If you glance at the things around you – what you’re wearing, what you grab before you leave the house each day, what you used to create last night’s meal – you might realise that you don’t actually know much more about the item than the purpose it’s serving in the present moment. It hasn’t always been easy to track the relationship between producer and product, yet today’s market is rife with companies and social entrepreneurs who believe that the principle – whether it’s using sustainably harvested raw materials or providing meaningful income to those who lack access to the marketplace – is equally as important as the product.

Jake Orak, the founder of Ethnotek Bags, purveyor of high quality laptop and travel bags that feature ethically sourced handmade textiles, knows something about the marriage of meaning and function; in fact, that is Ethnotek: the union of ethnology and technology.  His business was born and raised near Eagan, in the USA, and now distributes Ethnotek bags internationally.

Ethnotek bags and accessories are functional and rugged, and they serve as a canvas for artisans from around the developing world. The technical aspects of the bags are designed by Orak, who has a background in product design, and he incorporates hand-printing, weaving and embroidery from partnering artisan villages located in Ghana, Guatemala, India, Indonesia and Vietnam.

In many cultures around the world, weavers and artisans face the disappearance of their craft and its inherent cultural significance.  Every year, local demand for their fabrics dwindles due to low yield and long lead times. Traditional techniques are quickly being replaced by machines and factory labour in major cities, drastically reducing the number of jobs and industry in the regions where it is needed most.  By creating new demand for these traditional handicraft practices, Ethnotek helps keep these age-old arts alive

It was on a 10-day motorbike trip around the northern highlands of Vietnam that Orak stumbled upon the idea for Ethnotek. “Interacting with the indigenous Hmong hill tribes and observing the delicate process they used to create beautiful fabrics and textiles was really inspiring,” he says. Orak then wondered if he could combine these unique textiles with a technical, functional bag.

One of Ethnotek’s most unique features is that most bags can be customized via the removable front panel called a Thread™. Each Thread™  is created from handmade textiles that are personally sourced and purchased directly from the artisan or village in which they were created. New Threads™ are released regularly, allowing customers to easily and quickly update the look of their bag.  It also allows them to support multiple artisans and showcase the unique patterns and symbols of their unique cultures and heritage. 

For more information visit ethnotekbags.com.

Adina Weinand is an arts educator. Check her classes at: facebook.com/saigonleatherworkshop