Empowering Communities with Five | Six Textiles

By Needs More Cushions

Beyond excited. That is how I would describe how I felt when Emma at Five | Six Textiles got in touch with me.  A new venture empowering communities in the Côte d’Ivoire to make design-led, contemporary textiles using traditional techniques? I’m hooked already. And here’s why you will be too.

These two lovely ladies are Laine Henry and Emma Wingfield – aka the brains behind the wonderful new business, Five | Six Textiles. I’ve been lucky enough to bombard Emma with my questions and find out a little more about what makes the girls tick, how they came to build a business empowering communities through weaving and why you need to start shopping with them, like now.

The Why

What made you decide to start Five | Six Textiles?

When I met the weavers of Waraniéné, starting a business was the furthest thing from my mind! I was at a fork in the road in my life having just moved back to the US after spending more than five years in London. I had two Masters degrees and was focused on a career in art museums, but I was struggling to find a job because I didn’t have a PhD. I figured working as a researcher at the Metropolitan Museum of Art would be great experience while I searched and applied for a PhD. During lunch with one of the curators, we started talking about an upcoming trip she was organising. Participants would explore Côte d’Ivoire with Jerry Vogel – a renowned Ivorian art historian – visiting artisans and studying the artistic practices of a country that was rebuilding after a 10-year civil war. I was interested in the intersection between between art and craft, specifically in West African wooden sculpture, so I thought the trip would be a great opportunity to explore these ideas further.

While visiting Waraniéné, Vali – the head of the collective –  asked if we knew anyone in the U.S. who might be interested in working with them to increase exposure to consumers outside of their community and help with product selection. More business beyond the borders of the community means a more sustainable operation and ensures the longevity of their practice. This conversation sparked my interest as I saw many parallels between what was happening before me and the ideas I kept playing with in my head. I saw an opportunity to continue studying how artistic practices evolve and affect global artisans, but instead of sitting in a library reading and writing about it I could actually help people work towards something great. Once I told Laine Henry, my business partner, the idea for the business really began to come together. Without her design expertise, it would have never been able to get this far.

The What

How would you describe Five | Six Textiles?

We sell Five | Six Textiles exclusively through our e-commerce store and pop-up shops. We sell bedspreads, throws, pillows, table runners, napkins, and limited edition tote bags and clutches. This first collection is inspired by the motifs that Waraniéné have spent generations perfecting. The geometric patterns have great visual and physical texture that soften through use. We wanted the collection to embrace the traditions of Ivorian textiles, blending them with the modern aesthetic to fit in seamlessly with your well travelled home. Each textile is a work of art in its own.

What is Five | Six Textiles’ main ethos and purpose?

Our mission is to produce ethically made textiles that blend a modern aesthetic with traditional weaving motifs. We work directly with Waraniéné to bring designs and patterns that have evolved over years into your daily life. Combining functionality with art, we believe that the products you buy should be as beautiful in presentation as in purpose. By working directly with Waraniéné we hope to ensure fair wages for the artisans, sustainable working environments, and a textile that comes straight from the collective to your home.

The Who

Tell us about the history of the Waraniéné’s weaving traditions and the production of the textiles.

The Dyula, one of two cultural groups that live in Waraniéné, are renowned for their weaving abilities. Traditionally weavers, they have been perfecting their craft for centuries and their textiles are captivating works of art. Historically, Waraniéné would trade their cloth with neighbouring farming communities. This allowed them to spend the majority of their time focusing on their craft rather than splitting time between other day-to-day demands. The village incorporated in the 1970’s and began weaving predominantly for commercial purposes, selling directly to tourists and local consumers. They adapted their patterns into clothing, tablecloths, and other everyday objects that still retain their ancient artistic roots and techniques. Today, each geometric pattern and use of colour still has a specific meaning, but the weavers are free to create, develop, and modify as their artistic eye sees fit. This means that their motifs are modern interpretations of traditional patterns, re-imagined for a contemporary aesthetic.

The How

The production itself starts with raw cotton. The cotton is grown locally, on farms in Northern Côte d’Ivoire. The cotton is industrially spun (it used to be done by hand, but the process can’t yield enough thread quickly) and the collective buys the thread in either the natural white colour or a dark indigo blue. If further colour is required, they hand dye the cotton at Waraniéné.

Waraniéné uses upright frame looms built by the weavers. Building the loom is an important part of their training (which lasts up to 10 years). The warp – vertical – thread is aligned on the loom while the weft – horizontal – is threaded onto a spindle and attached to the shuttle. The shuttle moves through the layers of warp and secured into place. The pattern is stitched into the warp. Once these strips are finished, they are sent to the tailor who manually stitches the strips together. The strips are zigzagged stitched together by a sewing machine and the ends of the strips are finished with a single stitch, leaving the natural cut edge visible.

Social Responsibility

Are ethics and sustainability important to Five | Six Textiles?

Absolutely. Five | Six Textiles wouldn’t exist without the artisans of Waraniéné. Working with them to improve working conditions and build a sustainable economy will help ensure not only the future of their community but our business as well.

An essential part of our business model is giving a percentage of the profits back to the community. We chose to fund this business through Kickstarter because we didn’t want to work with investors. We did not start Five | Six Textiles to make money for investors in America, but to make sure that artisans are paid for the work they do. So the percentage that would go back to investors is instead put into a fund for the community. We hope this money will grow and be a source to continue funding and creating projects with Waraniéné. They need supplies for their local school and maternity clinic. We also have a few exciting collaborations in the works with them which we hope will continue to foster ethical artistic practices and sustainable business models.

How do you ensure that the artisans get a good price for the products they make for you?

Simple. We let them set the prices. Our business is our relationship with the artisans. Without them, there would be no Five | Six Textiles. They have been working as a collective business since the 1970’s and they know how much the supplies, time, and effort goes into making each piece. When they say it costs a certain amount that is what we pay them.

“We did not start Five | Six Textiles to make money for investors in America, but to make sure that artisans are paid for the work they do.”

Siri SIri Bedspread

Siri SIri Bedspread

Empowering communities

How does the promotion of these handmade textiles benefit the local community?

Five | Six Textiles is a collaboration. We are not the weavers’ bosses, we instead view them as our colleagues. They teach us about business as much as we teach them. It is also unique in that the collective includes men and women. The majority of the community work in this collective as weavers, tailors, sewers, dyers, etc. We hope that increased interest in purchasing textiles directly from the artist will help to build up other aspects of the community. This will hopefully continue to be lucrative and a more stable source of income so even more of the community can be involved.

Why is it important to buy traditional handicrafts made using traditional techniques?

I think the importance here is looking at these artisan collectives and communities not as producers of handicrafts, but instead microcosms of much larger artistic practices and creativity. The line between craft and art is thinning as consumers search for the story behind what they are buying. Waraniéné has continuously re-developed their style, adding new motifs and altering older traditions. They have full control over their artistic practice. These collectives also serve as a social and economic space for their community as artisans work together and pass down their techniques from parent to child.

“Supporting these traditions ensures that the oldest forms of art endure in our factory-made consumer driven world. Not only do you get a beautiful and unique product, but you are also showing your support for the artisan who produced it.”

Five | Six Textiles at home

How would you describe your own sense of interior style?

My interior style is definitely driven by the places I have been. I have moved so many times that I really have to think about the things I acquire. That being said, I am definitely a “slow” collector in that I would rather spend years building my interior style rather than buying one ready made. I like to mix old with new: handmade ceramic bowls from Côte d’Ivoire with tarnished mismatched silverware bought at a thrift store in Austin, TX – a freshly carved wooden stool with an old chest from a overstock supply warehouse.

To what extent does travel influence your style at home?

Ha, travel influences my home style way too much. I have lived in my apartment in Brooklyn the longest since I was 18! I moved almost every year from 18-27 so it was hard to really acquire a “style”. I do feel that now my style is really starting to develop. One underlying theme seems to be collecting things I use or look at everyday from the places I have been. I love maps, especially old maps, of places that mean something to me. I have an old survey map from the 19th century of the neighborhood I lived in in London and a map of Northern Côte d’Ivoire form the 20th century I purchased at the Centre de Cartographie in Abidjan. Those two things both hang proudly in my home. I am also surrounded by textiles constantly. I seem to pick something up everywhere I travel and I just rotate them around.

What’s the best item you’ve brought back from your travels?

A wooden stool carved by a man named Abou, a master wood carver in Korhogo (the city closest to Waraniéné). It has also been one of the most useful objects in my collection. It’s another seat (we know how precious those are in small metropolitan apartments), a footrest, and a great prop for product shots…see our online shop…

Advice and Travel Tips

What are your top tips for creating global eclectic style at home?

I would say, pick a few complementary colours and try to stick with them. It is easy to acquire beautiful things that just don’t go together. I seem to gravitate towards whites, blues, and greens when I buy for my home (completely different from the black I choose to buy for my clothes) and when I decide to spend money on something I want to be able to use it. The more I travel and the more I acquire I do try and keep things as consistent as possible. I know what colours I have and what colours I like, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate art of all colours.

What is your favourite destination in Cote D’Ivoire and why?

There are way too many choices! My favourite place to eat is this maquis in Bouake (centre of the country) that serves the best stuffed grilled fish you will ever have. Dan, in the western part of the country, is incredibly beautiful and of course Korhogo, where we stay when working with Waraniéné. One of our business partners in Côte d’Ivoire, Clement Coulibaly, is starting a travel company and we can’t wait to share it with our followers.

My faves from the collection

Luckily for me, when I asked Emma about Five | Six Textiles’ bestsellers, she told me that its the cushions that tend to steal the show (obviously. Cushions are simply excellent and we are all powerless to resist them). Her view is that a new cushion is “an easy way to completely shake up a space and bring colour and texture without being too in your face“. I couldn’t agree more.  Here are a couple of my faves below:

This is the Sirakogoman cushion which is has lovely blue hues that would work really well with other indigo fabrics in a scheme. I love that it is subtly neutral which means it is completely versatile – perfect if you’re like me and move things around your home every couple of weeks!

And this lovely specimen is the Artisanal Blue cushion – the first pattern that Waraniéné ever made. I love the indigo tones here as well as the patterns which add interest without being too overpowering. It’s a keeper!

I hope you’ve loved getting to know Five | Six Textiles as much I have. What an exciting and inspiring journey into the world of business. And what a great way of doing it – empowering communities to grow and thrive doing something they’ve been doing for generations. It’s this kind of endeavour that illustrates how much effort goes into making traditional textiles and how much culture and history can be contained in just one cushion.

So what are you waiting for? Worldwide shipping is available, so do think about whether a traditional textile with a touch of soul could be just the thing your living space needs right now…

Happy travels, and shopping