Colouring the world, one cloth at a time

Sophena Kwon and the local artisans in Jaipur, India | Photo courtesy of Maiwa

In Chinese, Maiwa means beautiful language or language of the arts. Maiwa is also the name of a foundation that operates around the world. A school of textiles loved by Vancouverites also bears the same name. It all began with a family’s passion for cloth, time and colours in 1986.

Earlier in her life, Charllotte Kwon worked for a printing company. Eventually, she became sick and was diagnosed with septicaemia stemming from the chemicals, heavy metals and lead in the inks used at her work. Realizing she couldn’t keep living and working with those inks, she began to look for more natural and ecological alternatives to achieving colours. This led to her changing from paper to cloth and travelling around the world to learn recipes from dyers.

“I was learning from people as I could afford to travel,” she says.

India was the country that changed her life and her way of seeing the art of textiles.

The value of sharing

No rush, the foundation is promoting a slow-paced work of excellence. | Photo courtesy of Maiwa

When people ask Kwon why she didn’t stay to learn in Canada with the First Nations people, for example, the answer is simple.

“You know, there was something about India,” she says.

She regrets that in the West, cloth producers are suppliers, not artisans.

“You don’t know where it’s from. You don’t know who’s done it. And that invisibility has turned artisans into labourers,” says Kwon.

That’s what she is hoping to avoid in Jaipur where she set up her sewing atelier.

“Different regions in India will wrap differently, but everything in how they present themselves to the world – their identity, their feeling that day – is all in the fabric,” she explains. “It got my heart.”

Her journey didn’t stop in Asia. Joined by her husband and her children, Sophena and Alex, Kwon realized that there was room for more than a shop. The Maiwa Foundation was then created to help artisans fighting poverty in their rural villages through a better education and by promoting self-sufficiency. Maiwa invites textile artisans from the West to assist in workshops with local artisans and share their different culture and knowledge.

“Knowledge sharing between artisans has always been fundamental to the evolution of craft,” says Kwon. “Today it provides technical and business support but also a sense that the artisan is part of a much larger community. Younger craftspeople see a future for their art.”

Maiwa organizes workshops in Ethiopia, Peru and Morocco with experts to reverse the loss of traditional skills and to assist the artisans get their confidence back and regain the height of their former reputation. People have been doing it for generations, if not centuries, but they were still not able to sell their work.

“It just stunned me that this work was so well developed, so exquisite, so deep from centuries of refining,” she says.

They couldn’t find a local market that would economically sustain their work of excellence because markets were looking for cheap materials. So the foundation decided to help promote the work of these small villages on the world stage by collaborating with museums and galleries.

Connecting cultures

Maiwa is hoping to help artisans reverse the loss of their traditional skills | Photo courtesy of Maiwa

Maiwa isn’t only teaching in faraway countries.

“We try to create a connection between the maker in India and the wearer so they can come together to learn about each other and to learn about culture,” Kwon tells Kindcraft magazine.

The natural dyes and the ancestral techniques caught the curiosity of the visitors who would see Kwon working in her studio on Granville Island.

“They’d want to know, ‘Where do you get your dyes? Where are all these brushes from?’” she says.

Kwon finds people being more and more interested in natural fabrics and slow-placed clothes.

“I think because of the slow foods movement, people are much more likely to question the science behind the chemicals we put on our food and on the cloth of our garments and bedding – and ultimately what gets dumped in our water and on our earth,” says Kwon. “We mostly get textile artisans and designers but also writers, anthropologists, travellers, film people. Anyone can come to our lectures and workshops.”

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