Were you born in the year of the sheep? If so, this Chinese new year rang in an auspicious year for you, one which heralds much promise and prosperity. I am a sheep-year person, so how could I not be charmed by the master craftsmanship of these Tibetan-made sheep toys? Let’s go behind-the-scenes at Dropenling, a social enterprise made up of Tibetan artisans and shareholders behind these products, and meet a few of the artisans. Dropenling is a Tibetan word meaning “giving back for the betterment of all sentient beings”.
When Dropenling was established in 2001, most Tibetan-style products sold within Lhasa and other cities in Tibet were not being produced by Tibetans. So Dropenling set the course training artisans to improve their craft skills, develop innovative products, and become competitive in the world market. By accomplishing these goals, the artisans would be able to preserve their heritage, gain recognition, and earn a sustainable income. The Dropenling brand is a mark of high-quality craftsmanship and innovative, culturally-based design.
With the support of international designers, Dropenling’s product development staff has led numerous workshops teaching new sewing skills to the local women tailors. The women have gained skills to make a large range of stuffed “toys” that are based upon real or mythological creatures in Tibetan culture. Modeled after images in traditional Tibetan painting, such as the snow lion, these toys are endearing for adults, as well as children. The snow lion was such a success, that they introduced animals for each year inspired by the Chinese zodiac chart. Each toy is unique due to its being made by each artisan’s skillful hands and creativity.
The artisans have also learned to make clothing, hats, bags, purses and cushion covers. Products are made with local materials and utilize both hand embroidery and machine sewing. The training programs have resulted in establishing artisan-run workshops, and have opened the door to a wide range of new markets. The cash income helps many families to educate and provide health care for their children. As a social enterprise, Dropenling is committed to fair trade, and thus artisans receive fair wages
Meet Yondron, A Master Tailor.
Yondron is a master tailor. She says of her skills, “When I was 18, I started making traditional Tibetan carpets and rugs, as well as embroidering. I had learned all of this from my mother. I continued this work until one day staff from Dropenling came to my village. They saw many people wearing aprons decorated with traditional embroidery. They asked villager after villager who made these aprons until eventually they found me.”
“In the beginning, work was quite difficult. I didn’t know how to make the products and sometimes I just wanted to go home. But I continued to work hard and now I have already learned to make nineteen different products. After working with Dropenling for five years, I am now a master tailor. I want to teach our students as well as we can and have them learn what we have learned. The most important skill for our students is cutting. The patterns must be cut correctly and the fabric must be cut straight for the finished product to be good.”
You can help elevate the artisan sector by purchasing one of these “year of the sheep” products. It helps Dropenling “give back” to hundreds of Tibetan craftspeople all across Tibet and to preserve Tibetan culture. Pass it on.
Special thanks to Kristine Jones, the marketing and brand consultant who assists Dropenling, and designer/photographer Claire Burkert for providing the images and information and for all the assistance they have provided artisans for many years.