A few years ago I came across a beautiful wristlet keychain, braided with magenta, blue, and purple colored fabric. It wasn’t until ringing the keychain up at the cash register that I found out it was made of pre-worn saris, this little fact made it even more meaningful. Knowing that this fabric had walked the earth on another woman's body, experiencing a previous life demonstrated how fashion connects us. Bringing new life to pre-worn saris was not unique to this keychain, in fact there are many brands who use their platform to creatively turn old saris into gorgeous new products. To understand more about repurposing saris, and the general perspective of repurposing textiles in East Asia, I had the pleasure of talking with the brands, WorldFinds, I was a Sari, and House of Wandering Silk.
The majority of WorldFinds jewelry products uses a traditional embroidery technique, called kantha. Kelly explained that kantha began in West Bengal and was created from women who would layer together their old saris with a running stitch, which would then turn into a blanket. Kelly pointed out that the creation of her kantha beads was a happy accident, “we were doing tote bags for a private label customer with repurposed kantha pieces and there were so many scraps of fabric laying around that the artisans were like ‘you could make jewelry with the scraps of these fabrics’, because we don’t like anything going to waste.” The majority of their scraps came from kantha quilts and old saris, and they found a way to turn the scraps into kantha beads. The beads are created from scrap wood, which are then hand covered by artisans with pieces of kantha fabric. Kelly describes the texture of the beads as a tacked on, paper-feel, and is super lightweight. The designs are inspired by nature, the artisans, even museums, and range from thin simple pieces to large chunky pieces.
WorldFinds strives to maintain sustainability throughout various aspects of their brand, “From the repurposed textiles, to the handcrafted small batch production methods used by our artisans, all the way to the packing materials we use to ship your order, we strive for sustainability every step of the way”, they explain on their website. When the brand was getting started, about 20 years ago, accessibility to sustainable production options were more scarce, compared to today. Kelly explains that the one thing that has been difficult in terms of sustainability lately is finding starch-based, biodegradable product bags in India. Their biggest form of sustainability in the brand is reusing their materials, “everything is reused, or repurposed, or upcycled”, Kelly points out. The brand's commitment to fair trade includes cultivating environmental stewardship, which is one of the 9 principles of fair trade.
A large goal for the company was to empower Indian women through fair trade. About 80 to 90 percent of their artisans are women. Kelly explains that economic self sufficiency can be out of reach for a lot of women in India, due to lack of social equality. WorldFinds works with female artisans to provide opportunities that might not be as accessible otherwise, “it’s not charity, it’s not a handout, it’s an opportunity”, she says. According to the WorldFinds website, there are over 700 artisans, primarily from India and Bali, who bring the brand's jewelry to life.
I was a Sari
The journey began for I was a Sari in 2012, when founder Stefano Funari pitched two concepts to research collective, Fashion in Process (FIP). The first concept was upcycling, and the second was the sari, “Upcycling...was a fundamental pillar of the project at its genesis because, in addition to being environmentally friendly, it is a way of reducing the competitive disadvantage most social enterprises face by granting the project access to fine materials at a fraction of their normal price” explains Funari. Funari’s idea to repurpose saris into new garments and accessories came to him in the Chor Bazaar, located in Delhi, “I was in the Chor Bazaar, one of the largest thrift markets in India, and looking at those saris it occurred to me that I could creatively reuse them to make new garments and accessories.” The founder's vision was to transform the sari by incorporating contemporary elements and simple tailoring techniques.
Transforming and upcycling is not new to India, it is ingrained in the culture. Instead of throwing out old garments, people find creative ways to repurpose it, “Garments have never been discarded but passed on as family heirlooms, taken by younger members of the family...or reused within the home…” says Funari. He added that it’s great to see more individuals and companies in the West adopting these conscious practices too.
Recently, the brand collaborated with Gucci to create an embroidery training program for artisans, called “Now I Can”. “NGOs can get access to this course free of charge for training women so that Indian women can learn an income generation skill and enter the labor market”, Funari explains. Empowering women is central to their mission “The very reason we exist is to empower women from not so privileged backgrounds to become the architects of their future” ,he says, “Business becomes more beautiful when women start thriving”. I was a Sari works with over 170 women, and the production is outsourced to them so they can earn fair wages. Giving these women a path toward becoming skilled artisans offers financial independence. Funari explains that outside of work, the women receive medical and financial support, attend classes in English and gain soft skills, “Through this exposure, they understand their worth, rights, and potential. You can see the change in their eyes.” The brand explains that they reinvest 100% of its profits into their business development and in other projects that empower women.
House of Wandering Silk
Starting her own Fair Trade company was sparked in Katherine Neumann after meeting with Safia Minney, founder of Fair Trade company, People Tree. In 2013, after years of working in the humanitarian sector, and travelling to dozens of countries, Katherine started House of Wandering Silk (HOWS), a Fair Trade company based in India, “I had fallen in deep fascination with India. The richness of her textile heritage & skill of her artisans is unparalleled”, Katherine explains on her website. Prior to starting her brand, Katherine spent a lot of time traveling throughout parts of Asia. It was through her travels where she learned about various textiles, “I was intrigued by the diversity of textiles and textile traditions..especially in India, which is why I decided to set up there” she says. In terms of repurposing fabric, Katherine knew from the beginning that her brand was going to use repurposing and recycling techniques, “it just seemed ridiculous to throw any of our beautiful fabrics away”. She goes on to point out that HOWS works with some of the most beautiful fabrics in India, and to send it to landfill would not only be bad environmentally, but it simply didn’t make sense. Their designs are created to accommodate the leftover materials.
Among the many environmental and social accomplishments of the brand, HOWS centralized focus is to educate its consumers on the story behind its products, “in terms of education, we are more about connecting each individual product with the place, the history, and the maker” Katherine explains. Their artisans work with handmade products and utilize traditional embroidery and weaving techniques, which have been passed down for centuries. The various techniques carry their own stories about where they originated, the culture in that location, and the women who keep that technique alive.
At its beginning, the brand used silks, which was inspired by a market Katherine came across in Delhi for recycled silk saris. Katherine said that the saris checked off her brand's criteria of beauty and accessibility, additionally, the saris worked for the kantha products she wanted to start producing. HOWS sources saris for their kantha products through an elaborate system of sari recycling in India. The system starts with networks of sari collectors who go around different villages or urban areas, carrying stainless steel kitchen products. Traditionally, the sari collectors would trade the utensils for women’s old saris. Then, the collectors sell the saris to dealers in larger cities, who then sell them to designers, or anybody who wants to wear them.
Similar to the West, overconsumption tends to be just as much of a problem among urban Indians, who are in middle and upper middle classes. Katherine points out that fast fashion brands, like Zara and H&M are prevalent in malls and larger cities across India. Fast fashion typically appeals more to the younger generations. A person's social class in India affects their consumption habits, however, people in India have great knowledge and appreciation for handmade textiles across all classes, “They are all familiar with kantha...all Indians are familiar with khadi, and Jamdani, and all these different techniques”, says Katherine. She explains that these techniques are not common across the whole country, but are practiced in various pockets, districts, or states.
Working with female artisans has given Katherine a full appreciation for the effort that goes into handmade products, “until you see it being done by someone it’s very hard to appreciate how much time and skill, also, goes into it” she says. Katherine describes working with handmade products as “anti-fashion”, because these fabrics, which are hand-embroidered and hand-woven, are not created to be trendy. The time that goes into working on their fabrics is extensive, “a two and a half meter section can take six months to embroider” explains Katherine. Unlike fast-fashion, handmade products take time and each item has a uniqueness to it that can’t be mass-produced. It is guaranteed that each piece is unique in its own way. Katherine points out that her interest is less in fashion, and more in textiles and the stories behind textiles, which she emulates through her brand. When you scroll down on each product from their site, you can read about the textile story, it’s truly an educational experience.
Katherine exclaims that the current situation in India is an exciting time, in regards to how brands are really exploring issues of sustainability, ethical fashion, and recycling. Katherine goes on to say that innovative products and storytelling are emerging from brands in India, “these brands like mine appeal to a niche consumer in India, but it’s a start”. She says that her main concern is the lack of transparency among brands in India. There are no fair trade certifications or established labeling to hold brands accountable for their social and environmental impact. Katherine is hoping that more brands, like hers, will start thinking about how to communicate with their consumers on what sustainability really means.
Words by Allyna Wilson
A special thank you to Kelly Weinberger, Stefano Funari, and Katherine Neumann for being a part of this article!
Photos copyright: WorldFinds, I Was a Sari & House of Wandering Silk