Tibetan Textile Artists Learn New Skills

Lag Zo | ལག་བཟོ། means “handmade” in Tibetan. Lag Zo, a Smithsonian project, is a celebration of the incredible range, knowledge, and skill in traditional Tibetan craft, including thangka painting, silversmith, wood-carving, stone-carving, khyenle bronze casting, black pottery, and textile arts made from felted and woven yak wool. We are working with Tibetan artisans and partners in China to provide training workshops, product design and development support, one-on-one mentorship to artisan enterprise, and improved connection to both local and international markets. Lag Zo trainings include:

Artisan Marketing: Crafting Your Success
Costing and Pricing: Determining Competitive Prices for Your Products
Product Development: Adapting Designs & Developing Collections to Increase Sales
Tibetan Textiles Development for New Markets

Throughout Lag Zo training workshops and in feedback evaluations, participants expressed a great need for product development and design assistance. They expressed an eagerness to improve quality and innovate their current products, but felt ill-equipped to do. In response, Smithsonian put together a two-week intensive technical skills training for Tibetan textile artisans. Unlike previous Lag Zo workshops, which focused primarily on building the skills of artisan-entrepreneurs, this workshop focused on the handmade process itself. Taught by Claire Burkert and Susie Vickery—textile artisans in their own right, and a team who have worked with Tibetan communities for nearly a decade—the workshop honed in on building basic technical skills to improve quality and hand-sewing embroidery techniques to enhance woven textiles and products.

On the first day of the training, Claire, Susie and the participants discussed the learning objectives and set three important goals, to create products that 1) are Tibetan in character, 2) are well-made, and 3) have special handmade details that make them stand out from all other products in the world.

The workshop far exceeded expectations, of both participants and trainers alike. The majority of participants were Tibetan nomads, who had never participated in a skills training. According to Claire, “The artisans needed training, and they knew this and worked hard to learn as much as they could. Each achieved a lot. The quality of products improved, as did the artistry. They learned greatly from the workshop training by us, and from each other. Dozens of different products were produced, with some artisans producing 8-10 pieces each, including the bags made as part of training exercises. The workshop reached a segment of Tibetan society that really needs support. Many of the artisans came from nomad communities, they had not had formal training like this before.”

The participants built friendships and set up a WeChat group to stay in touch following the training. Throughout the workshop, they snapped photos and took videos of the techniques using their smart phones. They’ve been sharing these snippets and more since the workshop concluded, continuing an online discussion upon returning to their—often remote—homes. Claire and Susie were deeply affected by the level of engagement they experienced with the artisans. Reflecting on the experience, Claire said “In our decades of running workshops, and our nine years of working together in Tibet, Susie and I felt this was the best workshop we had ever been a part of.”
The workshop is certain to have a wider impact. Perhaps the strongest participant was a monk who is a handicraft teacher at a training school in Golok. The school has 400 students. He was grateful to learn about so many new techniques and types of products, and eager to share the new skills with his students.

Workshop participant feedback: “We have always had these traditional materials, but we did not know what to do with them.” “We learned that keeping traditional Tibetan designs and materials in new products is a good thing, and we learned how to do this.”

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