Latvia: transforming handicrafts from hobby to source of income

    LATVIA – Latgale, the easternmost region of Latvia, is known for its rich cultural heritage and the vibrancy of crafts tradition. Trades such as pottery, woodworking, stone-cutting, knitting, and weaving continue to flourish here alongside the new forms of craftsmanship, like glass decor, porcelain, production of cosmetic products, demonstrating the evolution of traditions in response to contemporary influences and market demands. The region, sharing borders with Russia and Belarus, has developed these trades through generations, making it an integral part of its cultural identity. Crafts in Latgale are not only a way of preserving traditional customs but also a means of fostering community engagement and socio-economic activity, contributing significantly to local development.

    However, the flourishing craft scene in Latgale has not always been there. Not so long ago, even the most talented craftsmen often found themselves employed in unrelated occupations, leaving their craft skills to merely a hobby. It was difficult if not impossible for an artisan to arrange an appropriate workshop, to find business opportunities and to carry out targeted marketing activities that would allow him to monetize his passion. The transformation brought about by cross-border cooperation projects has been pivotal in shifting crafts from the margins to becoming a celebrated aspect of Latgale’s cultural and economic identity.

    From one project to the next building networks and opportunities

    The revitalization of crafts in Latgale initially took root through a cross-border cooperation project supported by Interreg IV Latvia-Lithuania programme that focused on development of theme villages. This first initiative set the stage for subsequent projects under various other cooperation programmes, which expanded and diversified the scope of craft development in the region, together with the neighbouring countries.

    Artists need a catalyst for growth to truly flourish professionally, and they must see clear pathways and opportunities for business development,” says Iveta Maļina-Tabūne, Head of Administration of Latgale Planning Region. Together with project manager Kristīne Smagare, they explain about the cooperation project “Crafts” implemented by the Planning Region in the former Latvia-Russia CBC programme, aiming to improve the premises for production and quality of products, to enhance economic opportunities and to promote the local crafts.

    This project allowed to transform what was once regarded a narrow niche occupied by few craftsmen, into a robust marketing endeavour promoting regional products. This evolution has led to the establishment of regular markets not only in the region but also in the capital, Riga. These events have become vibrant showcases for the diverse and unique culture of Latgale, elevating the visibility of its song, dance, food, and crafts to a broader audience.

    The follow-up capitalization project “Crafts 2” brought additional momentum, organizing art fairs and creative events that not only showed the craft culture of Latgale, but also continued the promotion of sites established in the first project and strengthened networking among the artisans and continued inspiring them, for example, with participation in the London Craft week. This holistic approach has fostered the craft environment in Latgale, making it one of the cornerstones of cultural and economic development in the region.

    The Krāslava Craft Centre, a magnet for tourism and a community hub

    Krāslava, one of the towns involved in the regional level projects, has propelled its crafts and cultural heritage to new heights with the Bella Culture project. This initiative, supported by Latvia-Lithuania-Belarus programme, allowed for the establishment of the Krāslava Craft Centre that was opened in July 2021. By the end of the year, this centre had not only become a focal point for community but also gained the title of the Most Exportable New Tourism Product in a nation-wide competition. Consisting of culinary heritage centre and workshops for crafts, it hosts a variety of activities, allowing the visitors to learn about the trades, participate in master classes and buy local handicrafts.

    Interviews with project final beneficiaries highlight these successes, focusing on the tangible, as well as intangible impacts. As one of the craftsmen noted: “The cross-border projects brought not only investment but also a renewal of interest and pride in our local traditions, which are now celebrated locally and internationally.” The ripple effects of the project are also stressed by Tatjana Kozačuka, Head of the Tourism information centre and coordinator of the Bella Culture project, who sees the role of the Craft Centre as a platform for local artisans, as well as an important magnet for tourist attraction and a community hub, making a substantial contribution to the local development and the preservation of crafts.

    The future? Preserve the gains

    Project activities and investments have significantly contributed to the renaissance of crafts in Latgale, bringing about economic benefits, cultural preservation, and community development and have encouraged artisans to collaborate more closely, forming networks within and beyond the region to enhance their market reach and collective branding.

    Crafts in Latgale are currently experiencing a high point, which is somewhat shadowed by the discontinuation of the ENI CBC programmes and the cancellation of the NEXT programmes in the region. The transition period has been marked by efforts to reorient project partners to continue cooperation within the existing Interreg programs while focusing on the maintenance of the gains achieved through past cooperation.

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