Artisan Accessories Made From Plant-Based Materials

by Inga Yandell

Shopping centres are a hive of activity at this time of year, store shelves adorned with seasonal gifts and fare. While for some Christmas is commercial, for others it inspires a creative spirit to make or uncover a truly unique present for their loved ones.

Strolling modern markets one discovers a surprising amount of pop-up stores, with make-your-own options transforming standard stocking stuffers into personalised ornaments, perfumes, confectionaries and much more. Creative spaces filled with happy crafters beavering away like elves in Santa’s workshop. And a beautiful hand-crafted gift certainly makes an impression but it takes time to produce—a luxury rarely afforded the deadline driven. For busy people seeking a gift of authentic and original craftsmanship, Kantala’s collection of handmade ethical fashion accessories might just be what you’re looking for.

Inspired by a 300-year-old traditional hand-weaving technique, Kantala combines Sri Lankan influences with functionality for a modern lifestyle.

Ethical Elegance aptly describes the brands aspirations, from plant-based materials to supporting local artisans. BE Journal takes you behind the brand with co-founder Nadishan Shanthikumar to learn more…

How did you begin designing consciously-crafted bags?

Both of us believe in creating value through our work that creates a positive impact in our communities and the environment. This belief was influenced by our upbringing and local culture which emphasizes compassion, care and respect towards others. So, our shared vision was to set up an enterprise based on these values with a mission to create a positive social and environmental impact.

While on his travels, Vikum found the moment of inspiration in Egypt when he saw a set of hieroglyphics cleverly incorporated into contemporary goods. He became convinced a product based on a traditional Sri Lankan craft was the business he wanted to create. Upon his return to Sri Lanka, Vikum searched for a traditional Sri Lankan craft that could be applied to a contemporary product which had a global demand. It was while on this search he came across the traditional artisans of Henavala, who were continuing a handwoven craft with a history of over 300 years, dating back to Sri Lanka’s last royal kingdom of Kandy. After Vikum shared his findings with me the two of us set out to learn more about this traditional craft. Soon we came to realise both the craft and the natural fibre material used to weave the mats gave the foundation to the positive social and environmental impact we wanted to create.

After seeking feedback from various people about the different applications of the handwoven material, we realized the material was well suited to make handbags. Hereafter, we set in motion the process of creating the perfect handbag that would champion the handwoven mat. As we brought in the different elements we needed to complete the Kantala handbag, we always stuck to the vision and mission we shared. This helped us to create the consciously-crafted bag each and every Kantala handbag is today.

What are the cultural influences and benefits to local communities?

There are multiple cultural influences at play when it comes to our work. As the core material of every Kantala product is the handwoven natural fibre mat, each product is influenced by the traditional craft which has a history of over 300 years. The weaving techniques used to create various designs have been perfected generation after generation. It is these skills and techniques which make it possible for us to create a variety of woven patterns.
Unfortunately, when we first met the artisans back in December 2012, the craft was in decline due to a lack of economically viable opportunities. We were amazed by the craft and its potential that we made it our mission to secure and revive the craft.

A fair living wage and timely payments have helped create economic benefits for the artisans. This helped to increase the number of artisans engaged with Kantala from 8 in 2013 to 22 by end of 2017. However, one concerning indicator was the average age of the artisans. In 2013 the average age of an artisan was 60, which highlighted the impending demise of the craft due to a new generation not taking up the craft. However, as we continued to promote our artisans to a global audience and reposition the craft as a highly skilled and prestigious sector, younger folks have started to take up the craft. By the end of 2017, the average age of an artisan dropped to 50. Thereby, Kantala has helped to secure a defining element of our traditional crafts and culture while creating a fair and respectable livelihood for rural communities in Sri Lanka.

What elements of nature proved the most versatile in construction and style?

One of the key elements which drew us to the handwoven mats was the natural fibre mat which was used to weave the mats. The fibre, which is extracted from the hana plan (Agave cantala), is a long fine white colour fibre with a mild sheen. The fibre is extremely strong, it’s cousin in Mexico is used to make rope, making it an ideal material for making objects that have to withstand weight. At the same time, its visual qualities give it an aesthetically pleasing texture once dyed and woven.

While this might not be of relevance to its use as a material in our handbags, the hana plant also serves quite a bit of community service as well. Hana plants can be grown as a bio-fence to stop wildlife entering cultivated land. It is a safe and environmentally conscious alternative to electric fences used to ward off wildlife. The plant can grow without watering and fertilizer while the leaves will keep on growing until the plant flowers and dies. All of this make the hana plant a genuinely versatile element of nature in many aspects.

Another element in our bags which play a versatile role is the upcycled coconut shell accessories. The coconut shell, which is discarded or incinerated, is used to make the logo tags and some of the other accessories such as D-rings and shoulder strap sliders used in our bags. Coconut shells are deceivingly tough and once polished using sandpaper and a brush, adds a unique aesthetic element to our products. Engraving the Kantala logo on coconut shell pieces has given a signature touch to our products.

Why is it vital to improve the current methods and materials used?

As an organisation which creates a positive social and environmental impact, our cost base is comparatively greater than most of our competition. In order to scale supply and maintain costs at a manageable level that doesn’t erode our competitiveness and mission, it is important for us to continuously review the processes and materials which are used to create Kantala products.

When you are working with traditional crafts, scalability becomes a key concern because all processed are done using hand tools. If the business fails to scale while maintaining cost competitiveness, the brand will ultimately fail. Therefore, certain low value add processes have to be mechanised using modern technology while labour is redirected to the core high value add activities. This will create higher efficiency, meaning the brand can scale while maintaining cost competitiveness. Also, by redirecting labour to higher value add activities, the artisans can earn more while increasing their output.

Three materials used in Kantala products are sourced from overseas, due to the lack of a viable alternative in Sri Lanka. This incurs added costs and increased lead times, which reduce the efficiency of our operations. Therefore, it is vital for us to engage local sources to improve substitutes to these imported materials, which will reduce the material cost and lead times. This also means we can redirect fund which would have been sent overseas back into our local communities as well.

What are the practical challenges of designing innovative storage solutions for modern lifestyles?

A world of fast changing consumer preferences translates into shorter product lifecycles which becomes hugely challenging when you are producing handcrafted goods. Unlike synthetic materials which can be easily moulded into any form or shape, natural materials are restrictive in their adaptability. However, by designing the interior of the products in such a manner that it gives the user functional flexibility, we manage to overcome most of these issues. We create certain products that are targeted to a very specific lifestyle while other products have the functionality to apply across multiple lifestyles.

Our plan is to carve out a niche position in the market that addresses a selected number of lifestyles which complement the personality of Kantala as a slow fashion brand. Therefore, we concentrate on achieving technical and design proficiency in addressing the storage requirements of these selected lifestyles.

How do you envision the definition and application of bags evolving in the future?

The core functionality of the handbag has remained the same over the decades. However, the purpose it fulfils changes according to the consumer who carries it. For one consumer their handbag is merely a practical necessity while to another it is an aesthetic element. To another customer, it could have emotional connotations. We believe the definition and application of the handbag will remain within this paradigm changing only from the point of view of the customer.

Bag makers who clearly identify their customer group and delivers a product that meets the customer’s practical, aesthetic and emotional expectations will see their products do well.

What is the ideal all-rounder for a travelling professional?

This is actually a question we are addressing at the moment. One of our first and favourite customers recently got in touch asking to develop a bag for her which she can use on her work trips of about one to two nights. We worked closely with her first to identify her needs while traveling on work and how we can provide her a solution.

The modern professional has many electronic devices which need to travel safely. They also like to carry a book to read, a magazine, notepad and pen etc. And then you have all the garments they need. The last thing a traveling professional needs after a long day of meetings is to have to carry multiple bags and spend time checking in and retrieving luggage.

Therefore, we created a simple solution with a comfortable handle for easy carrying, extra padding for safety, and a wide base which allows us to add multiple compartments which can accommodate up to 4 electronic devices and cables while having room for writing material and garments. From the outside it looks like the everyday elegant bag you take to work. But on the inside, it can accommodate quite a lot of things that will keep you organised and on the go for at least 2 nights. This is what we believe will make an ideal all-rounder for a traveling professional.

Explore the full range of vibrant and vegan accessories at Kantalabrands.com

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Inga Yandell
Explorer and photo-journalist, passionate about nature, culture and travel. Combining science and conservation with investigative journalism to provide educational resources and a platform for science exploration.
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