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Sustainable Fashion: Traditional Rattan Gardens

Sustainable Fashion: Traditional Rattan Gardens

Strong. Natural. Long-lasting and biodegradable.

Here at Purse for the People, we've touched on rattan's crucial role in producing the unique, customizable bags that we create with you. But what is rattan? Where does it come from? More importantly, how sustainable and ethical is this crucial component of our bags?

In this post, we will be doing a deep dive into why we value rattan so much and why you should too.

The Roots of Rattan

Rattan, native to tropical regions of Asia, Africa, and Australia, is technically part of the palm family and fall under the genus Calamus rotang. However, rattan grows as long vines instead of the trunks and large leaves you might ordinarily associate with palms. These vines, which can grow up to 500 feet or more, are covered in long barbs the plant uses to climb through the rainforest canopy toward the light.

For centuries, long before Purse for the People began using it in our bags, rattan has been a valuable source of building materials, herbal medicine, and crafting components.

Once cleaned of thorns, the external skin of the vines is cut into delicate strips. These strips are then used for weaving mats, baskets, and bags like those we create here at Purse for the People. After being dried, smoked, or boiled in oil to improve strength, the core of the rattan vines are commonly used as a building material or woven into furniture.

In addition to the vines, indigenous peoples have used rattan fruits for medicinal qualities for centuries. The sticky, bright red resin, known by many as "dragon's blood", that seeps from the fruit has been used in incense, dye, and medicine. Indeed, many violins get their striking dark red colour from dragon's blood varnish.

In places such as Indonesia, the Dayak Benuaq community of Kalimantan cultivate and maintain simpukng, or "forest gardens". Rattan often plays a significant ecological, as well as economic, role in these simpukng, working in harmony with the other plant species in the gardens.

History of Rattan Gardens

Sustainability is at the heart of our ethos. Our aim is not only to work in harmony with the earth but also with those who nurture valuable spaces like the simpukng. This is why we were so drawn to using rattan as a core material of our bag designs. Our choice was guided by the ethical and ecological care we saw invested by indigenous communities in cultivating the rattan we intend to use for our products.

In an ethos that echoes our own, the Dayaks strongly believe humans and the land depend on one another for survival, each giving and taking according to their needs. In a time of brutal deforestation, when resources are stripped from the earth without care, it is a rare attitude to see. This attitude of care and respect for the land of the simpukng is evident in the management of these valuable forest spaces that has been ongoing for thousands of years.

In theory, a simpukng could be established in fields, near settlements or longhouses, and even religious sites. Historically, simpukng plots are categorized by their most valuable product. It might be a tree containing a particularly fruitful nest of wild honey, a plot with fast-growing rattan, or an area with plenty of fruit trees. To the Dayak, however, the simpukng are more than just a source of food and building materials. Traditional rituals and ceremonies of healing and burial are performed in some simpukng. Simpukng assigned this function are known as the wooden simpukng (yaq naan entutn), and the Dayak believe spirits reside there.

Resource Management and Slow Fashion

Our journey toward slow fashion using sustainably sourced materials is continually evolving. A significant part of our mission is to call attention to the sustainability and ecology of traditional rattan gardens, like those managed so carefully by the Dayak people. Each bag and style we design is a piece of unique fashion brought to life by an international network of skilled creatives. From the very beginning, we wanted to work in harmony with nature and expert artists to create custom fashion pieces you can treasure.

Considering the history of the simpukng, it is no wonder then that the management of rattan gardens is treated with such care by the indigenous peoples. As we touched on earlier, rattan has long played a vital role in communities that now outsource their skills, knowledge, and artistic expertise along with the rattan itself. We at Purse for the People are proud to call the artisans of Melemba in West Borneo partners in the development of a new release coming this fall. This community uses the naturally occurring rattan from the surrounding rainforests to continue their complex and unique artistic traditions of rattan weaving.

The removal of mature rattan vines brings more light to the forest floor, allowing younger vines and other plant life to flourish. Most of the mature vines on each root rhizome are harvested by hand, a practice that clears valuable space in the forest biome. Smaller vines are left behind so that the plant may regrow additional canes and continue producing in future. The people of Melemba understand the need to work in harmony with the rainforest, taking only the vines they need and then processing them for use by hand, following traditional practices. This is quite the opposite of mass commercial rattan harvesting practices, some of which are actively harmful to not only the environment but also people.

For many years, the WWF (World Wildlife Fund) has been working to make rattan production in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam more sustainable. As long ago as 2013, the organization highlighted the damage unsustainable harvest causes, saying, "Unsustainable harvest of rattan leads to forest degradation and affects overall forest ecosystem services. It is also polluting. The use of toxic chemicals and petrol in the processing of rattan affects soil, air and water resources, and also people's health." This is why, despite efforts being hampered and stalled by the Pandemic, we are diligently working towards certification of all rattan used in our products.

Created by Communities. Customized by You.

On one of several sourcing trips to Borneo, we were blessed to be able to observe the management whole process of the rattan production.

We hiked through the rainforests, looking on as vines were cut and pulled free of the canopy. We got to see the whole process of the rattan being prepared for weaving, from being washed and stripped of its bark to being sliced into the delicate, strong strips used to create bags like yours. Watching first-hand the dexterous skill of the crafters, weaving the rattan into patterns passed from generation to generation, only strengthened our commitment to support traditional artisans in bringing ethically sourced, custom fashion to you.

Much like those thin strips of rattan woven into a beautiful pattern, our community of ethically conscious people who value high-quality fashion will only become more resilient as we band together into a strong, complex community creating impact through commerce.

When you're carrying a Purse for the People custom bag out into the world, you are carrying a work of art filled with the knowledge of an expert artisan.

You are carrying a piece of the rainforest.

You are carrying our promise to care for Mother Earth.

We know there is still much work ahead, and our current practises are not perfect. But with your help, we hope to experience a world where the pursuit of personal style is actually beneficial to the earth and its communities.

Thanks to our contributors: Dwi Ganatri, Christine Amelia, and Elizabeth McIvor

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