The Design Process

The inspirations for our fair trade products originate from various sources – starting with the incredible aesthetics we see in nature – the animals and plants you see in our silkscreen series. Much of our color choices derive from the exquisite natural vibrants and rooted colors you see in places of beauty – the pumpkin in Rocky Mountain lichen and the grey of the old rock it grows on. The wine of a fresh purpley willow branch paired perfectly with it’s fresh olive/chartreuse spring leaves. Since one of my passions is food, one of the first things I learn about in a new country is use of their spices and ingredients– and seeing them freshly produced and blended heaped in market stalls is unquestionably a source of our colors – chili, fresh green mint chutney.

Designing feels like a fall harvest – observing and gathering together the abundance of the raw materials around us and playing with them in unlikely combinations to see what results.

We are on a constant hunt for delicious, responsibly produced and recycled textiles as the foundation of a product – wools, yarn made from the fibre of a banana tree, organic cotton, recycled saris, upcycled plastics reclaimed from the streets. Then come the playful bits – most interestingly found in the most unlikely places – brightly colored new and old buttons in the market places, shockingly beautiful threads, glass beads, material scraps.

Most important, we aim to learn more and more about the talents and inherent skills of the artisans we work with so that we can best build from their multi talents. Bringing it all together happens differently every time – sometimes it’s a pencil to paper sketching and patterning process, creating a graphic image, or collaging photos to blend unlikely combos together. The one common denominator is always loads of conversation back and forth between the fair trade associations and ourselves – and collaborating with the artisans across our languages can add challenge to the mix!

Up to 4 months of trying, tripping up, tweaking, pulling and finessing until we love what we see and know it will hold up. (I’ll never forget the time our dog jacket design came back to us with a note titled ‘your dog dress’!!)


This is where the fun and the chemistry really kick into gear!

It’s hard to believe how many steps go into making a beautiful handmade good. In order to ensure quality, and to support consistency when working across language and with many artisans who may not be literate, we create tools to make it easier for all of us – wooden molds for the felting of our bags, or templates with holes drilled in to identify clear button placement on our silkscreen art panel bags. Then it is the wool cleaning and carding. One of my favourite things is the hand dyeing process – rooms full of steaming hot multi colored vessels, or open air at KTS, a big open bowl nested in a platform atop an open fire for their small batch dyeing. Then there is the spinning of the wool into yarn for our knitwear. And the wet felting is a huge part of what we do – wet wet everywhere and insanely physical work to layer after layer matte that wool with water and soap into the amazing and thick textile that results. After, the cutting, the sewing on mostly treddle sewing machines, hand stitching in the linings of bags, handles and details. There is the hand weaving and hand spinning of the cotton used in our hats, hairbands and strap liners for strength. Then there are the difficult to come by traditional leather workers who use unconventional approaches to naturally tan the leather used in our tote bag handle – using only indigenous village herbs and mustard oil.

On to the detail work of blanket stitching, and sewing on buttons and each tiny one-by-one radiant bead, or the gorgeous hand silkscreening, layers of rich pigment gently pressed onto fabric.

Many artisans work at the fair trade facilities, or can work from home or in their village if more appropriate for their family life and childcare, or if the traditional skill is indigenous to their community. When complete, they will bring their products, sometimes from long distances, to the facility.

At the end of all this is our quality checking – a huge part of the work of a fair trade product. Because fair trade focuses on training and supporting new artisans – even from using scissors if an artisan has not been exposed to them before, to whizzing along on a traditional sewing machine – error, mentorship and re-do’s are a large part of our work. Our rejection rate can be high, and the painstakingly detailed work of us setting up systems to best support easy quality tools that speak to all, and to rectify unexpected mistakes can be….well….tough work, and a journey in risk and patience. But eventually we virtually always get there, and the result is magnificent and a triumph of true collaborative artistry!

The Artisans We Work With

The images speak for themselves. The people that we meet and build relationships with are some of the most meaningful aspects of our work, and of what is behind the products that you buy from us.

Fair trade associations are based first, on supporting people and communities, with developing products as a means to that end. We meet and work where people work in small groups in neighbourhood houses with their children nearby or nestled in the group, family-based workshops, or in the main facilities of the fair trade associations, where parents working share the space with daycare support, a school for their kids, adult literacy classes, or a subsidized cafeteria with incredible food. The people who come to work at the associations come for varied reasons and from varied backgrounds. Some come simply seeking a positive work environment, training and mentorship, or better compensation. Others may have been marginalized in one way or another – economically, from a minority group or low caste, women leaving family violence, or youth at risk.

There is a rich community of wonderful and hard working people behind the products that you buy from Fibres of Life and we wanted to give you a glimpse into who they are.

Adventures In Fair Trade

Working in fair trade is so, so much more than designing and creating the product. We thought it would be fun to give you a sneak a peek into the other twists and turns in our journey.

Rickshaws, jeep, horrible buses, bike, and foot. Learning the ins and outs of ridiculous government customs procedures and learning how to smile the entire time. The joy of feeling more creative and resourceful the more we don’t fit in – wandering through new streets, markets, public stalls and meeting with our fair trade friends and artisans. Stupas, spritual pilgrims, blaring Hindi music, Bollywood, and street dogs. There’s speaking a different language, even when we are speaking the same language. There’s eating the delicious meals offered to us, and then burning the midnight oil to keep up with work both in Canada and overseas simultaneously – in between travel or home life. And desperately trying to fit in learning a respectable level of Nepali and Hindi along the way.

There’s the organizing, counting, double/triple checking, packing, shipping and the always exciting receipt and unpacking of our goods arrival in Canada– a little like Christmas every time, even if you had to sort out in the middle of winter how to fit 8 50 lb boxes into a hatchback, and fitting into a store room that looks about ½ the size it should (but never fear, there’s always good music in there!). And finally, now learning how the heck that online world of e-commerce and social networking works, and how to get your packages to you safely, and even with an element of an extra special something or surprise tucked in.

There’s the adventure of travel that fair trade happily requires. Train rides, polluted city and quiet country roads.