For three months in 2015, we travelled across India to explore its new and ancient craft techniques and manufacturing processes for weaving silk, wool and recycled yarn. We wanted to see how India produces textiles for which Australia does not have the expertise or equipment. We made our way across Rajasthan, Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh to visit The Fabric Social in the North Eastern states. The Fabric Social work with women in war torn areas to produce pieces the Australian market loves. Here are some reflections we wrote at the time...
We boarded the train from Guwahati not knowing what to expect of The Fabric Social
's weaving facility in Upper Assam, where we were headed. As part of our journey through the north of India exploring weaving and textiles we were motivated to include a visit to The Fabric Social's Indian headquarters. Karina has a textiles and manufacturing background and Sam had experience in Indigenous community engagement, and The Fabric Social attracted us as a unique and inspiring combination of our respective fields.
The train ride set the scene for what was to come. Unlike other train journeys, we were welcomed by our cabin mates with Indian snacks, and the glee with which they watched us eat showed just how foreign we were in those lands. One man mentioned he'd not seen white women off television before.
We stood at the train doors and let the warm, sticky air rush through our hair and waved at the locals who were awestruck at our presence. The jungle villages, in between rice paddies and tea fields, sported brightly saried women, boys on push bikes and majestic water buffalo.
Between China, Bhutan, Myanmar and Bangladesh, the North East States have very unique identities and a rich textiles culture of their own, which we were very keen to explore.
Four days of observing the weaving process and helping where we could (we really weren't very useful - spin a bobbin here, tease out some raw silk there) gave us an insight into the local industry, and the resilience despite the armed struggle.
We had been to a lot of different hand loom centres across India, and were impressed with the organisation of the facility and the natural light and air-flow the high ceilings allowed. The technical support and ongoing learning provided for the weavers was particularly special. We heard about the progress of the weavers and saw first hand their dedication to each weft thread applied.
We explored the colour and quality of The Fabric Social's textiles. We watched Sharna, one of The Fabric Social's founders, negotiate the working opportunities for the wife of a master weaver. The prospective worker's time in completing the set task was approved, her tension was consistent, and like that, The Fabric Social welcomed a new local lady to their team.
Tea breaks happened at 11am
each morning, and lunch at 1:30pm
and it was at these times we were able to interact best with the weavers (otherwise we were observing their skill at the loom). We would trade somosas for local bananas containing big popping seeds, fried muga silk worms (great protein!) and homemade sweets.
On our last day, a visit from a busful of weavers from a town six hours away showed us how the weaving community maintains solidarity even in a world where machine looms are pushing hand loom products out of the market. These weavers were just as curious about us, as the techniques and silks they viewed at the facility. We found ourselves answering questions about our own ideas for the textile industry. A lot of the conversation was in Assamese but the smiling and nodding of the group indicated they were impressed by the quality of the fabric they saw.
We pulled out of the driveway for the last time sorry to leave. Every weaver in the building had come to the front facing windows to wave goodbye. We were left feeling a shared sense of excitement with the weavers; that there was so much more learning to do and local silk to be celebrated.
The Fabric Social work with women facing insecurity in Asia's forgotten corners. Wherever you find armed conflict, displacement, natural disaster or poverty, you find resilient women trying to put their communities back together. Their core social goal is to lift the burden of poverty from women and their families in insecure geographical areas. By becoming more economically independent, women in these communities are able to participate more freely in political life and represent their interests in the community. Their clothing and accessories are made at a fair price in safe labour conditions by women living in these insecure locations. They reinvest 5% of their profits back into community-led initiatives. They make a donation from every sale to the anti landmine organisation APOPO, so that every item sold results in one square metre of a mine field being cleared for good. They are pioneering a new wave of economic independence not dependent on charity. Respect.
Karina Seljak in The Fabric Social's latest collection. Karina recently caught up with The Fabric Social to talk all about ethical threads. Read it here.