Raw materials can be anything that an artisan or group uses such as thread, yarn, fabrics, beads, wood, and other tools such as looms, sewing machines, and more. Artisans need access to raw materials in order to continue their work, but sometimes they can be difficult to find or expensive to obtain. Before buying any raw materials, a group of artisans needs to decide what materials they want to use, where and how they will obtain them, how much they will cost, how they will use them, where to store them, and what is best for their needs now and in the future.
"An authentic culture is not one that remains unchanged, which seems impossible under any condition, but one that retains the ability to determine the appropriateness of its adaptations." (Duggan, Tourism and Culture, p. 31)
As part of the discussion about raw materials, a group of artisans often has to decide what they consider to be “authentic.” What makes a handcrafted product authentic? Is authenticity created by raw materials that can only be obtained from a certain place in the world? Is it created by a certain combination of colors, patterns, and designs? Or is authenticity created by the techniques used by the artisans to create the products, regardless of the type of raw materials used?
"Crafts evolve naturally, and modifying a design or production technique to improve quality should be encouraged. Sometimes those changes involve a return to prior, higher aesthetic standards, and other times they involve updating an item to appeal to modern tastes. The tension between maintaining tradition and meeting market demand does not have to be destructive; handled the right way it can also spark creativity." (Goff, Cultural Expression, p. 126)
When making decisions about raw materials, a group of artisans think about what the finished product will look like and how it will be used. Is the item going to be marketed and sold, displayed in an exhibit, worn during cultural events, or passed on to future generations? Sometimes groups of artisans decide to change the finished products based on what raw materials are available or what a consumer is willing to buy. It is possible that the raw materials the groups use and the products that they create are going to reflect a combination of the artisans’ traditions as well as their adaptation to their new home and the evolution of their art.
According to Betty Belanus, in an article entitled, “Three Perspectives on Art and Environment,” artisans “use local materials to craft functional, and often beautiful, artifacts… they also use materials not found in their immediate environment… to create artifacts that nonetheless fit perfectly into their surroundings… to carry on a tradition intimately connected to their environment.” (p. 1)
Based on my extensive research and interviews with refugee and immigrant craft groups nationwide, as well as a number of folklorists, here are some best practices and creative ways that groups of artisans are obtaining their raw materials in the US. For specific examples, see the various narratives about newcomer arts collectives, sustainable models, and support models in the menus above.
As a community of newcomer artisans, we need more discussion around the topic of obtaining raw materials. Where and how does your group obtain its raw materials, and what advice would you give to other groups seeking raw materials? Please feel free to post your comments, ideas, and suggestions in the moderated forum below.