Women, Handicrafts, and Entrepreneurship in the Postcolonial World

Annemari de Silva addresses the gendered and postcolonial valuations of "art" and "craft" in Sri Lanka.


The word “entrepreneur” can mean such radically different things in a developing country. Who, for instance, is the woman entrepreneur in handicrafts in Sri Lanka? Is she the woman in the north coast, widowed by the tsunami with children to care for, the beneficiary of a programme to encourage entrepreneurialism as a poverty alleviation strategy? Or is she the woman at the local fair, selling bags she designed and made herself but can sell at a premium by marketing them as “designer”? Perhaps it is the woman from a family of businesspeople heading one of the biggest handloom retailers in the country?

Handicrafts, or artisanal crafts, replete with cultural significations and political uses, are not surprisingly a fairly nebulous public policy concern: in some countries, handicrafts policy falls under the domain of creative industries, while in others it remains under small industries or enterprise. Perhaps the only tacit assumption is that it’s not quite mass production, nor is it automatically counted as “fine art” (more on this later).

For Sri Lanka, where I come from, crafts are indeed culturally significant, but many stakeholders (e.g., the state, NGOs, humanitarian organisations) use craft-making as an “upskilling” tool for vulnerable communities. The expectation is that they can weave, sew, or sculpt their way out of poverty by being successful “micro-entrepreneurs.” Interestingly, while these micro-entrepreneurship programmes are peddled to communities as a self-employment scheme, the very same stakeholders in the public sector professed to seeing crafts as “a dying sector.” At the same time, there has been a flourishing of private sector players in handicrafts, innovating and successfully tapping into new consumer trends and tourism flows. Women have been at the forefront of these new companies, even as other women are at the receiving end of micro-entrepreneurship programmes.

What is the situation of handicrafts in developing countries such that major stakeholders see it as a “dying sector,” but are nonetheless willing to push it as a poverty alleviation tool, while other stakeholders—disproportionately women—see it as an avenue of opportunity?

How Do You Cost a Handicraft?

The conundrums start with this simple question.

Art historian Paul Greenhalgh contends that there are two ways to make money through art: exclusivity or quantity.1 Either the “fine artist” makes unique items and sells them at high cost, or the designer makes a template that can be used for mass production. Handicrafts, he says, occupy “an economic space where objects, though individually handmade, sell at mass-production prices.” I would argue that this applies specifically to artisans in the developing world, less so now in the developed world, as the industry and perspective on handicrafts has changed significantly, especially given the overlap between “tourist destination” and “developing/postcolonial country.”

What was once the colonial periphery (island states, the “Oriental East,” the “exotic Raj”) has now become sites of tourism for travellers from industrialised nations seeking escape. At the same time, formerly colonised states are still reeling from the global inequalities caused by colonisation and neocolonialism. As a result, workers in these tourist sites/developing countries are implicitly understood to have lower labour value than their counterparts in industrialised countries; this is also why tourists implicitly feel at ease to haggle (in the process devaluing workers’ labour further).

We are on our guard in the bazaar, told that street merchants will “rip you off,” so consumers feel entitled to haggle one-on-one with this informal vendor; whereas in a glass-door artisanal shop in Australia, the shop assistant forms a protective barrier between the owner and customer. Compare, for example, how you might easily pay US$30 for a wooden sculpture of a native animal in Australia, but you would haggle down the price of a hand-carved elephant in an Indian bazaar that only costs Rs 200 (US$3) in the first place.

The price difference lies partly in a growing formal recognition of the “artistry” behind crafts in developed countries. But what was the distinction between art and craft in the first place? Since the Renaissance conception of the “artist as genius,” art has come to presume a level of creativity and inspiration denied to “craft,” which supposedly is simply utilitarian and merely requires technical skill. Industrialisation further reinforced this perception. As crafts (read: objects for use) became increasingly produced by machines, art was seen as oppositional to it. Utilitarian objects were reproducible and made by a process that separated a person from their creation. Art, on the other hand, became associated with uniqueness and an intimate connection between creator and object. For example, a copy artist’s work was not worth the same as the original painter’s, since it was deemed to only require technical skill and none of the original “genius.”

The colonial project further complicates this separation between art and craft, as intellect and labour became divided geographically. The manufacturing, labour-intensive, resource-extractive processes were off-shored to the colonies while the intellectual input—the design directives, management—came from the colonial centre. Ami Kantawala has shown in the Indian case that “[a]rt instruction served the economic needs of the dominant culture, treating learners in the art schools as future workers, as ‘human capital that needed to be civilised through acquiring a patina of cultural capital.’”2 That is, the distinction between craft and art that materialised in industrialisation was extrapolated to the empire, relegating colonial artists to artisan-workers while “genius” remained in the colonial centre.

The context of industrialising empires also elevated the stature of the individual over collective knowledge. Whereas the “genius” of an individual artist adds a socially accepted premium, the value of community-issued traditional knowledge from formerly-colonised subjects generally does not. While we expect to see traditional Quechua motifs in Peru or “earthy” colours in Aboriginal paintings in Australia, we do not expect to pay a premium for the community knowledge that created those Quechua designs or the natural dyes used by indigenous Australians. Yet isn’t the former part of the ambit of artistic genius, and isn’t the latter in the ambit of chemical innovation?

Precarious Entrepreneurs

Craftspeople from developing countries are thus working in a global order already rigged against the adequate valuation of their work. Worse still, they are working in country-contexts without an ecosystem of support for their trade, but are nonetheless encumbered to take an entrepreneurial attitude to crafting. Whereas in more developed craft economies there will be businesses providing raw materials, handling marketing, researching design trends, and so forth, developing world crafters have the whole gamut of responsibilities on their shoulders alone. This becomes even more precarious when you consider craft-making as a poverty alleviation programme.

“Beneficiaries” may be given some tools, some money, some raw materials to start off—but they are then expected to single-handedly process materials, weave, dye, be creative in design, market, sell, re-invest, and—of course—save their whole family from poverty. In Sri Lanka, these programmes are especially popular as a post-war reconstruction mechanism for women in war-affected areas, particularly in the north and east provinces.

Not only do they have emotional trauma from the war, many have lost husbands, fathers, and sons from their families, requiring these women to become the breadwinners in a highly patriarchal environment, where they are stigmatised for foregoing their role as “child-carer” in lieu of working outside the home. Thus, some women are unable to physically participate in the marketplace themselves and must seek other ways to get their products sold through middlemen, even if they are the ones providing all the labour.


Whereas in more developed craft economies there will be businesses providing raw materials, handling marketing, researching design trends, and so forth, developing world crafters have the whole gamut of responsibilities on their shoulders alone.


The essence of entrepreneurship is the ability to take risks, which in turn depends on the availability of capital (financial, social, etc.) to sink. Why, then, are we expecting capital-poor communities to take on the financial and mental/emotional risks of entrepreneurship? Crafts scholar Timothy Scrase likewise criticises this, noting that “there are all too many cases in the developed world of small enterprises failing within their first year of operation to graft the Western model of entrepreneurialism and small business development onto the communities of marginalised Third World workers.”3 And yet, this persists.

Take, for example, raw material acquisition. Rasathy4 is thirty-three-years old with three children below the age of twelve. Along with managing childcare, domestic work, and multiple other odd jobs taken to make ends meet, she also weaves bags made of palmyrah (a leaf-fibre that is commonly found in her area). Rasathy buys the palmyrah from a local boy that gathers the leaves, dries them, and shores them into thin weavable strips that he sells at the weekend market. When it rains, the boy cannot climb the tree, which means Rasathy cannot buy leaves and weave her bags, decreasing her household income. Mitigating for rainfall should be manageable with some coordination from a Meteorological Department or local Municipal Council, but these mechanisms simply do not exist.


Image: Barefoot's Dumbara cushion. Photo: Dominic Sansoni/Barefoot.
Image: Barefoot's Dumbara cushion. Photo: Dominic Sansoni/Barefoot.


A small box package she wove, about the thickness and breadth of her outstretched hand, she prices at Rs 150 (US$1)—and it took her more than two hours to make. She prices it arbitrarily, since she has had no training on how to cost items. She also has no source of information to understand how much her work may fetch in an urban market compared to her local market: there is no information from the state, and private buyers intentionally keep the information from her so they can get her goods at a low price and maintain a higher margin for themselves.

There are then gendered challenges at the point of sale. Women who are unable to attend markets and sell directly may choose to supply to a middleman. In one town in the east of Sri Lanka, a middleman provides yarn to a group of women weavers to produce saris. The women receive about Rs 500 to 600 (US$3) for their work, while the middleman sells the final product for over four times as much as he pays the women. The “easy” solution—for the woman to attend the market directly—risks far too much social capital, and so they must depend on this gatekeeper for income. If the market is in a major urban area far away from home, then there is additionally no way that the women could shed childcare responsibilities to travel.

Women in the Private Sector

It seems almost absurd to think that craft-production is thus pushed as a livelihoods project by public stakeholders. What was surprising, however, were my observations from the private sector, which has seen a boom in handicraft companies and small businesses specialising jewellery-making, woven purses, designed coasters and small homewares, and a myriad other specialised handicraft goods. Larger companies are thriving from innovation in textiles, particularly batik and handloom. And at the head of the major textiles companies are, indeed, women.

Barefoot is one of the longest-standing and biggest handloom companies, begun by designer Barbara Sansoni in 1964. The company is renowned for its unique colour patterns and designs, for which they draw from “the inspiration of land and seascapes, earth, plants and animals of Sri Lanka in abstract geometry with vivid colour to produce beautiful and useful textiles.”5 Another big, long-standing player in textiles is Kandygs, which was founded by a woman, Sita Yahampath, and remains a family-owned business with three generations of women at its helm. In the batik industry, Buddhi Batiks has been a fairly long-standing leader, and yet another family-owned company. The group was started by the former Chairman of the National Crafts Council, Buddhi Keerthisena, but as of the early 2000s the company’s Director of Design is his daughter, Darshi Keerthisena, who studied fashion overseas and returned to “revamp the whole thing,” as their company description phrases it. Finally, in 1991 Sandra Wanduragala started Selyn, a handloom company, which has of late experienced a big boom and is a forerunner in innovative handloom design.


Thus, some women are unable to physically participate in the marketplace themselves and must seek other ways to get their products sold through middlemen, even if they are the ones providing all the labour.


A running thread through the above handloom companies is that they were innovative from a design perspective, bringing together traditional handloom weaving styles with contemporary colour palettes and designs. There are now even newer companies trying to push that boundary further, taking traditional textiles to haute couture. Linda Speldewinde is an iconic name in this industry, having founded and launched the Academy of Design (AOD), a very sought-after private design school. Several years after beginning AOD and expanding its remit to include diverse fine and visual arts domains, she also launched two companies that would act as a marketplace for outgoing designers from the school, namely Fashion Market and, more recently, Urban Island. The former produces wearable fashion while the latter produces household items. Both are, from a design perspective, significant departures from the design status quo reached even in the more “modern” companies listed above.

All the companies above tout two consistent things: that they work with craftspeople from rural areas, and that they are conscious of environmental impact. Even in terms of understanding markets and new consumer trends, they are far ahead of other stakeholders (like NGOs or governmental apparatuses) who may provide loans and incentives for people to take up crafts, but are unable to provide the infrastructure for other aspects of their sales. One former NGO worker noticed this lack of a support system and launched an open-air market that has become hugely successful and a boon to many craftspeople, addressing the central problem of not having accessible markets. Achala Samaradiwakara founded Good Market with the principle of choosing “people and planet over short-term profit maximisation,”6 i.e., they only accept vendors who are socially or environmentally conscientious in their business practices. The space enables start-ups to test their ideas in the market as well as for traditional craftspeople to sell their wares to high-end customers, whom they can only otherwise reach through middlemen.



What has been of particular interest in my research on handicrafts is the way craftspeople spoke about their interaction with some of the companies above. While at the same time they were grateful for timely payments and for an increased interest in their traditional work, they also felt some of the challenges of the new markets. When representatives from these design companies would come in and hold them to a certain standard, the craftspeople felt that it was difficult to meet.

With them [private companies], they require the exact colours, the exact design. Even sewing has to be neat…Initially, I thought it is difficult to work with them. But as we went on, I realised that they discuss things well with us and we can work with them. ­

Reed Worker, Central Province, Sri Lanka7

Most importantly, workers saw the demand for their goods and were being paid reasonably and without delays; they felt it was worth it and felt comfortable in their working relationships. Not surprisingly, more and more craftspeople are turning to private entities to support their trade.

For a market like that we don’t have to produce a lot of stuff: for the few products we do, we get a food price. I continue my work like that.

—Reed Worker, Central Province, Sri Lanka8

Yet while some may herald this growth of the private sector as a solution to “saving” handicrafts in Sri Lanka, there are inevitable downsides. Ultimately, the private sector is driven by what can be sold, even when profits are not maximised for the sake of social and environmental welfare. The market already shows that consumables (e.g., clothes, food, souvenirs) are successful, whereas older utilitarian or cultural items such as woodwork (masks, décor) and metal work (sculptures, trays) are disappearing from shelves due to low demand. Correspondingly, more craftspeople turn to produce the former—and often with the same design of what gets sold, rather than being motivated to diversify into other crafts, other designs.

Additionally, the imposition of haute couture designs onto traditional production processes risks replicating the division between the genius-designer and worker-craftsperson. Some initiatives are wary of this and have a collaborative process, or their designs may even come directly from senior craftspeople. However, the current nature of goodwill from private stakeholders cannot be relied upon to underscore future practices since companies are pressured to compete to stay relevant in a profit-driven market—such is the nature of these business models. In such a system, the inevitable tension between businesswomen and craftswomen must be reckoned with.

Supporting Women in Handicrafts

What does this support look like? Right now, it looks like various stakeholders providing a sewing machine, some start-up money, some tools to struggling women in order to fulfil the dual macro needs of maintaining livelihoods and keeping the culture alive. That is, the provision of generosity and charity—in both production and consumption attitudes—is the image of supporting the handicrafts sector, not the successful medium enterprise businesswoman. And yet, to support either types of women, we need decent infrastructure, domestically and globally.

There are ways in which the same stakeholders who promote micro-entrepreneurship can band together to support a proper framework to encourage the creation of handicrafts. The private sector can support the marketing aspects of these crafts, providing literal marketplaces but also influencing consumer preferences. They can also step in to regulate middlemen and streamline the connection between producer and consumer. In the Sri Lankan case, one of the biggest challenges has been severely delayed payments for consignment purchases (i.e., payment after wares are sold by a third party). If the private sector were to merely ensure timely and fair payments, the main financial challenge faced by craftspeople would disappear.


Photo: Laksala.
Photo: Laksala.


The state, on the other hand, can offer more systematic support, including at the international level. One of the new, exciting developments in crafts is the global effort to recognise traditional knowledge through legislative frameworks that would protect against unfair commercial appropriation. In 2000, the World Intellectual Property Office put together an Intergovernmental Committee on Intellectual Property and Genetic Resources, Traditional Knowledge and Folklore (IGC); and it is still working towards developing international legal instruments that can offer effective protection and empower indigenous and local communities to benefit from owning their cultural expressions and traditional knowledge. Non-governmental organisations—who are subsidiaries of, or are funded by, donors in the USA, Europe, Australia, and other Global North countries—can leverage their position to put pressure on governments at home to support international moves for fair-trade practices and intellectual property recognition.


If we are to support women entrepreneurs from developing countries, then we must re-evaluate our attitudes towards design, tradition, culture, and labour and substantiate it through our attitudes and practices.


While pushing at international levels like the IGC, home governments can also create systems of recognition for local goods within existent IP protections, such as geographical indications (e.g., palmyrah products from Jaffna province), collective marks or design patents for weaving styles or motifs specific to a community, or support national projects supporting local businesses like a “Made in Sri Lanka” campaign. These mechanisms have been used successfully elsewhere to support traditional knowledge. Harris Tweed, for example, had its certification mark as early as 1909, and has now become a household name with a legal body (the Harris Tweed Authority enacted by British Parliament) to be legal guardian of the special fabric. In Panama, constitutional provisions exist for the recognition and protection of molas, a handcrafted decorative fabric panel made by the Cuna community. In New Zealand, the Toi Iho trademark distinguishes Māori work from copies and is easily recognisable.9

Where the state and international markets have failed to bring opportunity to women micro-entrepreneurs, other women with more capital have stepped in, believed in the sector, and pushed against many odds to create flourishing businesses in handicrafts. They are pushing against not only the gendered challenges of being a woman in business, but also other systemic issues: the resistance to recognising intellectual production from postcolonial countries, the devaluation of labour from developing countries, the simultaneous devaluation and romanticisation of female labour, the lack of support and buy-in from local governments, and more. If we are to support women entrepreneurs from developing countries, then we must re-evaluate our attitudes towards design, tradition, culture, and labour and substantiate it through our attitudes and practices.


Annemari de Silva researches labour issues and the politics of culture at the International Centre for Ethnic Studies, Colombo, and served on the advisory panels for Intangible Cultural Heritage and Research & Publications for the National Arts Council of Sri Lanka. She has published academically on cultural policy, women and informal work, literary studies, and postcolonialism, and writes policy commentary for Sri Lankan print and digital media.



1. Paul Greenhalgh, The Persistence of Craft: The Applied Arts Today (Rutgers University Press, 2003).

2. Ami Kantawala, “Art Education in Colonial India: Implementation and Imposition,” Studies in Art Education 53, no. 3 (2012): 218.

3. Timothy J. Scrase, “Precarious Production: Globalisation and Artisan Labour in the Third World,” Third World Quarterly 24, no. 3 (2003): 458.

4. Her name has been changed to protect her identity.

5. “About Us | Barefoot,” accessed September 9, 2019,

6. “About,” Good Market Help Center, accessed May 7, 2019,

7. Personal interview, 14 September 2018

8. Ibid.

9. International Trade Centre UNCTAD/WTO, Marketing Crafts and Visual Arts: The Role of Intellectual Property. (Geneva: WIPO, 2003).



Annemari de SILVA

Fri, 4 Oct 2019
Innovation Through Tradition Women in Art History South Asia

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