Join us as we chat to Sophie Garnier, founder of Kalinko - the first home wear brand from Burma. All Kalinko products are hand-made in tiny Burmese villages and shipped to the UK by this amazing family run business that focuses everything around sustainability and fair trade. A previous Wedding Present Co. couple - Sophie and Ralph also share their favourite presents with us.
In May 2016, after a year living in Burma, Kalinko began their mission to connect the country’s artisans to the rest of the world. Their aim is to keep industries alive, provide skilled work for talented people, and to fill homes around the world with objects that make a difference.
Each product starts with the material. They work closely with the makers to combine their techniques and patterns with our designs. They don’t use middlemen, so all purchase costs go straight to the people that make each piece.
And because they live in Burma, and have made a life here, they aren’t going anywhere. They're in it for the long-haul. They promise beautiful objects, and the knowledge that every purchase means a new order for the makers. It’s that direct.
Ralph and I spent most weekends travelling around Burma when we first moved here. Our flat very quickly filled up with things we had found on our travels, from bamboo stools, baskets and fabrics to glassware and mother-of-pearl (…not to mention the armfuls of Naga hunting spears and giant gongs!). We realised that the people making these things were struggling to find buyers, as local people tend to buy cheap, factory-made imports from China these days instead. This means they end up farming to supplement their incomes, spending less and less time working with their skills. So we decided to buy a bunch of things, fill a container, and take them to the hungry buyers in the UK! Two years on, and we have shipped lots of containers, tons more products, and are now working with groups of skilled crafters from all over the country.
It comes from Ka-Lin-Kaw which is a tribe from Chin State where our weavers come from.
We travel to areas known for particular skills to find crafting families and workshops. It’s an ongoing process, and we are adding to our network of makers all the time! We currently work with about 95 families, but would like to work with 500 by 2021 (5 years after our launch).
We look for people who are the best at what they do, who are keen to grow their own businesses, and who are happy to work with us to design products which we think customers will love.
We always start with the materials and ask, what could we make with this? We then draw inspiration from everything around us. We’ve got some new products launching in the spring which have been influenced by all sorts of things, from pagodas to Buddhist offering bowls, to 1950s Burmese interiors. We also draw heavily from the colours of Yangon; it’s such a vibrant city, so an easy place to be inspired!
Pretty much all of our products are made using locally sourced, sustainable materials. Rattan, for example, grows voraciously in Burma. You can read all about why it’s such a wonder material here. Our wood products are made using Pyinkado, Lebbeck Wood and Black Walnut, all local hardwoods. The glassware is all recycled from discarded bottles, and the mother-of-pearl is gathered from the south coast.
Our main motivation is to ensure that the craft families we work with are best placed, socially and economically, to prosper as the country develops. For us, this means growing Kalinko into a company large enough to support whole communities of suppliers, helping them to preserve their remarkable talents for generations to come, to build sustainable businesses for themselves, and by doing so, take control over their futures.
To do this, we need to place enough orders with our artisans to generate sufficient income to support their families and allow them time to invest in the next generation. We want to keep them employed full-time in well paid, skilled work (as opposed to under-paid, unskilled farming).
Access to new markets is key to this survival, so we work very closely with them to hone their products to international taste, and to raise the quality of the finished product to satisfy global expectations.
We buy all goods directly from our makers them at fair prices. We therefore have no links in the supply chain, meaning that no money is wasted on agents and we can pay them more than we would be able to if we were working through third parties. We also buy everything we commission, including faulty or damaged items; some products can take up to two months to make, so if we don’t buy them, they lose out on weeks of work. Often the fault or damage comes down to a lack of education rather than negligence, so we use each instance as a learning curve.
On a wider scale, talking about where and who our products come is hopefully contributing to the rise in visibly ethically minded homeware companies. We hope that this will raise the profile of sustainability in this area, giving people more choice for where they can shop ethically.
We hope to get more Kalinko goodies into more homes to spread the word and allow us to place more orders with the makers. We will continue to grow our network of crafters and do our best to help position them to prosper as Burma joins the international stage. That should mean lots more products, and a wider and wider choice of sustainable, beautiful things for your homes which come with the knowledge that when you buy something, we buy another one from the person that made it.
We LOVED it! It was so much fun. It’s like shopping for free! We moved into a new flat just after our wedding, so we literally kitted it out. The day it all arrived is probably up there with the top 10 days of marriage so far (…don’t tell Ralph!). We also absolutely loved how personal the experience was, it was unlike any other wedding list company we explored.