Where folk art and business meet. How the Serfenta Association supports traditional craft.
As I mentioned already in a previous post, Cieszyn is a town where many interesting projects take place. At the end of January I had a chance to visit it again. This time, one of my main goals was a meeting at the Serfenta Association. The Association is yet another great initiative born in Cieszyn. If you would like to find out how Serfenta’s activity supports local economies, cultivates Polish traditions and promotes the concept of fair trade, then this article is for you.
Serfenta’s office is located in the very heart of Cieszyn, nearby the castle. It is a unique place where old Polish craft meets modern design, as the Association’s mission is to cherish and promote the traditional art of basket weaving.
Serfenta’s activity consists in conducting ethnographic research and reaching out to craftsmen from all regions of Poland. The knowledge of basketry is usually mastered by elderly people living in the countryside, with no experience in using modern digital communication media. Therefore, Serfenta’s goal is to preserve their cultural heritage, pass the knowledge and skills to younger generations and help the craftsmen find buyers for their products, both in Poland and abroad.
There are three members of Serfenta’s team: Paulina Adamska, Łucja Cieślar i Anna Krężelok. I would like to wholeheartedly thank Ms Krężelok for hosting me at Serfenta’s office in Cieszyn and the remaining ladies for all the information provided by e-mail.
Polish art of basketmaking
What makes the Polish craft of basket weaving so appealing and charming is the great diversity of forms and materials from which the baskets are made. Serfenta runs an online shop where you can buy the products made of bullrush, wicker, straw, spruce root, hazel, as well as recycled materials.
And how does Serfenta’s cooperation with Polish craftsmen look like exactly?
“First, of course, we had to check if the craftsmen were still active, what their products were and what type of material they used. This is how our very first projects looked like – they consisted mainly in doing ethnographic research. Thanks to these activities we were able to determine how many active craftsmen are still there and these discoveries inspired us to further research. It looks like there are still areas to be investigated. Following the research, we started organising exhibitions and conferences, publishing research papers, getting involved in scientific debates. One of our big focus areas is also learning, developing and constantly improving basketmaking skills. This is very important to us.
And, finally, our newest goal is to bring the traditional products to the modern market. We develop the products and present them in an attractive way: we provide each of them with our logo and with a label which shortly describes the story of its maker. We also make sure the product receives some interesting packaging. Finally, we cooperate with designers and come up with ideas on how to bring a modern makeover to this ancient craft. Now, when I write this, I see and appreciate the long way that we went, from an individual passion to a business.” – explains Serfenta’s Paulina Adamska.
Baskets sold in Serfenta’s online store have a variety of applications. The customers can buy shopping bags, ladies handbags, fruit bowls, picnic baskets and many beautiful decoration objects. When visiting Serfenta’s office, I decided to purchase a zogata – a lovely, little basket made by Jan Zogata from the region of Silesian Beskid (hence the basket’s name). I’m very happy with it, as I have finally found a stylish container for my make-up brushes. Now, I keep them all in one place and don’t have to look for them around the house anymore. I’m also pretty sure this is not the only way that you can make use of a zogata!
The concept of fair trade by Serfenta
The Association’s support has a positive impact on the situation of Polish basketmakers. It helps them reach the customers they wouldn’t otherwise be able to get in touch with. Paulina Adamska of the Serfenta Association describes the idea in the following way:
“When selling their products, we are dedicated to applying fair trade principles. It means that we want to ensure that the craftsmen maximise their profits. It is important to highlight that they often underestimate their own work and underprice their products. Also, they often don’t know how to evaluate their works or how to effectively promote them. Thanks to our support in finding customers, they can continue to dedicate their time to basketry without worrying about the financial aspects. We also help them to become more visible by writing about their work and inviting journalists. For example, Jan Zogata from Jaworzynka and his beautiful, unique spruce root baskets have been described in the Polish magazine “Sielskie Życie”, but also in a French one (Le Lien Creatif). Whenever we have guests from abroad, we bring them to him and everytime he is able to sell some of his products.
Another example is the village of Lucimia in central Poland, where the so-called kabłącok baskets are made. Thanks to our efforts, these products have been included in the list of Poland’s intangible heritage, which leads to the international list by the Unesco. The local community, the craftsmen and their families wouldn’t be able to find out about this opportunity on their own, neither would they know how to prepare an application. Now, thanks to being associated with the Unesco brand, the village has gained recognition at an international level. Their products are now more likely to reach an international audience and customers from abroad.”
From passion to business
This is how Serfenta’s Paulina Adamska describes the beginnings of her passion for basket weaving which gave an important impulse to create the Association:
“Ever since I can remember, I have always felt attracted to manual work. When I found out that there was a school when one can study practical aspects of traditional craft, it became my goal to study there. In 2006 I started my studies at the Folk University of Artistic Crafts in Wola Sękowa where during a two-year course one can gain experience and skills in the area of ceramic, painting, weaving and wicker. I immediately fell in love with the folk art, but also with the place itself and the people. I made long-lasting friendships, not only with my fellow students, but also teachers. I had a chance to meet Zdzisław Kwasek, a passionate basketmaker who taught us the wickerwork classes. Zdzisław is a person of a great sense of humour and enthusiasm. This is thanks to him that I decided to find out more about the traditional Polish art of basketmaking.”
Passing the skills to younger generations
Apart from promoting the craftsmen’s work by using modern channels of communication, Serfenta aims to ensure the survival of these traditional forms of art. For this goal to be achieved, the knowledge and skills have to be transmitted from one generation to another. This is why Serfenta organises workshops where participants can learn basketmaking skills. The next workshop will take place on the 20th of February in Kawiarnia Fotograficzna in Katowice – perhaps some of you would like to join it? The workshop offers an opportunity to learn how to weave your own wicker light ball. More details can be found here.
Serfenta has also published a book called On the basketry trail of Vistula river. It is in Polish but contains summaries of each chapter in English. Furthermore, in their online shop you can buy CDs with video tutorial on how to make some traditional baskets, step by step – for those who prefer learn on their own (English subtitles available).
…and working with students
Last year, Serfenta organized an exhibition at the Castle of Cieszyn, called “Sploty na Fali” (literally, Weaves on the Wave). It presented a project which was a joint effort of Serfenta and the Faculty of Industrial Design of the Academy of Fine Arts in Cracow. With Serfenta’s support, the students of the Faculty had a chance to participate in a series of workshops taught by the masters of Polish basketry. Afterwards, inspired by the workshops, the students designed and made innovative products using the old weaving techniques. They created many beautiful objects such as laundry baskets, handbags, backpacks or even a woven wicker bag to carry beer bottles! Serfenta is currently planning to introduce some of these products to their online shop. So if you like beautiful modern design based on traditional techniques, you should follow Serfenta’s Facebook profile. This is definitely a unique project, showing that it is perfectly possible to combine tradition and innovation.
Why is Serfenta worth supporting?
I encourage all those interested in Polish culture, design and the idea of fair trade to regular visits to Serfenta’s website. Perhaps you will decide to take part in their workshops or to buy some of the products available in their online shop? According to me, it is a great solution for those looking for an alternative to fast shopping, reckless consumption and the market full of low quality and unsustainable plastic goods. Serfenta offers not only beautiful, unique objects made of natural materials, but also satisfaction resulting from supporting the work of local craftsmen and helping to preserve Polish traditions. In other words, it is an example of a unique project that brings generations together and combines local patriotism, respect and creative approach to crafts, as well as the idea of responsible consumption and slow fashion. It also proves that an individual passion can be turned into a well-prospering and socially responsible business. I hope for more similar ideas to be implemented in the future!