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How'ya Gonna Keep'em Down on the Farm...?

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Crisis ensues as experienced weavers abandon the aubusson hand weaving trade!
(ThrowMeAPillow exclusive report)   

We have recently been asked to comment on quality of life issues for the craftspeople who make the pillows we sell. As you can imagine, we are happy to be able to respond to this question, since people's livelihoods are involved as well as your buying decisions.

hand stitched crewel decorative pillow

     Please allow us first to direct your attention to ThrowMeAPillow's Crewel Decorative Pillows collection. This is the shortest distribution chain that we have. The importer is a retired oncologist from New Jersey named Dr. Jay Sethi. When he retired, Dr. Sethi visited his ancestral homelands in the foothills of the Himalayas, and he was simply captivated by the beautiful needlework he saw there. It was time for a change in his own life. He could continue to do a little for people with incurable cancers, or he could do a lot for the artistic people he met in Kashmir. Dr. Sethi believed that he could help the people from two villages in this war-torn region because he thought their work would be appreciated worldwide. He was right! This pillow collection is a top-selling category because the workmanship of these Kashmiri artists is unmatched. Look at the close-ups in the photos. EVERY STITCH is done by hand! (I must confess that it took me 2 years before I understood and believed this fact.) It takes all day to produce just one square foot of chainstitch. Most pillows take two days.

     Dr. Sethi has invested a fortune in buying the goods of these artisans, and the proceeds have supported two villages for a decade. We buy directly from Dr. Sethi, so there are four steps in the distribution chain (the village, Dr. Sethi, us, and you). Dr. Sethi is a fine man, and we suspect that his is the type of industry which conscientious home decor buyers will most want to support. Because of their partnership with Dr. Sethi, the Kashmiri have a reliable outlet for the excellent work they create by hand. Use the coupon code [ kashmir ] for a discount on this line, and let us throw you a Kashmiri pillow today!

     Because we are self-employed custom upholsterers by trade, we have done handcrafted work all our lives. At ThrowMeAPillow, we identify with the fact that craftspeople and artists are traditionally underpaid; all artists are, as even Vincent Van Gogh was. This is nothing new. We opened ThrowMeAPillow to supplement what we could do with our own hands. We are just turning the corner to where our decorative pillow sales will allow us to retire from carrying sofas!

Self-Portrait, Spring 1887, Oil on pasteboard,...

Self-Portrait, Spring 1887, (It didn't sell while he was living), Art Institute of Chicago (F 345). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

More directly on the point of your question:

     The Aubusson style flat-weave work is a dying trade even in China, BECAUSE the younger workers prefer the garment industry in Shanghai. Astonishingly, the garment industry is not better paid. Our work earns better pay for the craftspeople, all things considered; but at the end of each day, garment workers can SEE that they have accomplished more, because there is a pile of garments. In contrast, it takes a month to produce one large handwoven pillow. That is frustrating for the craftsperson, no matter how well the work pays.

     The garment mills in the cities in China offered more stable (if more structured and/or underpaid) employment. Skilled artisians are leaving the cottage-level work that our sales support, despite higher wages, because they are free enough to do that. Interestingly, they are going to corporate-sponsored industries with mill-provided housing and "the company store" perhaps making them more of a captive workforce. The garment mills are in Shanghai and other cities in the region, away from the cottage industries like needlepoint and flat weaving, which were located close to the family villages. More's the pity.

     This migration began when orders went down during the recent economic collapse. The mills offered what appeared to be more stable employment. Decorative pillow sales are on the rise now, but the workers are not returning to the needle trades. For that reason, the items you buy from us today are already well on their way to becoming priceless heirlooms. I wish this was an exaggeration; it is  not.

     So, ThrowMeAPillow has been part of a movement to increase wages for flat weavers. We have informed all of the importers we work with that we are in favor of higher wages. We are not afraid of paying higher prices, because those who can afford such luxury items can afford those prices. Quite frankly, by the way, those who value the hand-craftsmanship that these pillows represent had better buy them NOW! The Aubusson-style weaving is a dying trade in China, for the same reasons that it died elsewhere around the world in turn: industrialization. This post's title was from a similar migration that took place almost a century ago in the U.S. during the "Roaring Twenties".

     We are very interested in the issues that come to mind about the production chain. However, we have no documentation that establishes the nightmare scenario one recent question raised as being any part of our direct line of import from needleworker to consumer. There are five steps in the production of the goods: worker, to local mill owner.* to importer, to us, and to you. To offer this selection of decorative throw pillows, we have established relationships with 41 importers and domestic concerns. Our goal is to provide you with the most diverse selection for this final aspect of you home decor.

We are craftspersons, and we are offering work made by craftspeople. PLEASE buy their products, ESPECIALLY the crewel embroidered work! There are rugs to match almost all of those pillows. PLEASE INQUIRE if there is a specific design or type that interests you. We have just not had time to enter all of those products on the website, because, as I have said, we are operating a small business ourselves. There are about 2,300 products posted and another 1,900 warehoused and not yet posted, believe it or not.

Close-up view of the punch cards used by Jacqu...

First computer punch cards? Photograph taken by George H. Williams in July, 2004. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The cotton tapestries are made in North Carolina. The high-speed Jacquard-loom weavers are in a family line of weavers who wove blankets for George Washington while he was at Valley Forge.  They were woven by hand back then, but no longer.

     The faux fur pillows and throws are made in the U.S. and are breathtaking! The Golden Fox is especially realistic, with deep gray ground hair and lustrous guard hair. The faux fur rugs are made overseas. For that reason, sometimes the fake fur rugs and pillows do not match perfectly. But then again, few people place their pillows directly on their rugs, and many clients are enjoying putting them together in other combinations.

     Our Belgian tapestries are machine woven in Belgium. They are exquisite, but they are not handmade. These tapestries are undersupported in the U.S. marketplace, and we suspect it is because their beauty and value are not understood. That is why ThrowMeAPillow has such a liberal return policy. Your only risk in ordering from us is the same expense you would have driving to the store: the transportation.

     I hope this adequately addresses your concerns. I am concerned lest a broad-brush approach confabulate large corporate industry with ANY work coming out of China. That  would not create an accurate picture. That being said, you and I are concerned about the same issues, and as craftspeople, we have experienced the short end of that stick too many times to ignore the realities that others face. I suspect that if we could observe craftspeople in Europe centuries ago and the U.S. decades ago, we would have seen the same traps and abuses that you identify. Fostering an educated workforce improves conditions directly and indirectly.

     We believe that the craftspeople in China and elsewhere who create the crafts we sell would be horrified to think that anyone would decide not to buy their work because of misplaced concerns about how it is produced and what they're paid. Please support the work of these artisans. They and their work are worth it. Our returns policy makes it easy to order these beautiful creations and to decide for yourself.

Sincerely, (signed) David Ira Youngdahl

*   Please note that the Aubusson-style flat-weaving is done in a workroom setting because of the equipment needed. The needlepointers do their work at home, so there is no mill owner. However, there is a local business that buys their independently produced work and sells it to the some of the same importers who handle the flat-weave items.


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