It is Time to Empower Sicily’s Artisans
Words have power and it is time to use that power to empower Sicily’s artisans. As society progresses to become more conscious and aware of issues such as inclusivity, diversity and environmental sustainability, the language used to describe and address these issues is evolving to become more inclusive and respectful. We’d like to put forward the term craftswomanship, on behalf of all the female artisans who deserve recognition and visibility.
“Female artisans want visibility”
For many centuries, women worked in the shadows and their contributions were rarely recognised or valued as highly as those of their male counterparts.
Artisanal crafts date over 5000 years ago and have their roots in the rural crafts of ancient civilisations. While some crafts have been practiced for centuries, others are more modern and sometimes limited to specific geographic areas. Men typically worked harder materials like bone, wood, leather, stone metal and glass, gradually turning the profession from being a semi-servile one that it was in the pre-Christian and early Christian years into a very reputable profession.
Meanwhile craftswomen worked mostly in their shadow, developing outstanding capabilities predominantly in textile handcrafts. Nonetheless, their incredible work has been documented throughout history. Notable examples include the Bayeux Tapestry, crafted in the 1070s by Anglo-Saxon craftswomen; the Tristan Quilt stitched in the 14th century in Sicily; or Rosa Genome’s evening gowns embroidered with designs inspired by Botticelli and Pisanello in the early 20th century.
More than a Handcraft, Embroidery Has Always Had a Social Role
Embroidery is by no means the only form of female artisanship. It is nonetheless a fine example to demonstrate the evolution of craftswomanship, with regard to its social standing and its creative expression throughout time.
It has been well documented that embroidery was considered a commendable occupation for women in elite circles by the 12th century, and by the Renaissance period this had developed such that needlework was something for women of all classes. Yet according to Federigo Luigini’s treatise on women, Libro della bella donna, during the 16th century a class divide still permeated female artisans lasting until the industrial revolution. Embroidery was used as a tool to keep women apolitical and “raise” their value in the marital market.
The twentieth and twenty-first centuries have seen the removal of this apolitical aspect. It has transformed into an important source of income for women, while also being an important instrument of artistic and political expression of women’s rights: the march for suffrage in 1918 had “Votes for Women” banners that had been embroidered. Today, artists like Ana Teresa Barboza and Orly Cogan have led the push to bring embroidery out of the shadows, removing the anonymity of the female artisans upon whom major fashion brands have often exploited without any recognition.
Time to Empower Sicily’s Artisans
Etymologically, the word craft can trace its roots to notions of strength and power, and women have indeed started to reclaim the power and value of their crafts. The revival of the handmade, especially in the global luxury market, has been driven not only by the constant celebration of artisanal culture by established brands, but also smaller brands who enter the market with a genuine care for their artisans. Local authentic and sustainable brands respond to the rising demand for personalisation and exclusivity in a world dominated by the large commoditisation of products.
This revival has rejuvenated artisanship, creating new spaces for projects like the NEST Artisan Guild, an organisation committed to social improvement in local communities. Jaipur Rugs is another example, whose work significantly contributes to dignifying craftswomanship in India. They work specifically to empower female artisans, providing them with a stable source of income whilst simultaneously preserving and passing female cultural traditions.
As generations of women have passed down their precious knowledge, their work has crossed seas and borders. This has allowed for distinct styles to emerge, such as Indian Kasuti and Brazilian dimensional embroidery. The tradition of hand embroidery in Italy is a long and important one, famous for its extraordinary sophistication. No region upholds this tradition as strongly as Sicily.
In Sicily, textile workshops were established under Arab rule and by the twelfth century the island had become a place that produced the “crème-de-la-crème” of textile work as a result of its cultural heterogeneity. Sicilian embroidery was exported all over Europe, and until the 1980s it remained a vital source of income for many families. It has played an important social role too, with the creation of a powerful community of women passing on their knowledge to preserve their unique sfliato style.
MANIMA’s Regenerative Mission
More so now than ever before, craftswomanship offers a real chance for economic revival in Italy. With almost two million female artisans in the country, female artisanal entrepreneurs represent an important economic driver, and an opportunity in the fight against female unemployment — which is at a record high of almost 70% in the South of Italy. A combination of a lack of infrastructure and a lack of academic and professional training are key issues in this problem.
At MANIMA, we are seizing the opportunity to empower Italy’s female artisans, bringing hand embroidery out of the shadow economy and celebrating its incredible value. We are ensuring that our artisans are guaranteed access to a continuous source of income and social benefits through our innovative Digital Atelier, a one of its kind tech ecosystem, where the importance of craftswomanship is at the core of everything we do.
by Will Scott