Increasing attention is being directed towards the role of culture in the development and well-being of rural communities. Systems of knowledge, beliefs, customs, norms and a wide range of culturally related activities, such as arts, crafts and music, can play a significant role in the everyday lives of people and contribute to the sustainability of human societies. The means through which culture can be effectively incorporated into development processes requires further research. This article develops the concept of 'cultural capital' to explore how cultural assets sustain an artisan class in three rural villages close to the city of Kandy in central Sri Lanka. The field research found that embodied cultural traditions and subsequent material outputs are vital 'resources' in achieving livelihood objectives and meeting family aspirations. We argue that the development industry needs to reconsider cultural assets and traditions and incorporate them into its work at conceptual and programmatic levels. Conceptually development needs to see itself as a cultural as much as economic or social process, and programmatically we see openings within sustainable livelihoods approaches for a greater explicit appreciation and awareness of locally-specific cultural traditions, strengths and perspectives.