review (500 words is really not sufficient); particularly the lens of “generosity”. Nice.


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