Artisans from Madagascar do not boast about their sustainability practices; for them, it is simply the only way to create. Before the term ‘slow fashion’ was coined and upcycling was on-trend, Malagasy craftsmen had long lived by the phrase tsy misy very – nothing is wasted.
While known for its turquoise waters and characterful lemurs, Madagascar is also home to a thriving craft scene centred around nature and small-scale local makers. As major luxury brands seek these artisans for collaborations and when technology makes access easier, their unique work is making its way into the international spotlight.
What you need to know first and foremost about artisanship in Madagascar is that everything is based around the environment
“What you need to know first and foremost about artisanship in Madagascar is that everything is based around the environment,” says Jessica Randrianavony, founder of Tananà, an online platform for Malagasy artisans. The country is not known for one specific craft as they vary from region to region, and depend on the materials available. While these range from luxurious silks to upcycled plastic waste, the unifying features of Malagasy crafts are handmade, small-scale and intrinsically environmentally conscious.
One of the jewels in Madagascar’s crown of natural resources is wild silk, with several different species of silkworms endemic to the country. Silk is integral to Malagasy culture, worn by kings and queens when the royal family was in power, and is still used today to make sacred burial shrouds. In recent years, the price of this fabric has risen dramatically as wild worms become harder to find and forest fires ravage their preferred diet of tapia trees. As a result, several NGOs and companies are investing in the industry by training silkworm farmers, restoring damaged habitats and promoting items made out of this highly-coveted material.
Wild silk weaving
One such company, Tanana Madagascar (a second Malagasy organisation called Tanana) has developed a new solution to conservation issues by working with farmers to plant native trees. These trees become hosts for silkworms, creating new habitats while also growing the rainforests of northeast Madagascar. Instead of being spun into silk yarn and weaving it, artisans sew the cocoons together, resulting in a unique melange that artistically showcases the natural materials used.
Example of cocoons sewn together at Tanana Madagascar
Undoubtedly the most popular and versatile textile in the Malagasy wheelhouse is raffia, which flourishes in the coastal regions of the island country. Businesses here are deeply rooted in generational legacies. A brother and sister will inherit their parents’ practice; a husband and wife will create together in their home. Skills are passed down from person to person as well as through schools and classes that teach crafting techniques.
Nature Attitude raffia product
Nature Attitude is a brand that, like many others here, is equal parts a producer of goods and a teacher of others. Their raffia pieces are patch worked like the surrounding rice fields, each patch dyed in hues extracted from plants that are found in abundance in the region. When eucalyptus and turmeric are bountiful, so are strands of raffia in shades of red and ochre. The brand’s label is a crocheted leaf, making each piece biodegradable through and through. Their workshops teach others how to use crochet and raffia, and are as much about bonding and connection as they are about sharing knowledge.
Many artists are looking beyond natural resources too, spearheading the upcycling movement of Madagascar. STCV transforms biscuit packaging, sweet wrappers and plastic bread bags into stylishly minimalist totes. A vegetable seller, Zehonamae Céléstine, began collecting the thick ropes that ships passing through left behind. Now she weaves and sews them together to create sturdy bags in shades of grey and red, sold alongside her vegetables.
An STCV product
Rather than feel limited by their resources, artisans make limitations part of the style. If they do not have access to a loom on which to weave sisal, they can use their hands or feet to weave. If they can only get their hands on plastic bottles and scrap fabric, these are worked together to make mugs.
An STCV product
For a time, these culturally rich products were only available to those walking through the vibrant markets of the country. Now Malagasy-made pieces are slowly spreading across the world, from small mom-and-pop shops selling through Instagram to the group of artisans in Antananarivo who produce the Font Tote for luxury brand Loewe. But before they’re able to leave the shores, there are several barriers to overcome, from export legislation to access to technology.
Connecting, elevating and discovering Malagasy brands
Tananà was founded by Jessica Randrianavony to address these barriers, acting as a bridge between Malagasy artisans and the rest of the world. Named for the local word for both ‘hands’ and ‘village’, Tananà is a platform that serves as a touchpoint for brands and independent makers. Its three pillars are to valorise, provide financial autonomy, and encourage creativity amongst these creatives.
Tananà’s Connect service links international brands with ateliers and individuals who have the unique materials and skills they seek. “This is a way for big brands with big money to showcase this work and talent without appropriation and with the artisans benefitting,” Jessica says. The organisation also offers an Elevate service, creating content and providing marketing for the makers.
Many artisans find themselves constrained, prioritising goods with proven market appeal over creative experimentation. “They don’t have the time to sit back and think, ‘How can I innovate this?’ or ‘Where can I take this art?’” says Randrianavony. “The Discover umbrella of the site provides the space and encouragement for artisans to come up with new designs.”
Sites such as this allow Malagasy artisans to extend their reach beyond the confines of tourist foot traffic. This shift also grants worldwide access to the handmade charm and cultural richness encapsulated in the craftsmanship of Madagascar.
- Images were supplied by Tananá. Feature image is from Tanana Madagascar of a textile woven from wild silk cocoons
- Tananá organised for Madagascar artisans to be represented at Africa Textile Talks 2023 – captured below by The Dollie House