A Trip to India & Nepal: Behind the Scenes of Ethical Production

In late April, Jane and Grace traveled to visit our production partners in Nepal and India. They had an amazing trip, and wanted to share their experiences with you in this blog post! Jane is Hazel Village's founder and Head Elf (aka our CEO and lead designer) – she started the Village in 2010, making dolls in her bedroom in Brooklyn. Grace is Hazel Village's Director of Production – she manages our artisan partnerships across Peru, Nepal, Cambodia, Colombia, and India. 

Ethical manufacturing has always been at the heart of Hazel Village. We partner with social enterprises around the world that prioritize care for the earth and the worker. We are very proud of these partnerships, and we love getting the chance to travel and connect directly with the skilled craftspeople who create our products.

We've been working with our main partners in Nepal since 2017, and they have been making all of our dolls and animals since 2021. They are primarily a factory, but they have a social mission to preferentially hire survivors of trauma or discrimination. They provide job training, personal development programs, fair wages, and (delicious) breakfast and lunch every day. Each time we visit this team, we can tell that love and consideration permeate all they do. Thanks to their dedication, our woodland friends are cuter and better quality today than ever before. 

Nepalese artisans hand-embroidering faces on a batch of Phoebe Fawn

We have recently begun partnering with a new organization in Nepal, which Jane and Grace were able to visit for the first time on this trip. This organization is a small team of people that work with local artisans who make handicrafts out of their homes or at small workshops. These artisans do tailoring, felting, knitting, dyeing, printing, ceramics, copper working, woodworking, weaving, and embroidery. 

Jane (right) talking with our partner Srishti (left) in a ceramics workshop in Nepal

The partners we visited in India are also newer to us, so this was our first visit to them as well. They too are a small team, working directly with artisans in small workshops around the outskirts of Kolkata. Each of these workshops specializes in particular handicrafts: kantha weaving, woodworking, garment making and tailoring, printing and dyeing, madur grass weaving, ikat weaving, and making small doll and ornaments.

Jane (far left) and Grace (center), with our partner Sudarshana (far right) and two craftswomen in India

What was your biggest takeaway from this experience?

Grace: Our artisans use ancient techniques that get lost in many of today’s supply chains. Production by handwork takes much longer, but there’s so much love and care put into every step of the process. 

Jane: I was inspired by how much is possible and how many ideas are generated when we really drill down and pay attention to the logistics of making a thing. There can be a lot of opacity and uncertainty when we are doing business with our artisan partners over email, but when we had the chance to see their situation on the ground, so much became clear. I got so many ideas about things we can make. It’s such a privilege to get workshop tours like this. I can’t think of a way I would rather travel. 

Jane discussing sewing techniques with artisans in India

Jane admiring beautiful fabrics in India

Jane admiring freshly hand-spun yarn in India

It must have been amazing to see so many handicrafts being made. Did you have a favorite craft to observe?

Grace: I have a passion for ceramics, so it was mesmerizing to watch an artisan in Nepal create miniature stoneware test samples for our dolls. Also, the Kantha embroidery in India is insane in a good way - I couldn’t believe how detailed and intricate their embroideries were. It requires a lot of patience!

Jane admiring Kantha embroidery in India

Jane observing an artisan making wheel-thrown stoneware pottery in Nepal 

Jane with a prototype of a doll-size stoneware tea set. We hope to develop a product like this in the future! 

Jane: Oh my goodness, I love them all so much! I guess if I have to choose, it would be block printing. The shop was so professional and their work is so good and consistent, but the process relies entirely on the printer’s skilled hand and eye. He pats the block on the ink pad, positions it on the cloth in a way that the repeat will continue perfectly, hits the block once with the side of his hand, and repeats … all more quickly than I can write this or you can read it. The printers work so clean, too! I can’t imagine doing all that without getting little ink smudges everywhere. And this is not even counting the skill of the wood block carvers, which is a separate shop and also all done by hand. The result has so much warmth and beauty. I’m a bit obsessed.  

An artisan in India block printing fabric for an upcoming Hazel Village dress

A length of fabric freshly block printed with a juneberry design

Jane discussing dress construction with the sewing team in India

A finished juneberry dress! Coming to our site in late June 2024

Shelves of many hand-carved blocks for printing

Did you learn anything new?

Grace: So many things! I got an in depth overview and lesson on hand loom weaving and wool felt making. Each step is tedious and cannot be rushed. For instance, it could take up to 6 months to weave 100 meters of hand loom fabric. True hand looms are operated by human hands without any modern machines.

An artisan in Nepal working a hand loom to weave teal and white fiber into cloth

Jane: A billion things! I think my biggest learning curve was for felting. I knew the basics, that wool fibers will compact together with water, pressure, and agitation, maybe heat… but seeing it done gave me so much more insight about how to design for that process. For example, our partners made several fired clay forms for a felt hat, and distributed them to different felt artisans. So smart to use clay! Such a pain to change the shape of the hat after that point! Now I understand. 

For wet felting, wool is weighed out and then built into shapes using soapy water and friction. To make our hats for Augustus Wild Boar's collection, brown wool was felted onto each side of a piece of pleather. Then a dozen of these pleather pods were rolled up with scruffy fabric and bubble wrap, everything wet and soapy, and massaged for about 15 minutes. This makes the felt “pressed”. Then the bottom edge of each pod is cut open, the pleather taken out, and there’s a hat but not yet shaped. Each hat is put on a terra cotta form and further massaged and felted until it has the right shape. The brim is trimmed, then massaged a little more so it’s nice. Then it can dry. 

Grace and Jane with the team in Nepal who made Augustus Wild Boar's wool felt hats
How did the trip inspire you in your work at Hazel Village?

Grace: I have a greater appreciation for all the hard work that the artisans put into making our products. The women and men I met in India and Nepal operate like a family, and you can just feel their warmth and passion for the craftsmanship. They’ve inspired me to look past the production mindset of everything needing to be perfect, and instead to see the beauty and charm in each handmade piece. Also, it’s taught me to slow down a bit and have more patience. You can’t rush art! 

Artisans in India crafting doll-size wooden ladders for an upcoming Hazel Village product 
We have no plans to develop any glassware for Hazel Village, but we still wanted to show you this photo of an awesome glassblowing artisan in Nepal!

Jane: For me, it’s incredibly inspiring to understand what is out there. Having that perspective makes designing more like a puzzle to solve within a set of constraints; as opposed to total freedom laced with uncertainty, which can feel paralyzing. My heart is now full of beautiful projects we can develop with all these artisan groups. 

Jane and Grace with artisans at a home workspace in Nepal

It’s also deeply inspiring, but at the same time overwhelming, to understand how much our orders can mean to the teams of workers. They’re humans who seem to really enjoy making things – but at the end of the day they’ve gotta eat and they need work! As a CEO and as a designer, I have to kind of hold this knowledge lightly, otherwise I would have many panic attacks and my work would lose a certain spark of joy and whimsy… but it’s there. When we successfully convince our audience to buy fern vests, or hats shaped like giant berries, or whatever is the latest madness … we are all supporting fair trade relationships with handicraft workers who really live by these skills. 

Also, I think my love language is craftsmanship... I got to sit with the team of workers who make our dolls in Kathmandu as they were working on a batch of Lewis Toad. I got to help turn arms and legs, mark them for stitching, and then do some of the hand stitching. We were chatting as we worked and we kept exchanging messages of love and gratitude, through a translator, and eventually they were all too much for me, and there I was weeping real tears, and they were patting my shoulders…. It was intense. Then various team members started also crying! Intense! So beautiful though! I don’t have pictures of this because no one involved was a monster. 

Grace and Jane with a team of women who make our dolls in Nepal

An artisan in Nepal sewing frog legs for Lewis and Ella Toad

Dinner out with the Kathmandu team!

Thank you so much for reading, friend! If you have any questions, please feel free to email us at hello@hazelvillage.com. If you enjoyed this blog post, you might also like: 

Meet San! Behind the Scenes of our Cambodia Production

Journey of a Bat: the Making of a Limited Edition Animal

Meet the Elves of Hazel Village