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Meet The Makers Series: Sailing Towards SustainabilityThe Art of Dhow Sail Upcycling

Updated: Jul 21, 2023

Vivienne Westwood and Simone Cipriani with the Artist Fashion Group
Vivienne Westwood and Simone Cipriani with the Artist Fashion Group

In today’s, Meet The Makers Series, Inside Fashion Design shares a story about The Swahili Tradition of Dhow Sailing and how a community upcycled the old sails into fashionable bags for designers such as Vivienne Westwood.

a picture of a traditional Dhow Sailboat
a traditional Dhow Sailboat

From the Coast to the Artisan Workshop: The Journey of a Dhow Sail

The Kenyan coast is known for its vibrant culture and traditions, and one of the most iconic symbols of this culture is the dhow. Used mainly by communities living along the coast, the dhow (pronounced daw) is a type of sailing vessel that has been used for centuries to transport goods and people across the Indian Ocean.

"At Artisan Fashion, we have found a unique way to preserve this Swahili tradition and promote sustainability through dhow sail upcycling. Godfrey Wanjama, our sourcing manager, explains, "I love working with dhow sail bags because it keeps the Swahili tradition alive. It's a long journey. Have to take a train, a piki-piki, collect the dhow sails, then go back to the Artisan Fashion. It is special because we use lots of recycled materials. There is that integration of different people which brings communities together.”

Kenyan man smiling as he works with dhow sails for artisan fashion business
Kenyan man smiling as he works with dhow sails for artisan fashion business

Artisan Fashion: Preserving Tradition and Promoting Sustainability

The journey of a dhow sail from the coast to the Artisan workshop is a fascinating one. The sails are collected from the dhow owners, who are often fishermen and sailors themselves. These sails are then transported to the workshop, where they are cleaned, cut, and sewn into beautiful bags and accessories.

Tote bags made by Arisan Fashion in Kenya
Photo from Ethical Fashion Initiative; Artisan Fashion Bags including styles for Vivienne Westwood

Dhow Sail Upcycling: An Integration of People and Communities

At Artisan Fashion, we believe in preserving tradition and promoting sustainability. By upcycling dhow sails and using recycled materials, we are reducing waste and creating unique, one-of-a-kind products that celebrate the rich culture of the Swahili coast.

But Dhow Sail upcycling is not just about sustainability. It is also about integrating people and communities. By working with dhow owners and local artisans, we are creating opportunities for people to come together, share their skills and knowledge, and build a stronger, more connected community.

Vivienne Westwood with up cycled Dhow sails made into fashion tote bags
Vivienne Westwood Dhow Sail bags. Image from

From Vivienne Westwood's blog: MADE IN KENYA – THE JOURNEY CONTINUES. Read the full article here 11.03.2022 - WADMIN

Vivienne Westwood with the Artisan Fashion makers in Kenya
Vivienne Westwood with the Artisan Fashion makers in Kenya

Each collection calls for diligence. An affinity towards the craft — but also to its people. In prolonging our engagement with local producers from marginalized Kenyan communities, our ‘Made in Kenya’ collections hold a significant place within the Westwood ethos. With the collaboration of the Ethical Fashion Initiative (EFI), methods of sustainable manufacturing have been used to not only create premium products but ensure dignified work for skilled women, men, and communities. “We are doing this for the love of humanity,” explains Vincent Oduor, Program Management Officer for Ethical Fashion Initiative. “Because every human deserves a better job, a better life, and enjoyment — to live as a human being.”

Join the movement towards sustainable & ethical fashion by learning about artisan communities and makers around the world. IFD shares stories of Micro to SMEs so that we can support artisan makers and communities of people who are preserving tradition and promoting sustainability. Together, we can "sail" towards a better future.

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I'm a 25+ year fashion industry design professional, and I'm passionate about supporting conscious designers, ethical makers, and sustainability. I believe that fashion can be a powerful force for good, and I'm committed to helping aspiring fashion industry pros make their mark in this exciting and ever-changing field. 


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"Conscious design is a philosophy used at the Peterman Design Firm. We use it to create brands and products that restore and sustain our planet. The Peterman Method for conscious design is the culmination of Ian’s 15+ years working in product development and Jessica’s 20 years in working as a healer and studying regenerative technologies and tools for both people and our planet. Together, we’ve written this book to lay out a culmination of our combined experiences. Our goal is to help other people start looking at the world, and design, in a more conscious way."